Racism, Protests, and our faith in Christ: a letter to my church

“Turn from evil and do good;

    seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14)

 

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Dear Church,

I have never written an email of this nature to you before. I do so out of love for you all and also love for our neighbours.

I understand that among us there will be different reactions to the events transpiring in America this week, and there will be varied thoughts about how to respond.

As a church, we, of course, hold substantial agreement on account of our union with Christ. We confess Jesus is Lord. He is the One Saviour of the world. Together we affirm all human beings are made in the image of God and all are therefore equal before him and have inherent worth. We affirm that racism is anti-Christian, anti-God, and is destructive to society.

This week we are being reminded of how highly charged and partisan our societies have become. In the name of ‘love’ and ‘truth’ too many people have given up love and truth and instead turned on one another. Sadly, cultural movements often have the effect of dividing rather than uniting. We need to resist those temptations and false binaries, both in the church and as we live in the community.

There is a mass protest being organised in Melbourne city this Saturday, to support ‘Black Lives Matter’.

As your pastor, while recognising our freedom both in Christ and in the State to voice our concerns, I want to draw your attention to the following important points:

  1. In the State of Victoria, there remain strict laws enforcing social distancing and limiting meeting in large numbers, both indoors and outdoors. COVID-19 remains a health issue in our society. Both the Federal and State Governments, and the State Police are urging Victorians not to attend because of the COVID-19 situation
  2. Authorities have issued a warning, informing the public that there are protesters planning to incite violence and disorder.
  3. The organising group behind this particular city protest (Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance) does not recognise Australia’s legal system and has called for the dismantling of Australia.

I’m not arguing against the principle of public protest, nor am I telling anyone what they should or should not decide. I personally don’t think protests and marches are the best way to argue a point. But I acknowledge that there can be value for this kind of social action. I have friends who have participated in different protests in the United States in recent days, and many who have not and yet they are very much grieved by the events in Minneapolis last week. It is incumbent upon each of us to make decisions that are appropriate and reflect love for neighbour and that don’t dishonour the Lord Jesus in any way. 

To anyone planning to protest this week, know why you protest and understand your aim. If you are joining with others, know why they are protesting and what they are aiming to achieve.

We can stand against racism and not join this particular protest at this time. You might like to post a statement or prayer on social media to express our belief in the dignity of Indigenous Australians or call for greater measures to tackle the terrible numbers of Aboriginal people who have died in custody since 1991. You could post appropriate Bible verses.

When restrictions are lifted then perhaps organise an appropriate event: a prayer vigil, or prayer walk, as I’ve seen Christians doing in the US this week.

I’ve just heard Mike preach on Psalm 34, which was recorded for this Sunday. I encourage you all to listen on Sunday; it is a good and timely word. We want to be focused on God, we want his word to direct our motives and attitudes and thoughts. Even as a church where we agree racism is evil, we may want to respond in different ways. Be gracious to one another when we talk and share. Be prayerful. Find ways to love your neighbour: welcome them into your home, speak a kind word, ask them how are they doing.

We want to avoid the danger of falling into popular narratives from the left and from the right. Instead, our identity and our lives are now defined by the Gospel of Christ; this is what it means to be Christian. Therefore, let our motivations, words, and actions promote this good news. Doing so doesn’t make our voice weaker, it is more powerful and attractive.  It allows us to grieve with those who grieve,  to express anger for those who are trodden on, to forgive, and to know God will do right. 

“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,

    and his ears are attentive to their cry;

but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,

    to blot out their name from the earth”. (Psalm 34:15-16)

Nancy Pelosi repeats President Trump’s mistake with the Bible

“Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning”. (Ecclesiastes 4:13)

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” (Proverbs 26:14)

 

If President Trump acted with hubris and foolishness yesterday by standing in front of a church building and holding a Bible in his right hand, then someone should have told Nancy Pelosi not to repeat the mistake.

Nancy Pelosi is the serving Speaker of the United States House of Representative. She has responded to President Trump’s awful photo op by offering one of her own. During a press conference at the Capitol Building today, Nancy Pelosi held onto a Bible and spoke to the media. She had learned one lesson of what not to do from President Trump, she opened the Bible and read out loud what can be described as a loose paraphrase from Ecclesiastes ch.3

“There’s an appointed time for everything…A time for every event under heaven. … A time to heal, a time to embrace and a time to shun embracing..a time for peace…”

She might have continued and read what follows in that chapter, 

 And I saw something else under the sun:

In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

 I said to myself,

“God will bring into judgment
both the righteous and the wicked,
for there will be a time for every activity,
a time to judge every deed.”

 

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Nancy ‘the Bible teacher’ Pelosi may have offered at least a conciliatory tone but the grandstanding is nonetheless equally egregious. It was a silly game of oneupmanship, made using the word of God as the instrument of choice.

The fact that she opened the Bible and read a few verses holds her to a higher standard of responsibility. As the Scriptures says,

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror” (James 1:22-23)

I’m sure this press briefing will be received positively by many. The media hasn’t treated it with the same kind of disdain that has been expressed over President Trump’s efforts yesterday. Let the reader understand, the media isn’t interested in the word of God being rightly handled, and neither are partisan hacks. As followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we ought to be.

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

These words are not written for politicians, they are directed to pastors, and they are also applicable to Christians in general. Christians should not be fooled by either photo op. Mocking God is not a wise course of action, and we don’t want to find ourselves excusing or supporting these behaviours.  Pretending to hold Scripture in high regard while openly legislating against its teachings is known in the Bible as ‘hypocrisy’.

As a result of criticising President Trump yesterday, I received some pushback, which is unsurprising in our fractious world. As Christians we must understand that the standard for Christian faith is not allegiance to any given political party, it is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is a real danger for Christians living in a polarised and politically partisan society. Of course we all hold political preferences, and I appreciate the real ideological difference between Republicans and Democrats; these things matter,  but they should never supersede our allegiance to Christ.

Criticising the wrongful actions of one political leader does not mean an endorsement of another; that is a logical fallacy. If we cannot hold people in public office to account even when they represent our political party,  and call out their abuse of God’s word, then perhaps we need to ask ourselves what kind of Christianity we are believing.

The footage of President Trump was poor and should not be defended by Christians. There was no calling the nation to open this word and to live by it. There was no humility. Today’s footage of Nancy Pelosi similarly speaks to political expediency.

Caesar is not infallible and neither is Brutus. I would love to see both Pelosi and Trump reading and meditating upon this precious word that truly gives peace, life, and hope to all who receive it. It is truly insane when the very word of life is being held in the hand and yet rejected. I encourage my American brothers and sister in Christ to pray for their leaders, as the Scriptures urge us to.

Let me finish with the words of a pastoral colleague who is serving in a church in Virginia. He summarises the issue well:

“Beware of those who use God’s Name for political gain.

Jesus is neither a Republican or Democrat.

His Kingdom is not of this world.

“God’s name is blasphemed…b/c of you.” Romans 2:24

In the past 24 hours, 3 leading political figures have presented themselves as representing Jesus without giving evidence of knowing Him.

Our church would welcome each as guests & we’d share the Gospel w/ them but I’m grieved when people confuse people about what it means to know Jesus.

To be clear: Christians can vote for candidates who are not Christian. We often will.

But beware of forming your opinion of Jesus based on the lives of those who use Jesus to further their own anti-Jesus ambitions.”

An Australian watching America this week

“He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight”. (Ps 72:14)

“Blessed are the peacemakers,

    for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

 

Australians live many thousands of kms from the shores of the United States, but we are watching a compelling and disturbing drama unfold. It is difficult to look on and not feel a wave of strong emotions.

I am writing as an outsider and conscious of that fact. I have twice visited the USA, and have made many friends during those stays. I have visited some of the great cities that are now facing upheaval. Only yesterday I saw footage of the street where I lived for a month in Washington DC, as vehicles and trucks of the National Guard drove through carrying soldiers to a hot spot. Across the road from the Capitol Building, I have sat in a restaurant and enjoyed lunch with a brother in Christ. He is an African American and a member of the Church where I attended while in DC. As we broke bread together, we chatted and I listened to his thoughts about racial tensions in the United States. We have remained friends on Facebook. As I see him and other friends posting on Facebook this week, I am reminded to pray for them.

Many Images coming out of America

There are many images being shown across the world from Minneapolis to Washington DC, from Atlanta to Los Angeles. We are hearing multiple narratives told by media, politicians, and by the general public. The problem in weighing up all this information is that much of it is conflicting, some of it is unverifiable, and a lot is infused with different political and ideological agendas.

The fact is, leaving aside exchanges with friends, the noise of social media gives little place for nuance and calm. Public opinion sadly feeds off anger and loud rhetoric. Twitter is hardly known as a platform for peacemaking.

One week ago a man was murdered on the streets of Minneapolis. George Floyd was killed by a police officer who used excessive and brutal force. Floyd’s cry, “I can’t breathe”, was ignored by all four police officers present at the scene. It is difficult to watch the video and hold back from shouting at the officers to let him go. It is horrifying to watch. George Floyd’s death was so unnecessary; it was an act of evil.

Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, many cities in America have erupted in social turmoil.

I am hearing that many African-Americans are fearful, angry, and hurting. Many are not on the streets protesting, but the sting of May 25th is very real. Others are protesting, quietly or loudly, fervently with purpose.

There are many peaceful protesters. There are also violent rioters and looters. I suspect some are lashing out in anger and fear, not knowing how else to respond. It is also clear that George Floyd’s murder is being exploited by criminal elements, including ANTIFA. It is only right for police to prevent these people from destroying property and harming human life, and to arrest them when they do.

There are members of the media doing their job impartially and in a considered manner, while others agitate the situation by throwing flammable words on television and in the news. It’s not only American media, but Aussie reporting of American stories is often blinkered and biased.

We have witnessed politicians and community leaders speak with passion and reason, and we have also heard politicians from across the spectrum use the situation to push their own drum. The political grandstanding and ideological manipulating of some is disgusting and is so counter productive.  There is already blood on the ground, without piling on rhetorical mud and manure from self interested people wanting to win votes or to buy more viewers.

Obviously, I am not an American, nor am I a person of colour, but we do share our humanity. I feel grief and anger for those who are mistreated on account of their race. Pain runs deep and the past is not quickly healed. How can one watch images of African Americans crying in the streets and shaking with fear…it should not be. All human beings are God’s image-bearers. All are wonderfully made by God and deserve to be treated with dignity and great value.

Amidst the footage that shows escalating violence, there are also many beautiful images to be found: a policeman embracing a young African American boy who is trembling, a police chief removing his riot gear and joining a crowd of protestors in solidarity with them. People need to see these stories of peacemaking in order to help change the narrative that is dominating the news. How can we encourage peace and progress if our newsfeeds are cluttered with violent scenes and with angry commentators hurling abuse at political opponents? Of course, we need to recognise the ugly and the evil, but we must also display the good.

 

An Image

There is one image that has taken hold of the story today, and it is of President Trump standing outside St John’s Church in Lafayette Square, holding up a Bible in his right hand. The previous night rioters had set fire to the building. Today it was used as a symbol of Presidential fight back.

As a Christian and as a pastor of a church I am less than pleased to see the Bible being used in this way. I trust many more Christian leaders will speak up about this Presidential stunt.

 

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The Rector of St John’s and the Bishop of Washington have both expressed anger and dismay at President Trump using the outside facade of St John’s and him holding a Bible.

Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington said of the uninvited visitor,

“I am outraged…And I just want the world to know, that we in the diocese of Washington, following Jesus and his way of love … we distance ourselves from the incendiary language of this President. We follow someone who lived a life of nonviolence and sacrificial love”

I think it’s wrong for the President to stand outside and use a church building without the express permission of its clergy. What’s worse is him holding up God’s word for a political photo-op. Keep in mind, President Trump is not the first American leader to misuse God’s word in public office and he won’t be the last. But this calculated image is foolish. It is foolish because few people are convinced the President takes the Bible seriously, let alone reads, believes and practices what the Bible says. It’s also foolish because the Bible isn’t a book to fool around with.

As the writer to the Hebrews says,

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

By this word God saves and he judges. By this word, God mocks rulers and the nations, and he speaks comfort and peace to those who humble themselves. It is this word that alone declares all people are made in the image of God and are therefore equal in his sight. It is this word that declares Jesus Christ is Lord and that all people are accountable to Him for how we live. It is this word that speaks of God who loves us profoundly, such that his only Son laid down his life for sinners. Indeed, the very Bible President Trump held in his hand with that defiant face, is the word that says,

“Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.

11 Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.

12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Ps 2:10-12)

A friend of mine noted the irony of this chosen site for politico-religious vanity. Outside St John’s, the cameras took photos of a President who does not believe the Scriptures nor does he practice what they teach. Inside St John’s Church, there are clergy who also do not believe or practice the Scriptures. St John’s Church and the presiding bishop of Washington are known for their errant views about Christianity. Both inside and out, they treat the Bible with disdain.

The most profound irony is that this Bible, when opened and read and considered, offers truth that sets people free. It offers life to those who believe. It brings forgiveness to those who repent. It lifts up and gives hope to those who are hurting. If people are serious about racial reconciliation and the healing of political and social wounds, don’t copy the President and avoid listening to clerics who similarly misuse the Bible. Rather, open it and hear the word that changed the world and can also change us. Here is sound advice from Jesus, 

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24)

 

 


I’ve posted a Part 2, in light of Nancy Pelosi’s own Bible photo op

The Danger of Conspiracy Theories according to Colossians

Conspiracy theories are never far from the public imagination. In the midst of a turbulent event or changing culture, rumours and speculations emerge which attempt to offer an explanation. Conspiracy theories don’t rely on accessible knowledge, reasoned argument, and evidence, but rather, they join the hidden dots that allegedly lay behind the scenes.

What is QAnon and why is it dangerous?

Two weeks ago The Atlantic published a disturbing piece, The Prophecies of Q: American Conspiracy Theories entering a dangerous new phase. Written by Adrienne LaFrance, this is a lengthy and detailed description of the short history of QAnon. Q is an anonymous figure who began posting messages on the internet in October 2017. The messages are cryptic and relate to current socio-political dramas in the United States. These online notes suggest a world of intrigue that is taking place behind the scenes against President Trump by the so called ‘deep state’.  For those interested, in addition to LaFrance’s article, Joe Carter has written an important summary of QAnon on The Gospel Coalition. Marc-André Argentino’s piece for The Conversation is another informative article.

At the time of reading The Atlantic’s exposé, I sent out this tweet.

“In light of the growing proliferation of nutty conspiracy theories, I’m pleased that we’re currently studying Colossians at Church. Colossians presents a clear repudiation of gnosis. Christians are to be people of reason not speculation, love not fear”.

In case I had doubt as to whether QAnon was a thing, within minutes I had people replying to the tweet, espousing QAnon ideas and carrying QAnon references on the twitter bios. Somewhat ironically, they have since deleted their comments and disappeared in the dark web once more. What was interesting about the comments are these 3 points: 1. They referenced belonging to a chapter of QAnon in Australia, 2. They used Christian language/categories, 3. They obviously exist.

The connection between QAnon and ‘Christianity’ (I stress the inverted commas here) became highly visible when Joe Carter wrote his article for TGC. Many comments were made by people who identify with QAnon. It is quite astonishing and concerning.

QAnon is connected to misinformation campaigns on COVID-19, suggesting it is a hoax, and also offering miracle cures for the pandemic.

This conspiracy theory is now national security in the United States. It is important to note that some QAnon members have been identified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat, and with good reason: there have been cases of threats of violence, people arrested for making bombs, and even a case of a man storming a Washington DC restaurant with an AR-15 rifle because he believed it was a front for a child sex ring that was being run by Hilary Clinton.

Joe Carter also points to the spread of QAnon overseas,

“While most are presumably peaceful, some QAnon followers have allegedly been involved in terroristic threats against Trump and his family, an arson that destroyed 23,000 acres in California, and armed standoffs with law enforcement. The conspiracy theory has also spread to Europe with a QAnon-inspired mass murder in Germanyarson targeting cell towers, and attacks on telecom workers in Belgium, Cyprus, Ireland, and the Netherlands.”

In its short history, QAnon has morphed from a tiny political conspiracy into a religious movement. While it remains fringe and most of us had probably never heard of it until recently, its tentacles have extended into churches, taking Christians captive to its dangerous ideas.

LaFrance explains,

“it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”

One QAnon exponent has now published several books. Take note of the religious themes in the titles, Hearing God’s Voice Made SimpleDefeating Your Adversary in the Court of Heaven, and American Sniper: Lessons in Spiritual Warfare.

The theory revolves around the idea of a coming “Great Awakening”,

“It speaks of an intellectual awakening—the awareness by the public to the truth that we’ve been enslaved in a corrupt political system. But the exposure of the unimaginable depravity of the elites will lead to an increased awareness of our own depravity. Self-awareness of sin is fertile ground for spiritual revival. I believe the long-prophesied spiritual awakening lies on the other side of the storm.”

“The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained.”

There is now a gathering of QAnon members, which Argentino argues is essentially a ‘church’. It’s known as Omega Kingdom Ministry.

QAnon sounds as though it is more prevalent in the United States than here in Australia. Although as I experienced last week, there are adherents in Australia and at least one organised groups of followers (on the Gold Coast). Christians should at least be aware of its existence so that we can respond pastorally, should anyone in our congregations be drawn in. Let’s be clear, as  Joe Carter writes,

“Christians should care about QAnon because it’s a satanic movement infiltrating our churches.

Although the movement is still fringe, it is likely that someone in your church or social media circles has either already bought into the conspiracy or thinks it’s plausible and worth exploring. We should care because many believers will or are being swayed by the demonic influences of this movement.”

photo of broken red car on grass

Photo by Dominika Kwiatkowska on Pexels.com

 

How Colossians warns us against conspiracy theories

I am writing this blog post, partly to raise awareness of this dangerous movement but also to demonstrate from Scripture (Colossians in particular) that conspiracy theories, in general, are anti-Christian.

In writing to the Church in Colosse, the Apostle Paul notes an emerging group of false teachers, which Bible scholars observe are a form of proto-Gnosticism. These teachers are spreading new ideas that spring from secret knowledges and that in contradiction to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ that had been received by the Colossians. In this letter, Paul is both calling the Church to remain firm on the Gospel of Christ and to reject these new and unChristian teachings

“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” (Colossians 2:2-9)

Firstly, God’s mystery has been revealed. In the Old Testament, the fulness of God’s purposes were not revealed and made clear. The Apostles stresses that in Christ this mystery is now made known. Indeed Christ and inclusion into Christ is the mystery.

“the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (1:26-27)

Secondly, God’s revealed mystery, which is Christ, is sufficient in every way. The fulness of God is in Christ, for he is fully and eternally God. This fulness has been given to us through faith. The exhortation is to remain in Christ, not shifting from him and onto something new and different. Why not? Because God’s promises and blessings and purposes are all wrapped up in Christ and are already ours in Him.

In chapter 1 Paul offers what is a superlative picture of the Lord Jesus Christ, detailing that he is supreme and sufficient,

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Thirdly, in contrast to the true and sufficient knowledge given us in Christ, Paul warns Christians about being attracted to new theologies. He refers to these as deceptive yet persuasive (2:3), as hollow and deceptive philosophy, and as arising from human traditions and elemental forces rather than Christ.

The origins of this new and secret knowledges is human speculation. As Paul adds in 2:15 behind these movements are devilish ‘powers and authorities’. These have been defeated by the cross, but are lingering about and trying to take God’s people ‘captive’ and uprooted from Christ.

 

Christians need to push against conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories succeed because they play into pre-existing assumptions, and they justify irrational political and religious beliefs. Conspiracy theories don’t depend on evidence but on capturing those seeds of doubt or inquisitiveness that otherwise may lay dormant in the consciousness.

Christians should avoid conspiracy theories because they depend on rumours and spreading speculations. Christians should ignore conspiracy theories because they reject well-established truth and they regularly turn to gossip and slander. There are clear examples of this in relation to QAnon.

Conspiracy theories also encourage suspicion and hatred, where the Christian ethic requires us to love our neighbours.

The issue is heightened when the conspiracy theory links itself to Christian teaching in some form. Paul insists that churches are to be on their guard and refute ideas that undermine the person and work of Christ, that suggest new and improved spirituality beyond Christ, that promote eschatological prophecies regarding the future, and that creates discouragement and division in the Church (2:2). It’s a car crash waiting to happen.

These Apostolic concerns regarding Proto-Gnosticism can be easily linked with modern day cults such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some forms of Pentecostalism and Christian liberalism would also fall under this umbrella. The reason being is that in different ways they deny the supremacy of the Lord Jesus or reject the sufficiency of the atonement. And like other those ancient heresies of Arianism and Montanism, that cause believers to doubt the clear teaching of Scripture and the fulness of God’s revelation in Christ, these contemporary storylines depend on new and secret knowledge.

We measure Christian doctrine according to the measure give to us by God, namely the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we find ourselves being pulled by extraordinary and too-good-to-be-true stories and understandings, they most probably are too good to be true. Be careful lest you step yourself away from the fullness God has already given us in Christ, and drag others with you.

How will COVID-19 change the world?

Last week I wrote a piece noting 7 (possible) trends for Churches that are emerging through the COVID-19 pandemic. In this piece, I am thinking more broadly about culture and society, rather than specifically about Churches. In regard to the future of Christianity in Australia post-COVID-19, I am circumspect, trusting the Sovereignty of God and the power of His Gospel, but also noting limitations of people’s ability or willingness to change.

Without the Holy Spirit sanctifying minds and hearts, we are even less likely to choose positive change. Of course, I believe in God’s common grace that he pours out onto the world and which is received by believers and unbelievers alike. Where human progress and good achieved, we should be thankful for the evidence of this grace. As political analysts, economists, and social academics, begin to theorise about ‘what next’, what should we be thinking? Will the world change or not?

For the sake of avoiding a public stoning or being held up as a prophet of sorts, let me be clear: I don’t know what Australia will look like in 2021, let alone in July 2020. There are more variables at play here than in predicting what the weather will be like in Melbourne on any given day.

For example, no one knows what this virus will do next. Will it dissipate with time or with a change of season? Will it morph into new and more deadly strains? Indeed, there is a growing suggestion that we may not transition into a post-COVID-19 world, but rather, we may have to learn to live with COVID-19.

It is also unclear what Governments are aiming to achieve. Two months ago the objective was to flatten the curve so that our health system wouldn’t be overwhelmed. This didn’t mean more people wouldn’t catch COVID-19 but that we would slow the spread. However, toward the end of April, the rhetoric began to change, suggesting that we might eradicate COVID-19 from Australia. From my humble perspective, surely this requires either 1. long term social restrictions (including keeping national border closer indefinitely), or 2. reaching herd immunity, or 3. finding a vaccine. Depending on which immunologist or epidemiologist we listen to, a vaccine may be available as early as late this year, others suggest sometime 2021/2022, while other experts are more circumspect and are raising the possibility that an effective vaccine may never be found. It is important for Governments to be transparent with the people about what their objectives are as they look to the future.

There are two obvious conclusions that we can draw thus far. First, even the experts have little idea where we will be in 6 months time,  in terms of fighting the disease, social health, and global and local economics. Second, built into this pandemic, including responses made by Governments across the world, are some long term changes to society.

COVID-19

 

The new will be like the old

Predicting the future is a dangerous task and usually ends with inflations, conflations and misinterpretations. Looking forward is however an important step for making decisions today. We want to avoid crazy conspiracy theories like the plague, but are there indications of what tomorrow may look like?

As a Christian, I believe in listening to the experts. Scientists, economists, and psychologists are important voices to be listened to in this crisis, along with our political representatives. No one is suggesting they won’t make mistakes or that their agendas are pure as snow, but it is nonsense to ignore professional advice. As a Christian, I am also guided by Scripture, which sets our expectations for life and teaches us how to live in the midst of life’s myriad seasons.  For example, in Jesus’ famous apocalyptic sermon in Matthew ch.24, he describes life in the world between his first and second comings. He says,

“Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.”

If you think that these words are like the world today, as well as the world 6 months ago or 20 years ago and 200 years ago, you would be correct. Wars and natural disasters are not signs of the imminent return of Christ, but a description of the pattern of life that will be experienced until He returns. That means, events like a pandemic are not fuel for conspiracy theories and they are unlikely to be the great catalyst that fundamentally changes the world. This is an extraordinary time for us living through COVID-19 but it is not so out of place in the broad sweep of history. Such events have happened before and will reappear in the future. Whether it is disease or economic disaster or armed conflict, these things remind us that we live in a fallen world, filled with uncertainty and sin and death.

It is worth noting that in his apocalyptic sermon, Jesus tells us not to be alarmed by such events. God hasn’t been taken by surprise. He hasn’t let go of his Sovereign hand over the universe.

 

The new will also be different.

I suspect many people would like to see a return to the old normal; it is familiar and safe. Others are preaching that this is the time for radically reorienting society. For example, Leader of the Australian Labor Party Anthony Albanese this week announced a “Vision Statement on Australia Beyond the Coronavirus”. He has said that this is a ‘once in a life time opportunity’ to redefine and redirect Australian society. Which will it be? A return to normal or will a radically different Australia energy from COVID-19?

 

Here are 5 aspects of life that are likely to change due to COVID-19.

1. Socialising

While many people are eager to return to face to face relationships, others are reluctant about entering someone’s home let alone offering a hug or handshake. It is quite possible for two opposing trends to coexist and I suspect we’ll see both these attitudes running juxtaposed.

Given the 3 Stage plan to recovery that the Federal Government announced (and note that Stage 3 is far from what we can describe as normal) any return to usual socialising will take longer than many wish. We are not talking weeks or even months, but perhaps a couple of years. This will take a toll on people’s wellbeing, and it will seriously aggravate mental health issues. On May 15th the Federal Government have recognised this and so announced a $48 million Mental Health package to help with this endemic emerging in our suburbs and streets.

Human being are social beings. We need interpersonal contact and relationship for our mental health and for community strength. We should be patient and understanding with friends who are slow to take up invitations to meet in person. We also need to encourage a return to in-person relationships.

There is a cost attached to letting people congregate together and there is a cost for keeping people apart.

 

2. Unprecedented Government spending and debt.

State and Federal Governments are spending and handing out staggerings sums of money. In the space of two months, $100s billions have been committed to keeping the economy afloat during the pandemic. The forced closures of businesses and schools and communities have required Governments to step in with financial assistance, but it all comes at a cost.

There are already voices calling for some of these initiatives to remain permanently, including paid child care and the job seeker allowance (which has been doubled temporarily). This leads to deeper questions about how we want society to be structured and the role of Government.

The day is coming when we will have to pay off this debt, either with higher taxes or with austerity measures, or a combination of both. We are blindsiding ourselves if we don’t appreciate that this is likely to have long term and significant impact on employment levels, housing affordability, investments, household spending, and the viability of many thousands of businesses, community groups, sporting clubs, and churches.

 

3. Our dependence on China must change.

China isn’t an ally, she is a trading partner and a geopolitical competitor. The rise of China has been a gift to Australia and also a danger. There are enormous trade and economic benefits from the relationship, but have we been ignoring the costs?

I think the Australian Government is right to be asking serious questions of China’s role in the Corona Virus pandemic and to demand transparency. China’s evasiveness throughout the pandemic has once again demonstrated that this Communist State should not be trusted. Let me be emphatic, I am not talking about Chinese people, but the Government of China, which is a totalitarian and oppressive regime with a long record of dishonesty and human rights abuse.

China’s role in covering up the true extent of the Corona Virus and their influence over the World Health Organisation (WHO) is far from the worst of it. 1 million Uyghurs remain locked away in ‘education’ camps in northwestern China, Christian Churches are continually oppressed and Christians arrested, and there is China’s growing interference in Hong Kong and their military expansion in the South China Sea.

For the most part, Australia has, alongside many countries, tried to benefit from and also feed a China hungry for economic and political expansion.

You don’t placate a bully, you stand up to them.

I first came across Peter Jennings in an interview with John Anderson last year. Peter Jennings is the Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. In a recent article, he warns against China’s bullish tactics and their interference in the accurate transmission of information and application of international standards,

“As Beijing hardens its position on what it considers to be acceptable applications of the One China policy it is reacting badly to international judgments that Taiwan very effectively suppressed the spread of Covid-19 without resorting to the punitive measures we saw in Wuhan.

This week China’s ambassador to New Zealand sharply rebuked Wellington for backing a growing international call to make Taiwan an observer at the WHA meeting. The foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said New Zealand should “immediately stop making wrong statements on Taiwan, to avoid damaging our bilateral relationship”.

China’s ever more strident and stringent demands for countries to publicly acquiesce to Beijing’s political agenda is seemingly having the opposite reaction.”

Latika Bourke reported last Friday that Australia’s dependence on China places us in a vulnerable position. For example,

“An international study of essential supply lines has found that Australia relies on China for critical medical technology more than any other ‘Five Eyes’ nation.”

China’s behaviour is also creating unusual alliances. In what is a remarkable statement, The Australian Worker’s Union last week joined forces with Australia’s conservative Federal Government in calling China to account,

“Free trade must be fair.

Australia must stand up to China and protect our national sovereignty and local jobs.

The Chinese Government is threatening massive trade tariffs on Australian barley, beef and other products in response to our demands for a COVID-19 investigation and action taken against the illegal dumping of products by China.

Dumping of imported goods, by selling products like steel and aluminium below cost, is a trade violation which aims to destroy Australia’s industries and make us more reliant on foreign supply.

We have the right to stop cheap, low quality steel and aluminium from reaching our shores, jeopardising tens of thousands of Australian jobs. Every other country does this.

Threatening crippling tariffs against Australia’s world leading agriculture industry is a bullying tactic.

The AWU is calling on Scott Morrison and the Federal Government to stand up to China’s bullying, protect Australian sovereignty and jobs, and declare its intentions to work with nations that support fair, free trade.”

When it comes to China, we are not witnessing the awakening of a sleeping giant panda, but a dragon. In December 2019 Niall Ferguson argued that a new Cold War had begun.

“Something [else] changed in 2019. What had started out as a trade war — a tit for tat over tariffs while the two sides argued about the American trade deficit and Chinese intellectual property theft — rapidly metamorphosed into a cluster of other conflicts.

In short order, the United States and China found themselves engaged in a technology war over the global dominance of the Chinese company Huawei in 5G network telecommunications and an ideological confrontation in response to the abuses of Uighur Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, as well as a classic superpower competition for primacy in science and technology. The threat also loomed of a currency war over the exchange rate for the Chinese yuan, which the People’s Bank of China has allowed to weaken against the dollar…”

If a new cold war hasn’t descended, it should be clear by the falling autumn leaves and the dropping temperature that winter is coming. These next few years will be pivotal in determining how cold or how hot this economic and geopolitical standoff will become.

 

4. Time to rebuild traditional models of University

University education in Australia is huge. Never before has there been such a large menu of courses to choose from and so many students and so much money to be made. Education is Australia’s 3rd largest export industry, worth $10s of billions annually.

In 2017, there were almost 800,000 international students enrolled in education programs in Australia, including 350,000 studying in universities. With the arrival of COVID-19, huge numbers of students are unable to travel to Australia and many others have been forced to leave and return to their home country.

According to Peter Hurley of the Mitchell Institute,

“The university sector faces cumulative losses of up to A$19 billion over the next three years due to lost international student revenue.

Modelling from the Mitchell Institute shows the next big hit will come mid-year when $2 billion in annual tuition fees is wiped from the sector as international students are unable to travel to Australia to start their courses for second semester.

Such losses are not just a university problem. ABS data show for every $1 lost in university tuition fees, there is another $1.15 lost in the broader economy due to international student spending.

This means the Australian economy could lose more than $40 billion by 2023 because of reduced numbers of higher education international students.”

This should not be taken as a negative word toward international students. Far from it, my personal encounters with students from China, Malaysia, Brazil, and Uganda, and from across the world, has been incredibly positive. In many respects, I am glad that they have an opportunity to study here and I have valued the friendships I have formed with many students. Indeed some of these students make Australia their home, and they are welcomed and vital members of the community. The issue isn’t international students, it’s the model of education that looks more like a $ sign than actual education.

A related issue is the indulgence of our higher learning institutions to provide courses and degrees that lead to nowhere. The breadth of inane and dead-end tertiary courses is truly ridiculous.

For example, my eldest child is reaching the stage in high school where students are exploring what type of vocation interests them and therefore what university course they should consider undertaking. As part of this conversation, we have spoken with several people who work in a field that he’s interested in and who teach this area in our universities. The overwhelming feedback that we received was that it is nearly impossible to make a career in this area and to even get a job. Apparently, only two graduates for every 80 end up successfully working in this industry.

Could the massive loss in income force our tertiary institutions to recalibrate and return to traditional models of education and research? Might our universities rid themselves of the shackles of profit-making and rediscover learning? Instead of offering useless degrees that cost students $10,000s and with no job at the end, can we rewrite the young people’s ‘success manual’ and create pathways from school into careers without the ‘middle man’?

5. The social engineering project of authoritarian secularism.

This includes the latest chapters in the sexual revolution, identity politics, and religious freedom issues.

Socio-political agendas that existed prior to COVID-19 will remain afterwards. The sexual revolution may have been forced into hibernation for the time being (at the very least the media is currently distracted by other issues), but as life returns to some sense of normalcy, we can expect these social threads to be taken up once again.

There is a question mark over how successful or popular these agendas will be once we have adjusted to COVID-19. Will a few months of breathing space help us to regain our senses and to starve these already vacuous ideologies of their droplets of oxygen? Perhaps, but then again,  a survey of the 20th Century demonstrates that two World Wars, the Nuclear threat, and Vietnam, didn’t subtract from the evolving abandonment sex’s natural paradigm. The sexual revolution with its demand for moral allegiance is far from over. However, like the French Revolution, this is a movement that eats its own. Feminists, lesbians, gays, are being publicly cancelled as they don’t pay full homage to the latest theories on gender and sex. I anticipate that the West will continue to dismantle itself in the attempt to follow Romans 1:18-32 word for word. The rest of the world will look on and laugh at our foolishness.

 

Conclusion

Evidence suggests that COVID-19 will change the world, but it is not yet possible to see the extent to which these new normals will impact the average Aussie. Old attitudes and dreams will continue but newly laid roads will redirect our paths. The rush for a return to the old normal will be strong and understandable but there are socio-economic factors and geopolitical manoeuvrings that will likely stifle this revival.

Even as we are surprised and even shocked by some of the changes, none of this takes God by surprise. I am reminded of the Lord Jesus’ declaration, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

Life in this world sometimes appears like sailing with a gentle breeze and at other times, the sea is rough and turbulent and we are knocked about and fear for life itself. There is however one old message that will stand the test of time. The One who stilled the storm rose from the dead and His word of life has outlasted the greatest cultural changes of history. His Gospel is cosmic in scope and personal in efficacious power.

At Mentone Baptist Church today I gave an exposition on Colossians 1:15-23, and I think it’s a worthy place on which to conclude these reflections on COVID-19,

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[g] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury Tweets a Tale

A pandemic is not the time to begin showing love for fellow humanity, it is an important time for us to continue loving and caring and demonstrating solidarity. A pandemic, however, is not an occasion for lowering the bar on theological conversation and for confusing or conflating essential understandings of God.

Justin Welby yesterday tweeted something that no Anglican Archbishop or Christian leader should ever tweet. He has given us an example of how not to exercise religious ecumenicalism. He said,

“Pope Francis has called for a day of prayer for an end to the pandemic on 14th May, and a day of good works. People of all faiths are seeking God’s intervention at this time. Let us pray for God’s mercy, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  #PrayForHumanity

I’m sure the tweet will go down like a treat among religious progressives who have already given up almost every distinctive aspect of Christianity.

I’m sure it’ll also be a hit among some irreligious types who think it’s fantastic that the religions of the world are leaving behind differences and are working together.

However, beneath this appealing facade is something dishonest and dishonouring to God. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s tweet was unnecessary, unhelpful, and untrue.

JustinWelby

The problem isn’t to do with prayer or encouraging Christians from around to pray about the COVID-19 pandemic. Many millions of Christians around the world have been praying through this pandemic and will continue to pray. It is entirely right to pray, for God remains Sovereign over the world today. There is no event in the world, significant or small, that escapes his attention and concern. He is the God of whom the Lord Jesus said, “ Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s tweet is going considerably further than encouraging Christians to pray to God.  He appears to be adopting the position established by the Second Vatican Council toward world religions when as an Anglican (and Christian) leader he ought not. There are two key problems here: first, what are we suggesting by calling people from different faiths to pray together, and second, are people of all faiths praying to God?

Yoking is more than a metaphor

My question is, what does the Archbishop of Canterbury’s message communicate to people about God? The fact that he ends the tweet with, “Let us pray for God’s mercy, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, doesn’t make up for what he says earlier in the tweet. It’s almost as though he’s trying to appease Christians, hey this is what I mean by God: the Father, the Son and the Holy, while at the same time offering what is a best a murky statement about other religions and how they view God.

To begin with, what is Welby (and Pope Francis) communicating by the ecumenical call to prayer? When I invite someone to pray with me, I am signalling that there exists some spiritual commonality between us and that this union is adequate for us to share in this activity together. I am implying a spiritual union with the other person as we together address God. Justin Welby is calling for and therefore implying that we (regardless of faith) can share in the some spiritual activity together as though we are united in this task. However, do Christians share spiritual union with other faiths?

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (1 Corinthians 6:14-16)

People of different faiths have (or should have) freedom to exercise their views about prayer and to pray on any day they choose. But a Christian leader inviting and encouraging global prayer between religions suggests an alignment that is clearly discouraged in the Bible, and even forbidden.

Playing pretend about  prayers to the same God

Justin Welby has also suggested that “People of all faiths are seeking God’s intervention at this time.” By using the upper case for God it implies that all these religions are praying to a true and real God. That Welby uses the noun in the singular, suggests that we are all ultimately praying to the same God.

Does a man say to his wife, “well, so that I don’t make all these other people feel left out and call me mean words like ‘exclusionary’ and ‘bigot’, let’s have everyone join us in bed tonight”. By the way, that is one of Bible’s metaphor’s to describe how awful it is when we betray God.

Do people from other religions pray to the same God as Christians, or do their own version of god have merit such that these prayers are efficacious?

“Half of the wood he burns in the fire;

    over it he prepares his meal,

    he roasts his meat and eats his fill.

He also warms himself and says,

    “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”

17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol;

    he bows down to it and worships.

He prays to it and says,

    “Save me! You are my god!”

18 They know nothing, they understand nothing;

    their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,

    and their minds closed so they cannot understand.” (Isaiah 44:16-18)

I am not trying to establish the case here that the God of the Bible is real and living (although I am convinced he is), but that the Bible makes a sharp distinction between God and the rest. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council may give room for thinking all religions are somehow drawing toward the same God (it is from this Council that arises the current Pope’s predications toward religious pluralism and syncretism). However, neither the Christian Bible nor basic human reasoning can support this thesis. For example, Hindus believe there are millions of different gods, while such thinking is abhorrent to Muslims, Jews, and Christians who are monotheists. The Bible reveals one God who is Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Both Muslims and Jewish people find this objectionable and irreconcilable. Indeed this is the case.

God was pretty clear when he announced the first two of the 10 Commandments,

“You shall have no other gods before me.

 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.  (Exodus 20)

God’s insistence on there being only one God continues throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

“I am the Lord, and there is no other;

    apart from me there is no God.

I will strengthen you,

    though you have not acknowledged me,

so that from the rising of the sun

    to the place of its setting

people may know there is none besides me.

    I am the Lord, and there is no other.

I form the light and create darkness,

    I bring prosperity and create disaster;

    I, the Lord, do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:5-7)

 

“For this is what the Lord says—

he who created the heavens,

    he is God;

he who fashioned and made the earth,

    he founded it;

he did not create it to be empty,

    but formed it to be inhabited—

he says:

“I am the Lord,

    and there is no other.”  Isaiah 45:18

And it is Jesus Christ who has revealed God to us,

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10:22)

 “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known”. (John 1:18)

Not only does the Bible describe there existing only one living God, but his person, nature and attributes are unlike the many deities that have been suggested and worshipped through the millennia. For example, while some religions claim that their god(s) loves, only the Bible speaks of ‘God is love’.

I doubt if Justin Welby believes that all religions worship the same God or that other gods are capable of answering prayer. I suspect the Archbishop is simply trying to be careful with his words, and so avoid offending anyone. However, that is the problem. It’s one of the chief issues confounding Christianity in Western nations. We aim to be unclear on any Biblical doctrine that causes offence and we’re super keen to use catchwords that find common ascent and praise in the culture. We shouldn’t do theology in this manner and we certainly shouldn’t exercise prayer and religious activity in this way. Why add to peoples’ confusion about God? Why turn beautiful and vital Christian beliefs into sludge?

We love our neighbours and friends from other religions by treating them with respect and kindness, not by conflating their god with God, or pretending that we are somehow engaged in the same activity. We affirm to the death our shared humanity and imago dei, and we engage in gentle but robust conversation to persuade people about the truth and goodness and grace of Jesus Christ, but we do not play the game of ‘we’re all in the same family’.  More importantly, we love God by honouring his name and nature and character as he reveals himself to be, not by cavorting with a religious version of illogical identity politics; that road ends in denying God’s unique being and qualities. If I wouldn’t treat my friends in such a way, why do we think it is okay to do with God?