Why We Can’t Sign the Ezekiel Declaration. An Evangelical Response.

This post is co-published with David Ould.

Over the past week a letter has been promoted and circulated around many churches and religious organisations. The Ezekiel Declaration (“the Declaration”) is addressed to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and outlines concerns over a potential “vaccine passport” that would be required for church attendance. The letter has now received 2000+ signatures of religious leaders from across Australia, and for that reason alone it is gaining much attention receiving quite a splash. For every signatory there are certainly many more Christian leaders who have not signed their names. Still, 2000+ names and the organisations that they represent is a significant number.

In some respects there are a number of clear core statements in the Declaration that we (David Ould and Murray Campbell) would want to support. We strongly agree that there is a serious question to be asked about “vaccine passports”, particularly when they impact upon church attendance. We are also in robust agreement with the authors of the Declaration that “conscience should never be coerced”.  

Nevertheless, we have declined from adding our names and support to this manifesto. While we share some of the concerns raised in the Ezekiel Declaration, we are unable in good conscience to align ourselves with other aspects and the overall tone and content. 

Our purpose here is to explain the reasons why we have not signed the Ezekiel Declaration and to also caution others from doing so. While we respect how some religious leaders have and will wish to affirm this document and continue to respect those leaders as individuals, we encourage people to think through the issues that we raise here before adding their endorsement to what we consider to be a confused and ultimately unhelpful document.


First, the tone of the letter is combative rather than cooperative.

Both the title and subtitle suggests a posture of hubris and even spiritual smugness: “The Ezekiel Declaration” and  “Watchmen, it’s time to speak”.

Really? Are the authors claiming a prophetic word or preaching Divine judgment upon those who are drafting COVID policies?  This level of rhetoric continues throughout the letter. For example, the authors refer to “medical apartheid” and “the dangerous precipice of a therapeutic totalitarianism”. This seems to be inflammatory language that does not accurately represent the current situation.

Straight away the letter therefore signals an ‘us versus them’ position; we the churches against a bullish and autocratic Government. At this point in time in Australia the situation is more akin to Daniel ch.1 than Daniel ch.6. We are appealing for a fair hearing before the Government, not open defiance with our lives being threatened for any dissent. We are seeking to persuade, not calling for civil disobedience.

We understand the issues at stake and we share concerns about any proposed vaccine passport, but from the outset the tone of the letter communicates an angry sermon rather than bridge building.

We will further address the theological implications of this title below but, for now, simply note that the Declaration takes on a combative approach.

We are also concerned that the Declaration is unnecessarily political. We are entirely convinced that there is a place for responsible engagement with political parties (at times working with them and at times challenging them) but a genuine danger in being seen to be overly partisan. The Declaration has already been leveraged by one political party for political purposes and this does nothing to allay fears that the Declaration is first and foremost a political document, and one that comes from a particular political position.


Second, the letter nowhere encourages people to be vaccinated and it fails to affirm the safety and efficacy of the available COVID-19 vaccines. 

There is a single word that is accepting but not positive ofin favour of vaccinations, and even then it is partnered with a word of dissent,

While some individuals will receive the vaccination with thanks, others may have good and informed reasons for declining. 

The Declaration does not define what these ‘good and informed reasons’ are. It then proceeds to misuse the words of the Federal Health Minister in February 2021 in support of refraining from being vaccinated. 

One such reason [for declining vaccination] is highlighted in the statement of the health minister Greg Hunt: 

“The world is engaged in the largest clinical trial, the largest global vaccination trial ever, and we will have enormous amounts of data.”

When we read the linked transcript of the interview we see the Minister endorsing the vaccination process, not casting aspersions upon it. He states, 

One of the things that is absolutely fundamental to confidence is the belief in safety. And the essence of safety is a full and thorough assessment…that’s ultimately about making sure we have the maximum take-up in Australia, and above all else, safety, safety, safety. That’s our duty. But it also leads to confidence and take-up.

Hunt’s argument is not that the vaccine is unsafe. On the contrary, he is stating that the approval process for the vaccine is there to provide confidence in it; confidence in the face of the uncertainty that some feel – the same uncertainty that the Declaration promotes.

We see a similar failure to handle sources responsibly in the reference to a CDC study when discussing the efficacy of vaccines. The Declaration states, having referenced the study, “it is evident that vaccines do not prevent infection”. This is, at best, misguided language. Nobody claims that the vaccines prevent infection, simply that they greatly reduce the rate of infection and the negative outcomes from those infections. Further, the report that is linked in the Declaration to support this claim closes with these words,

While numerous studies have shown that the vaccines don’t work as well against the delta variant as they did against other strains, health officials say they are still highly effective, especially in protecting against severe illness and death. Roughly 97% of new hospitalizations and 99.5% of deaths in the U.S. are among unvaccinated individuals, U.S. health officials repeated this week.

The CDC also said the data has limitations. The agency noted that as population-level vaccination coverage increases, vaccinated persons are likely to represent a larger proportion of Covid cases. Additionally, asymptomatic breakthrough infections might be underrepresented because of detection bias, the agency said.

The CDC also said the report is “insufficient” to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the authorized vaccines against Covid, including the delta variant, during this outbreak.

In recent months, data coming from overseas and now locally is demonstrating the substantial effectiveness of these vaccines in lowering the risk of people being seriously ill and dying with COVID-19, a benefit that far outweighs the very small recorded risk of vaccine side-effects.

Christian leaders have an obligation to quote people in context and to represent their position with fairness. Christian leaders also have a duty of care to listen to experts,  convey accurate information, and to refer people to their local GP, rather than publicly undermine health advice. We have documented how at two critical points in its argument the Declaration does not do this.

We appreciate how some Australians are hesitant to take the vaccine at this point in time and are sympathetic towards them. Our intention isn’t to ‘force’ the conscience. We also understand and affirm that there are valid medical reasons why a limited number of Australians cannot use these vaccines. We also understand that as time progresses our understanding of COVID-19 and the best ways to fight against it will improve and at times perhaps change tack. Our concern here is how the Ezekiel Declaration offers no encouragement and no positive information about COVID-19 vaccines. At best this is disappointing, at worst this is knowingly misleading and may undercut people’s confidence in being vaccinated when it is actually the best decision for most of our population when the relative risks are properly assessed.

Finally, we note that it is now well-established that widespread vaccination is the single greatest accelerator for achieving an opening up of our communities and a more “normal” life, the very thing that the Declaration strives for.


Third, the arguments are a kaleidoscope of confusion, conflation, and misrepresentations. 

We have already noted above some serious errors in the way the Declaration handles other material. More generally it seems to us that there is an unhelpful and unclear mixture of different arguments being made. Had the Declaration not contained much of this it would be more useful. Instead the authors have chosen to roll in additional arguments that do little to support their case, especially when (as we have shown) their arguments are based on poor use of external material.

One more example is helpful.

The authors spend much time addressing the issue of mental health. While this is pertinent to discussions surrounding the pandemic, including ongoing lockdowns, it isn’t directly relevant to the question of mandatory vaccine passports for churches. Our hearts ache for those who are overwhelmed and exhausted mentally and emotionally. As pastors we tend to congregation members who are suffering and struggling because of the pandemic. The growing strain is palpable and we too are concerned at the emotional, social, economic, and spiritual toll this is taking on millions of lives. We are pleased to see that politicians, doctors and the media are beginning to address these issues with increasing urgency. These factors, however, are separate from the question of vaccine passports and whether the government should introduce them and even mandate them for public worship services. To conflate them as the Declaration does is to confuse the argument.

The Declaration presents itself as a call against mandated vaccination for attendance at worship service. In reality it also attempts to argue against lockdowns and repeats discredited anti-vaccination arguments and does so with questionable use of source. By rolling in these two extra divisive issues in the manner that it does it presents a far less cohesive argument, let alone fails to garner comprehensive support amongst a wider Christian cohort.


Fourth, the list of signatories raises some concerns in a number of ways. We are uncomfortable signing our names to an alliance of ‘Christian leaders’ where the list includes members of a non-Christian sect and numerous ‘churches’ and other organisations that are considered fringe if not heterodox any other day of the week.

One notable example is the endorsement of Reignite Democracy Australia, an anti-masking anti-lockdown and anti-vax group whose founder was recently charged with incitement following on from illegal anti-lockdown demonstrations.

In addition we have been personally contacted by those who tell us their names have appeared as signatories on the Declaration without their action or consent. We have also had correspondence with those whose professional background includes the investigation of data integrity and they have raised concerns with some elements of the data as it is presented. None of this is to suggest in any way that the writers and promoters of the Declaration have deliberately falsified the signatories, yet there remain concerns about how some of the signatories have been recorded.


Fifth, instead of offering clear Gospel hope to our country, this letter creates suspicion and suggests that Christians are more interested in their own freedom rather than the common good.

At a time when Australia desperately needs to hear and see the beauty of God’s good news, this letter fails to deliver. Despite the closing language affirming the gospel, the message given is not one filled with grace and hope, but rather one of frustration, unbelief, and defiance which obscures and even contradicts the final gospel call. 

Gospel and Biblical fidelity will always be a concern with any declaration made by Christian leaders but particularly one styling itself after the “watchman” of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 33 we learn what the watchman’s role is:

Ezek. 33:1-6   The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman, 3 and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people, 4 then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not heed the warning and the sword comes and takes their life, their blood will be on their own head. 5 Since they heard the sound of the trumpet but did not heed the warning, their blood will be on their own head. If they had heeded the warning, they would have saved themselves. 6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.’

EZEKIEL 33:1-6

In the context of the writing of Ezekiel (the impending judgment of Judah under God’s hand by the means of Babylon) the watchman’s role is clear; he calls the people to repentance for their sin in the face of judgment (a judgement signalled as imminent by the blowing of a trumpet). In other words, it is the role of any gospel minister to warn of the coming judgement and urge people to find their refuge in Christ. This document does not do that. By using the title of “Ezekiel Declaration” it confuses that great eternal moment of decision with a lesser, albeit significant, matter before the churches. It frames the question of vaccine mandates in the churches (and more general questions around vaccination and lockdowns) as on a scale with the Babylonian invasion and destruction of God’s people. The immediate remedy it suggests is not the gospel of Jesus. The Declaration communicates a defiance of God-ordained authority rather than trusting submission of the Lord as we engage with a difficult moment in our common life. By using the language of the “watchman” it also labels those who do not agree as failed watchmen who have neglected their solemn duties as stewards of the gospel. We are firmly convinced there is a much higher threshold for this charge of abandoning the gospel than disagreement over the matters raised in the Declaration. It is deeply divisive.

Why We Can’t Sign the Ezekiel Declaration

There is a genuine issue relating to vaccine passports, both in general and specifically when tied to church attendance. We will be extremely concerned if Governments decide that religious organisations must mandate vaccination for attendees and participants in public worship services and other religious meetings. There may yet be a need to respectfully make our case and even courageously refuse to place a limit on who may gather together with the people of God. But we are not at the moment yet, nor has any such potential restriction even been announced. Our concern is that the Ezekiel Declaration neither provides a productive pattern by which opposition should happen if required nor increases the opportunity for productive engagement with Governments before then.

Finally a personal word. The two authors have come to publish this position with some hesitancy. We are both known, perhaps even notorious, for standing for gospel purity within our own denominations. That has sometimes come at personal cost. Nor have we been shy when it comes to public engagement with the authorities, be they media, governmental or other. Where necessary we have taken the opportunity to speak of Jesus in the public sphere especially when his word is not well-received. We respectfully do not believe that the charge of “selling out” or cowardice can be levelled against us. We are also acutely aware that many of those that we are effectively criticising here are our natural allies in many of these struggles, not to mention those that we are at times more comfortable with when it comes to political expression. One of us has spoken on your platforms and been featured in your websites. We have spoken plainly about “culture wars” and the like and will continue to do so. We are fellow evangelicals.

Despite this we felt the need to write. We ask that the above be received as it was intended, “wounds from a friend that can be trusted” (Prov. 27:6). We long for gospel unity with all our brethren and offer this letter in that spirit.

To the rest of our readers we ask you to consider whether adding your endorsement to the “Ezekiel Declaration” is the wisest choice at this moment in time or even if you ought to now ask for it to be removed. We believe that the Ezekiel Declaration is an unhelpful move, unnecessarily political, confused in its argumentation and ultimately divisive at a time when the church should be known for its united loyalty to Jesus and his gospel, expressed in an appropriate engagement with the world.

Ps. Murray Campbell, Lead Pastor Mentone Baptist Church, Melbourne.

Rev. David Ould, Senior Associate Minister St John’s Anglican Cathedral Parramatta.

Australia, it’s time to lament

“How deserted lies the city,

    once so full of people!

How like a widow is she,

    who once was great among the nations!

She who was queen among the provinces

    has now become a slave”. (Lamentations 1:1)

Today, August 19th 2021, marks 200 days of lockdown in Melbourne since the pandemic began last year. Beginning March 30th 2020 there have been 200 days where 5 million residents have been forced to stay at home. Over these 18 months we have experienced weeks without lockdown, but those days have all been lived with tight restrictions. 

The streets of Melbourne are deserted. Schoolyards are empty, apart from the occasional gust of wind that moves the leaves from one end to the other. Office buildings have become catacombs. Football grounds are empty of competition and of children chasing the footy.

What lessons will we learn through this once in a 100-year pandemic? What truths will resurface now that so many of our habits have stalled and excesses moved into lockdown?

As the months move sketchily forward, Australians are eager for a day of celebration; a national day of festivities to announce the end of the pandemic. Many Aussies are also skeptical and wonder if this day will be pushed further and further back as Government directed expectations change. I’m certainly keen for the day to arrive when we are assured of no more lockdowns and when we reach 80% of the population fully vaccinated. However, if we fast forward to rejoicing we are bypassing important lessons that can be uncovered now.

I am not one to dismiss momentary distractions that serve to alleviate the pandemic symptoms that we’re all facing. Thank God for some of these helpful diversions. We are not however acting wisely if we use these to cover over the widening crevices that are appearing in our society and in our own souls. We have a moment, dare I suggest, a God-given moment, to reevaluate the big questions of life.

Last year I proposed a series of life topics where the pandemic may impact. Among the suggestions was a question mark over the sexual revolution. Would COVID-19 cause the sexual revolution to slow down? At the time I wasn’t sure. What we have seen over the last 18 months is that moral progressivism hasn’t taken a back seat to the pandemic. Its course is deliberate and continues to drive through our culture in first gear. Far from applying brakes, the sexolution has navigated the roundabouts and traffic lights of this pandemic with great skill, ensuring that legislations continue unabated.

Victoria is the State that adopted legislation that may imprison Christians for speaking to or praying with a person about sexuality or gender.

On the one hand, our society speaks against the mistreatment of women, while on the other hand, Victoria is decriminalising sex work, as though this is a great emancipation moment.

In life there is time for play and pleasure. There is a time for rejoicing and celebration. There is also a time for mourning.

Last week a national campaign was given a megaphone in our newspapers. The aim was to increase unbelief in God just as Aussies participated in Census 2021. Dropping God  became a national talking point, when instead we should be bowing  our knees before our Maker and asking for his mercy. 

Despite the mantra of “of all being in this together”,  what  we are witnessing is an awful lot of boasting, selfishness, political chest-beating and growing civil restlessness.  The phrase “this is not a time for politics” has lost all meaning, that is, if it ever had any substance to start with. Far from being an empty phrase, it is sharpened into a political weapon for striking opponents and causing further division.

This hubris is shared by the left and right and everywhere in the middle. Imagine how much more unified and together we will be if this pandemic continues into 2022?! 

Part of the problem is how our Aussie psyche demands happiness without repentance. We want success without humility. We want prosperity without generosity. What if the Australian dream is faulty? What if we are cheating ourselves of a better life because of a wrong posture we’ve assumed?

We are not very good at learning from history. For example, in the 6th Century BC the city of Jerusalem was laid waste. The population had progressed, or so they believed. They had moved on from many of their traditions and old ways of thinking.  They didn’t remove belief in God as such, but they did manufacture new gods to support the sexual and economic policies they wanted normalised. And they deconstructed all those Scriptures  that didn’t offer unwavering support to their new life pursuits. 

As Jerusalem lay in ruins, the book of Lamentations was written. Lamentations is one of the most forgotten books of the Bible. Given the subject mater, one understands why.  But perhaps our extraordinary situation requires us to open this difficult book. It is a distressing book to read given the account it retells of what went wrong and of the severe suffering that was left behind. The author of Lamentations speaks of people mocking those in distress and hardening their resolve against God. This expansive lament is honest in its recognition of human sin, the rightness of God, the despair accompanying the suffering, and the single source of hope:

Do we concur with these sentiment?

“The Lord is righteous,

    yet I rebelled against his command. (1:18)

Can we speak words like these?

I remember my affliction and my wandering,

    the bitterness and the gall.

I well remember them,

    and my soul is downcast within me.

Yet this I call to mind

    and therefore I have hope:

Let him sit alone in silence,

    for the Lord has laid it on him.

Let him bury his face in the dust—

    there may yet be hope. (Lamentations 3:19-21, 29)

Can we conclude,

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,

    for his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;

    therefore I will wait for him.” (3:22-24)

Understand, the Lamenter didn’t arrive at the place of hope without first lamenting his condition. Again, this is one of our regularly failings as Aussies. Instead of blaming God or excluding God, the writes takes responsibility. It is this requisite for humility that we have become accustomed to avoiding. Instead of learning, it appears that we Aussies prefer to hold onto this hubris, and that does not bode well for the future. 

Learn from author of Lamentations. And listen to the book of James, 

“Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”  (James 5:9-10)

It must be said lest anyone reads into my words a meaning that’s not there: we cannot equate particular suffering with particular sin. God has not spoken a word about COVID 19. That means we should treat with extreme caution anyone who makes such assertions. We can however say that suffering in general is a sign of a world that’s cursed and fallen, and that these pains can serve as a loud call to understand our mortality and our need for a Saviour of Divine nature.

Neither does finding purpose in trials diminish s the very real suffering attached to plagues and other trials.  The Apostle Peter could simultaneously speak of finding joy and suffering grief in the same event, 

“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6).

Above all, remember Jesus who endured all manner of hardship, which not only characterises him as the understanding God, but this served for Him to our substitute . He is the Son of God who need never suffer and yet in love chose that path for us.

“He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.”
(Isaiah 53:3-4)

Instead of discrediting this length period of pandemic, we could slow down a little and ponder the very questions we spend so much of life trying to avoid. You see, trials scratch away the surface and expose our deepest longings and fears and dreams. They also serve to teach us how we should not take for granted the many things we enjoy in life. Too often, our habit is to mistranslate our copious freedoms and pleasures and turn them into rights and demands as as though God owes us anything.

Charles Spurgeon was a man who was more than familiar with suffering. He offers this astute observation “Trials teach us what we are; they dig up the soil, and let us see what we are made of.” 

What are we learning about ourselves during COVID-19?

John Donne is one of the great poets of the English language. Donne lived through one of the many plagues that struck Europe over the centuries.  Like so many living in the 17th Century, John Donne was familiar tragedy. 5 of his children died before the age of 10 and his wife died at a young age. As the city of London was again ravaged by disease, John Donne fell ill.  He survived, but during each of the 23 days of sickness he wrote a meditation. Meditation 17 is the most famous. for these 2 lines,

“no man is an island” 

and 

“ask not for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee.”

Each day the church bells of London rung out to announce the most recent deaths of Londoners. As Donne lay in his sick bed, not knowing whether it would become his death bed, he could hear the bells toll. He was not oblivious to this daily public cry, but rather in the sound he heard a gracious reminder.

“No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction…Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.  Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.”

As we all look forward to the day when mass restrictions are behind us and when some semblance of normalcy returns, let’s not push aside the treasure found in this moment, the treasure grasped by John Donne and millions beside. 

Eddie Betts emotional plea against racism

My wife & I just watched the interview Eddie Betts gave on Fox Sports about the latest examples of racism in the AFL.

I remember my daughter doing a school assignment on her favourite football player when she was 10. She chose Eddie Betts.

Being ardent Carlton supporters we were sad when Eddie moved to Adelaide and excited when he returned home to the mighty blues. 

However we are not excited by persistent stories of racism in the AFL that reach the news. No doubt there are many more examples that don’t reach the ears of the media. 

As we listened to Eddie Betts speak we were impressed by his graciousness and we heard the pain in his voice. He shared how he and his mother and father have been dealing with racism all their lives.

“It’s tiring. It hurts. It’s draining. It really hurts to be honest…”

“It’s been hard and I reckon I just need everyone to really go on a journey to start educating, to start those conversations.

It is difficult to listen to the interview without being moved by Eddie’s story.

The reason for typing these few words is because hear Eddie and I have a small voice in which I can say something publicly.

Firstly, I want to communicate to Eddie Betts and to other Indigenous footballers, you are right in not accepting racism. We want to stand with you in saying no to racism.

While I have never experienced racism, I know my wife’s family have; they were subjected to the White Australia Policy amongst other things. In my church are people who come from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds; beautiful people, some who have experienced racism because of the colour of their skin or cultural background.

Second, as a Christian leader in Melbourne (who also follows the footy), I believe we ground the dignity of human beings in something substantial,  something sublime, and yes, even of Divine intention. You see, racist slurs and behaviour is an egregious attack on God and his purposes. Let me explain.

The God whom I know and worship is the God who made the heavens and earth, and who made all humanity in his image.

It was out of this theological conviction that Martin Luther King cried, 

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The Bible begins with this extraordinary notion that every human being bears the image of God and therefore has inherent dignity and worth. No race is greater or lesser than another; all have His print on us. 

The Bible has more to say. The creator God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world because humanity was bent on throwing away the dignity of the imago dei. Humanity’s actions have resulted in the belittling of human life in a thousand different ways, including the abhorrent belief of racial inferiority.

This Jesus who was crucified and raised, and he now holds a message of redemption and reconciliation for the nations. 

The Bible’s story ends with a vision of a new creation where God is at the centre and his world is filled with people from nation and language,

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9)

I realise churches sometimes fail, but more often they do offer a little glimpse into this heavenly future. I thank God, that despite our own worts, Mentone Baptist is a community with people who come from all over world. This multi ethnic community is amazingly dynamic in unity and love.

Going back to Eddie Betts testimony on television, how can we despise or belittle an image bearer of God? How can we insult people for whom Christ died? How can we fight against the Divine plan to reconcile peoples from across the world in Christ? 

Jesus once said this, 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

The Bible also encourages us to ‘mourn with those who mourn’. So, while most of us may not understand what it’s like to be in Eddie Bett’s shoes, we can still stand beside him, and ask how we can help shoulder this burden. We can check our own hearts and we can speak up whenever we hear someone disparage another on account of their ethnicity.

The contentious Census question: Religion

Tuesday August 10th is Australia’s favourite night of the year. Every person will be in their house, flat, unit or caravan. Studiously we will open laptops or take out a pen and the journey will begin: Census 2021. Although, like myself you may be one of the millions who’ve jumped the gun and completed the form in advance.

Our local atheistic allies have been campaigning hard as though the Census is an election of some kind. The conversion plan is overtly evangelistic and with promises of life ending in nothingness to all who join them. In advance of victory,  I can almost hear their voices warming up to sing another rendition of ‘Imagine’. 

Monica Dux, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, tries to sway lapsed Catholics by reminding them of all the things they mustn’t like about Catholicism. She claims, 

“In the upcoming census, religious affiliation is a category that will be closely watched, in part because participation in organised religion has declined so sharply, to the point that, in the 2016 census, the fastest growing belief was non-belief.”

Not so fast! ‘No religion’ is not a synonym for ‘non-belief’. ‘No religion’ is simply a junk draw for unbelievers, undecideds, spiritualists, and independents alike.

My advice is simple, just be honest. 

Perhaps for Census 2026 we can add another box, “uptight atheist”.

There is however a major flaw with the question on religion. No, I’m not referring to the top of the page preference that’s given to ‘no religion’. The error is this, Christianity doesn’t appear as an option.

Instead, Anglican, Baptist and Presbyterian, appear alongside Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism as though they are all different religions. As a friend noted, Pentecostalism doesn’t appear at all, even though there are more Pentecostal Christians in Australia than most of the denominations specified. 

I’m all for learning about the breakdown of how many Aussies identify with all the different Christian denominations; that’s useful information for a pastor such as myself. But Baptists are not a different religion to Anglican or Presbyterian or the Uniting Church (well, there is case that this last one should be separated). 

Let me illustrate,

It’s like the census asking this question, what sport do you play? Then the options given are the following;

Carlton

Hawthorn

Swimming

Tennis

Collingwood

Golf

Cycling

St Kilda

It’s stupid! Carlton isn’t a sport, it’s a club that plays the same sport as Hawthorn, Collingwood and St Kilda. It may be a legitimate question to find out who supports which AFL club, but that’s not the same question as ‘what sport do you play?’. 

Will our Census counters combine the numbers from across the Christian denominations? If so, will they include or exclude in those numbers cult like groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons?

Before sociologists explain to us why Australia is no longer a Christian nation (by the way, the answer is, we never were and we are not meant to be), it’s kinda important to know how the solicited answers shape the question being asked.  It’s also worth pointing out that in the last census only 60% of Australians answered the question on religion. So, just like a plebiscite, the answers have some value, but what the other 40% think and what Australian genuinely believe about religion remain a Census mystery. 

The Census provides useful and interesting information about the people who make up our nation. The data provides Governments, Councils, and community organisations a window into the people around us. We learn interesting facts about how old we are and how much income we earn and what languages we speak at home. 

The Australia Bureau of Statistics explains why there is a question on religion, 

“A person’s religion is asked as part of a suite of questions on cultural diversity and has been collected since the first national Census in 1911. This is the only optional question on the Census. Information gathered is used by religious organisations and government agencies to plan service delivery and encompass religious practices within community services, such as education, hospitals and aged care facilities.”

This information also becomes political hay and ammunition agitating for future Government funding and policy making. One thing the Census is not, and that is a measure of the spiritual health and intelligence of our country.

There is merit in knowing how people formally identify with different faith groups. Indeed, the fact that this question remains is quite telling. However, I’m more interested in knowing how many Aussies are in fact attending and actively belonging to a Christian Church and what are their beliefs and struggles and joys. I’m interested in learning why other Aussies have dropped out of church and /or why they no longer believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m interested in learning about what is it about other religions that appeals to people. These questions are for more interesting and beneficial. 

Distorting the Christian message doesn’t help anyone

I am tired of people misusing Christianity for all kinds or political and moral messaging. Whether it’s intellectual know-it-alls who explain away all the bits of the Bible that doesn’t fit with contemporary moral proclivities or those who get sucked in by crazy conspiracies and then justify them from loopy readings of the Bible. Indeed, some of this isn’t’ just odd, it is downright dangerous and blasphemous. 

Take for example, this sign that was waving about during an anti lockdown protest yesterday,

“The blood of Christ is my vaccine.”

I do hope people realise that Christians don’t support or agree with this banner that was displayed at an anti-lockdown protest yesterday in Australia. I suppose a few Christians might like the banner, but that doesn’t make it true or helpful.

This is a difficult year

I will address this appalling sign shortly, but first of all I want to say that I understand how many people are frustrated and fed up and hurting during the COVID-19 pandemic. I doubt if there are many Australians who don’t feel at the very least one of those emotions right now. I have seen many struggling Aussies over the last 19 months and I know it’s hard. No one wants to be in the situation that we’re currently experiencing.

I’m not arguing here for or against lockdowns. Neither am I advocating for or against other measures taken during the pandemic. It’s not that I don’t have opinions about such things but that I’m aware of the fact that I’m not a medical professional and these are complex matters and I don’t have to shoulder responsibility for millions of people. It may well be the case that we won’t know what the right course of action was for several years to come. Uncertainties and confusion have often been compounded by the unnecessary politicisation of the pandemic and the at times enflaming journalism by some members of the media (as opposed to the great reporting that’s been done by many other journalists). 

When it comes to protests my view is that it’s unwise to protest right now (that was my position last year as well), yes even selfish. At the same time we can be concerned by any Government who stifles peoples’ right to protest, even when we disagree with their point of view. Two things can be right at the same time. The higher biblical ethic however isn’t to push for my rights, it is to love the other.

The Bible doesn’t support conspiracies

I digress, my concern here is the so called Christian messaging present in these protests. If you are someone who claims to follow Jesus Christ, before making any decision first ask, am I faithfully promoting the good news of Jesus Christ? Another question I should ask is, am I loving my neighbour by joining in this unlawful and untimely rally? While I am sure there were a few well-meaning Christians protesting yesterday, that is no excuse for screwing up the beautiful Christian message by twisting it with anti-VAX nonsense. 

There is a difference between someone who declines vaccination as a result of carefully thought out reasoning and one who is saying no because they’re believe speculative hearsay and conspiracy theories. For me, I’m convinced taking the vaccine is sensible and it’s is foremost about loving others and putting their health above my own (I’ve had my first round of Pfizer). 

The Bible itself is not anti medicine anymore than the Bible isn’t anti-science. The Apostle Paul once says to a young Timothy, I hear that you’re unwell, take medicine. On many occasions when the Bible records people who are hungry, the answer was to provide food so that they may eat. When people were tired they slept. We are physical beings for God has made a physical world, not just a psychological and spiritual world. He has made a world in such that we can understand its mechanics and make advancements in technology and science and medicine. 

The Bible talks about people who advocate and believe wonky ideas and calls on churches to guard against them For example, n the First Pastoral Epistle the Apostle Paul famously calls out conspiracy theories and demonstrated why they have no place in the Christian community. He wrote, 

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longeror to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk.They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. (1 Timothy 1:3-7)

Scholars can’t be certain about the precise content of these myths and genealogies. However, later in 1 Timothy (ch.4), Paul talks about people who were advocating distorted views of marriage, food, and other everyday norms. The Apostle is adamant, 

“Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron”

Indeed, Paul argues that such abuse of Christian doctrine is harmful to people physical and spiritual wellbeing” (1 Timothy 4).

The meaning of the blood of Jesus

When people mix the Christian message with speculative theories we find absurd statements such as the banner which many journos are enjoying sharing around on social media, “The blood of Christ is my vaccine”.

What an awful slogan. This kind of misrepresentation is as detrimental to the Christian message as was the false teachers whom Paul spoke against.

Just in case someone is wondering, the blood of Jesus does not have physical properties that will so how mingle with our cardiovascular system to fight and destroy viral infection. Such medieval thinking is superstition not Christian. 

However, I will never ridicule the idea of the ‘blood of Christ’. This idea of Christ’s blood is a crucial and central aspect of Christian belief. Without this blood there is no Christianity. 

I get it, the very thought of blood isn’t attractive to our modern sensibilities. The theological significance of blood may not be as familiar to us as it is in other cultures. Blood is graphic. If we find the notion of spilled blood uncomfortable and even gross, we have come some way to understand the significance of blood in Biblical teaching and practice.  The shedding of blood goes a long way to demonstrate the true horror of human sinfulness and the extraordinary length God went to bring atonement and deliver reconciliation. 

Blood is used in many different ways in the Bible, but most of the time it signifies death. Blood is often used in a technical sense to refer to sacrificial death. In the first place blood speaks of sacrifices conducted in the Old Testament, and these are preparing for and pointing to the truly efficacious sacrifice that atones for human sin; the death of Jesus Christ.

”For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors,but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. (1 Peter 1:18-20)

“remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,” (Ephesians 2:18-20)

Let me explain it this way, while the biblical language of blood may be unusual for many of us, we do understand the concept of sacrifice. The notion of someone laying down their life in order to save another is a common theme in literature and film. In real life, such events are often mentioned on the news for they are rare and wonderful examples of love.

Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance has these words engraved in the interior of the building, “Greater love hath no man”. 

While these words aptly describe the sacrifice of our war dead, these are in fact words spoken by Jesus. These words speak of the greatest sacrifice we can make for the sake of another, and the point to the ultimate sacrifice; the cross.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

When a protester distorts the Christian message and attaches it do something like the anti-vac movement, people will understandably mock her. Sadly, they may also go away with the wrong view of Christ and of Christianity. I’m thankful that most Christians have more sense, and hopefully better theology. For the rest of Australia, please don’t judge the truly sublime message of Jesus Christ by a few dreadful banners. Instead, find a Christian church, open a Bible, and discover the good news of Jesus for yourself.

Scott Morrison does Christian stuff?

Fairfax have published their latest exposé on Prime Minister Scott Morrisons’ Christianity. PM says social media being used by ‘evil one’, gives rare insight into Pentecostal faithis a strange and sophomoric non-story. I think it illustrates how shallow our grasp of Christianity is in Australia. I suspect it’s another attempted subterfuge to undermine the credibility of the  Prime Minister. 

As I read Daniela White’s piece, it felt like an Aussie version of those famed letters by Pliny the Younger. Pliny was a magistrate in first century Rome. He who felt obliged to tell the Roman Emperor Trajan about those weird Christians who practice a “depraved, excessive superstition”. According to Pliny the Younger, these Christians drink human blood and practice cannibalism, they call each other brothers and sisters, they let women oversee programs and they do really nice things for other people!

There are plenty of issues worthy of reporting in relation to the Federal Government: among them, the painfully slow roll out of the COVID-19 vaccines and the mistreatment of women in Parliament. With a stale and predictable breathe, like waking up every morning, readers of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald have been given another dose of Scott Morrison’s faith. 

Daniella White explains that the Prime Minister participates in, “the Pentecostal practice of laying on of hands”.

Okay…well, so what? The practice of ‘laying on hands’ is not just a pentecostal thing, it harkens back to New Testament times and it is practised by pretty much all Christians churches to this day. It’s a physical symbol representing a spiritual committal (ie praying for an individual).

That is not all. Readers are reminded of this vital piece of evidence, 

“Mr Morrison was photographed raising his hands in a church service during the 2019 election”.

This is indeed disturbing behaviour by a Christian! Seriously, this is as silly as reporting, ‘a football fan was photographed raising her hands during Saturday’s game at the MCG”. 

One of the Prime Minister’s words that caught Daniela White’s attention was him talking to a Christian audience about the dangers of social media. He said, 

“It is going to take our young people… it’s going to take their hope, it’s going to steal their hope”.

“Sure, social media has its virtues and its values and enables us to connect with people in ways we’ve never had before, terrific, terrific, but those weapons can also be used by the evil one and we need to call that out.”

Does anyone think social media is never used to promote dangerous ideas and to harm people?  You may not believe in a real and personal devil as do Christians (and remember, so did Jesus), but you probably believe in a devil in some metaphoric way while to trying to explain the sheer volume of evil that is promoted and bullied on social media platforms. 

The article amounts to the revelation: Scott Morrison, a self confessing Christian, engages in normal Christian practices and beliefs. Wow. Big news!

I am tempted to mock the article because it is inane and it’s a classic example of a non-story being whipped up into what still amounts to a non-story.

Nevertheless, the piece does reveal something important. It illustrates what is a common thread in Australia today: people don’t understand Christianity. Most Aussies have little or no idea what the church is about. It is normal today for children to grow up and not even know who Jesus is, and that the cross and resurrection of Christ is the central pivot of all human history. 

It is not only the key teachings of Christianity that are being distanced in our communities, there is gaping hole in our understanding of how Christianity has positively shaped the society in which we live and benefit. Christian residue remains attached to our culture and provides foundational material without which our society would crumble. 

The British historian Tom Holland made a similar observation earlier this week when discussing the topic of culture wars. Holland explains how (in the West) many of our cultural and moral leanings arise from Christian theology, it’s just that we no longer see the connections. For example, he suggests, 

“The anxieties around statutes today are bred of deeply Christian ideas, just that the people campaigning against it don’t recognise it as Christian…this is drawing on the assumption that making a profit from slaves and conquering vast reaches of territory and killing people while doing so is not something deserving of praise, and these are assumptions  that are bred of the great heritage of Christian history….They’ve escaped the moorings of Christian doctrine and they now just kind of percolate in the air and people breathe them in and take them for granted.”

“Culture wars…are arguments about theology that do not recognise themselves as being arguments about theology”.

We don’t even realise that our moral impulses to fight against racism stem from a Judeo-Christian understanding of the world. Scott Morrison’s statement that was reported is exactly right, 

“It’s so important that we continue to reach out and let every Australian know that they are important, that they are significant.

“Because we believe that they are created in the image of God.”

A friend of mine made a comment last night about a different story, one that relates to a local high school. His point nonetheless translates well,

“As far as I can see, Christianity is the best chance we have of creating an equitable society. It teaches that all humans are made in the image of God and thus to be valued. All people have a problem with meeting their own standards of goodness and thus require forgiveness and patience. Love for God and neighbour is the greatest good. The West was built on these principles and yet we’ve still fallen horribly short.

How much worse will we be living under an ideology which demonises those who disagree, peddles a view of ‘goodness’ which is constantly changing and hard to define, and believes in inescapable guilt upon those born with the wrong skin colour and sex?”

Of course, Christianity is far more than a system of beliefs and values that provide a framework for civil society and cultural progress; Christianity is about a person. Christianity is about God sending his son into the world to atone for sin that we might be reconciled to the living God. That is sublime news that remains as good today as it was in the days of Pliny the Younger. 

Christianity cannot be reduced to a game of knowledge  but it certainly necessitates knowledge. For Christians, surely we don’t want to mislead or confuse people as to the reality of the Christian message, either by our teaching or by our actions.

All Christians across churches and denominational brandings have opportunity and responsibility before God and in love for our neighbour to try and correct the misnomers and myths that are tossed about on a regular basis. The fault lays less with journalists, we need to realise that we’re not always upfront or clear about the great news of Christ. The task is hamstrung  when ‘Christians’ perpetrate evil acts against other people. The Gospel of Christ is betrayed when our own lives contradict the message. The cause isn’t helped when so many church leaders today spit out garbage from the pulpit. My advise is, go and find a church that believes and teaches what the Apostles Paul says is ‘sound doctrine’. 

Even if we become the clearest, most winsome and most Jesus like people to have ever lived, plenty of people will still conclude that Christianity is not for them. There will be people who think you stink like the stench of death. Isn’t that how the Pharisees and crowds responded when they saw and heard the incarnate Son of God?  Others though will conclude, ‘yes I believe this Jesus is the son of God.’

The Australian Prime Minister is again trending on Twitter because of another ‘Christians are weird’ article. Let’s turn it around , maybe it’s opportunity and one you might like to take. If you don’t really know what Christianity is about and are interested even for the reason for discovering why you like or don’t like Scott Morrison, go check out a church sometime or open a Bible and start to read it. The Gospel of Luke is a great place to begin an investigation. 

Harmony Day & a vision for belonging

The national diary appears to be heading on a collision course with the Gregorian calendar as we squeeze more and more special days into the week. It’s like every other day we are being encouraged to wear a ribbon or a coloured item of clothing, to hashtag a slogan and to make another speech. One doesn’t want to be caught out by not wearing the right uniform of the day!

This Tuesday schools are celebrating Harmony Day. While the day is actually March 21, as the date fell on the weekend, schools are commemorating Harmony today. What is Harmony Day, you ask? According to the official website,

“Our diversity makes Australia a great place to live. Harmony Day is a celebration of our cultural diversity – a day of cultural respect for everyone who calls Australia home.

Held every year on 21 March. The Day coincides with the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The message of Harmony Day is ‘everyone belongs’, the Day aims to engage people to participate in their community, respect cultural and religious diversity and foster sense of belonging for everyone.

Since 1999, more than 70,000 Harmony Day events have been held in childcare centres, schools, community groups, churches, businesses and federal, state and local government agencies across Australia.”

As a way of celebrating Harmony Day people are encouraged to wear the colour orange. Leaving aside the fact that orange also represents a fruit, a cleaning detergent, one of the world’s most exclusive fashion labels, and most ironic of all, a sectarian Protestant movement in Northern Ireland…other than these orange icons, apparently the colour “traditionally…signifies social communication and meaningful conversations.” Clearly someone forget to pass on that message to Northern Ireland!

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It’s refreshing to find a ‘day’ that I can happily support and where I don’t need to sit down and have one of those “this is why we don’t celebrate xyz” conversations with my children.  Perhaps there is some deeper and not so positive agenda behind Harmony Day, but from what I know, it sounds like Tuesday should be orange day (that is, if I had anything orange to wear!).

The cultural experiences in Australia are not the norm across the world. There are few places on earth that have witnessed more positive cultural assimilation and multi-ethnic embracement. Our children’s school has students from many different countries and ethnic backgrounds, and our surrounding suburbs are home to thousands of migrants from all over the world.

This is not to say that racism is only an historical problem in Australia, its ugliness remains with us in 2021, and is probably more prevalent than many would like to admit. Racism is abhorrent. To undermine or deny a person’s humanity and dignity because of their skin colour or language is beyond reprehensible. I do think though that some societal discord is less about racism and is more about the fear of the unknown and the sense of losing cultural norms and habits. We can be thankful for the ‘harmony’ that is experienced in Australia and we can continue to strive to do better.

Harmony Day is a day that I can say to my children, “this is worthwhile celebrating”. It not only reflects an Australian value that is good, it also intimates a significance beyond a nation’s identity.

The book of Acts in the Bible gives an  account of Christianity’s growth in the First Century AD. One of the book’s chief concerns is demonstrating that not only did the Gospel of Jesus Christ penetrate different cultures and people groups, this new born unifying agent was of Divine purpose. Following Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, he commissioned his disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. God is concerned for the nations and his good news message is for people from all nations and races and places.

Throughout Acts we read about thousands of Jewish people become followers of Jesus Christ, and also of Samaritans, an Ethiopian, Greeks and Romans, and many others throughout the world. The Gospel not only found home across ethnicities and languages, but it cut across cultural barriers among rich and poor, men and women, leaders and servants, all now worshiping God together and living out of love for each other. The Gospel call is higher than toleration, it even exceeds the idea of friendship; the Gospel unites otherwise disparate people together in Christ, and creates relationships as close as family. 2,000 years on, this story is continuing, even in Australia.

This year Harmony Day falls only days before another public celebratory day: Good Friday. Good Friday is a day when Christians remember the extent of God’s love for the world,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

That day Jesus didn’t wear the colour orange, his accusers dressed him in a purple robe and imbedded a crown of thorns into his head. He carried a wooden cross to a place called Golgotha, where nails were driven through his hands and feet, and where he was hung  until death. This was the cost Jesus bore so that God might reconcile the nations to himself.

Good Friday creates Churches and communities of such depth and peace and love that it makes the United Nations’ best attempts seem rickety and faint. At Mentone Baptist we haven’t celebrated a single day of ‘Harmony’, because we are living it every day; perhaps not perfectly but certainly with genuine joy and gratitude. Like thousands of Churches all over the country, we are a big family made up of many different nationalities and cultures: from Uganda and the United Kingdom, to Russia and Malaysia, from Columbia, Chile and the USA, to China, India and the Middle East.

When Victoria Becomes Babylon

“Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help. So they went to the king and spoke to him about his royal decree: “Did you not publish a decree that during the next thirty days anyone who prays to any god or human being except to you, Your Majesty, would be thrown into the lions’ den?” (Daniel 6)

When the State wants to control prayer

A few short years ago almost everyone would be shocked to learn that praying for a person who asks for prayer would be considered illegal activity and lead to 10 years in prison.

That is the situation facing Victorians.

This is not hyperbole. This isn’t exaggeration. Next week the Victorian Legislative Council will vote on one of the most extraordinary pieces of law ever proposed in our nation’s history.

Imagine an Australia where two people are having a conversation about life issues and they are trying to encourage and persuade one another. The police are called, one person is taken away and charged because they sought to persuade the other with the Bible’s view of sexuality.

As we become more aware that treatment for children with gender dysphoria is often led by ideology and not by best medical practice, the Victorian government is instead deciding to further enforce ideology at the expense of medical professionalism and the rights of parents to love and raise the children. Can you imagine an Australia where children are taken away from mum and dad because they’re convinced that changing their child’s gender at a young age is not wise or healthy.

In a country where there are already thousands of laws that can lead to fines of $100s and even $1000s, people found on the wrong side of Victoria’s new Conversion or Suppression Practices Act may face fines of up to $200,000.

Sadly this isn’t a dystopian fantasy. Unless the Legislative Council wisely sends the Government’s Bill to committee for significant revision and amendment, this will soon become law in my state of Victoria.

The Victorian State Government last year presented a Bill that will dramatically change the relationship between Church and State. The ‘Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020’ aims to outlaw practices that do not fully and without question, affirm the current popular view of sexuality and gender. This includes consensual prayers with individuals and conversations with individuals. Breaking this law may result in up to 10 years imprisonment and finds of up to $200,000. The Bill received majority vote in the Legislative Assembly late 2020, and it will be debated and voted on next week in the Legislative Council.

To be clear, as I and others have said a 1000 times, everyone agrees that in a few fringe groups there used to be dreadful practices used on people who were asking for help. No one takes issue with opposing aversion practice. However, this Bill extends far beyond the banning of these few and archaic practices. The Victorian Government aims to outlaw what are basic, historical, and Biblical Christian views and practices.

Associate Professor Neil Foster is among those in the legal fraternity issuing significant concerns about this Governmental overreach, 

“The scope of this legislation goes well beyond the specific ‘injury’ offences that are created (while these are problematic enough),” comments Neil Foster, Associate Professor in law at the University of Newcastle. “The bill creates a powerful set of bureaucratic mechanisms by which religious groups presenting the classic teachings of their faith may be subject to investigation and ‘re-education’ by human rights officers.

“It arguably makes the presentation of some aspects of Biblical teaching unlawful if the aim of that teaching is to encourage someone to follow that teaching in their own life. Despite the appearance of addressing horrific and oppressive quasi-psychological procedures inflicted on young people, the bill goes well beyond this laudable goal, and will make it unlawful to provide assistance in obeying the Bible to those who explicitly and with full understanding request such help. Enactment of this legislation would be a serious mistake.”

There are legitimate concerns being raised not only by lawyers, but also feminist groups, LGBT people, and religious leaders. Instead of tackling a rare issue with precision, the Government is bring out the flame thrower and setting the entire bush of fire. And then, when reasonable minds challenge the Premier, he unfortunately responds with sledging and accusing fellow Victorians as being bigoted and hateful. Instead of civil conversations on important issues, we face insult and slander. 

Returning to Daniel for a moment (the Bible man not the Premier). In that famed story about the lion’s den we should note that Daniel wasn’t praying to God in front of the royal court. He wasn’t running down mainstream Babylon with placards and praying with a megaphone. He wasn’t pining anyone against the wall and praying without their consent. He was in his own home, praying in accord with his convictions. For Babylon’s cultural police, who didn’t wait 2400 years for the invention of Big Brother, they sent in their spies and informants to catch out those who dare defied the religious orders of the Government. This will soon be Victoria. Churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, and homes will need to begin planning for this kind of eventuality. 

Parents are targeted in this Bill

It is not only religious groups who are being threatened, this Bill impacts health professionals and even parents. 

Assoc Prof Foster details how the Bill poses genuine threats to personal conversations and relationships, 

“I see nothing in the bill to say it might not apply to conversations within a family context or just between friends. In section 9 of my latest blog, I refer to the deliberately obscure ‘example’ that is put into the Family Violence legislation involving a child critiquing a parent for their same-sex attraction. [This is part of the legislative package with the conversion bill] The example is there, I think, to make it clear that –

    • The Family Violence law can be extended to the obviously analogous case of a parent urging a child not to engage in same-sex activity; but also
    • To illustrate the fact that the sort of behaviour caught by the bill can happen between family members! Now the amending provision itself only operates for the FV Act, but as it is part of a “package” of amendments, I think it sends a signal that conversion or suppression practices (CSP) can be carried out by family members.
    • I do say in Section 1 [of the blog] that the relevant exception protecting health practitioners ‘does not apply to counselling or advice given by pastors or fellow congregation members or teachers or parents’.”

“In short, a CSP can be ‘conduct’ (a one-off incident), under section 5 it is not limited to being carried out by any organisational office holder, and under section 9 we see that ‘a person’ contravenes the Act if ‘the person’ carries out a CSP.

“So, yes, the prohibitions will apply to someone who is a family member or a friend.”

Victoria in Danger of losing secular status.

A secular society is no longer secular once it interferes with church and religion, to the staggering extent that this Bill will orchestrate. Instead of the State and Churches working together as partners for the good of society, the State is now assuming the role of Archbishop and laying down dictates as to what religious people may and may not believe teach and practice.

We are witnessing the erosion of the healthy distinction between state and church. The hypocrisy is all the more egregious when we recall how mainstream media and social commentators damned Scott Morrison to hell for offering a prayer during the bushfire crisis last season. But when Victoria’s Premier, Daniel Andrews, spoke in Parliament and decried religious ‘bigots’ (that is, those who actually believe the Bible) the Premier was praised.

While we must be concerned about the recent rise of Christian nationalism in some parts of the world, we should also be concerned with the rise of civic religion. The current Victorian Government has made past overtures to take control of religious groups, this latest attempt looks as though it will be successful. Do secular Victorians really want Government dictating religious prayers and conversations? 

A healthy and pluralistic society shouldn’t want to prescribe laws banning prayer or religious conversations on issues like sexuality and gender. But such is the situation now facing Victoria. Those who in 2017 preached that same sex marriage will never lead to religious discrimination have proven to be false prophets. 

Daniel (again, the Bible man not the Victorian politician!) faced this dilemma in Babylon. Would he follow an outrageous law of an authoritarian figure or will he continue to trust and obey the God he loves? Would he pray in line with Governmental directives or will pray in accord with his convictions? Yes, it seems so insanely ridiculous to even pose the question; but that’s Victoria in 2021. Of course, there have been many Governments since Babylon who’ve tried to control the prayers of the people. Does anyone remember Henry VIII, bloody Mary, and James 1? History teaches us that in the long run, it doesn’t bode well for Government or society to tell people of faith how to pray or preach or counsel.

No Victorian is being thrown into a lions den, but years of imprisonment and enormous fines are on the offering for those who hold to their religious convictions and seek to share the good news with others. Parents face having children taken from them. If criminal charges don’t stick, there is a civil tribunal waiting for us. Should a complaint be made, even anonymously, that is enough for Government bureaucrats to kick into gear and have religious people and parents dragged before a tribunal and even forced to attend reeducation courses. 

I am calling on members of Victoria’s Legislative Council to delay vote on this highly contentious Bill, and to receive amendments. 

I commend these sensible amendments that are being proposed by Mark Sneddon, Executive Director, Institute for Civil Society here in Melbourne.

Proposed Amendments to the Bill

  • The Bill should only ban “conversion practices” directed to a child or to a person with impaired capacity, but not to an adult who has consented to the practice.
  • The bill should not ban conduct by family and community members but restrict the ban to  conduct by health services providers
  • The bill should protect conduct by health service providers which in their reasonable professional judgment is clinically appropriate
  • The provisions dealing with change or suppression of gender identity should be removed because they are incoherent and they will push clinicians into an uncritical affirmation approach to gender transition
  • The bill should permit communication of religious beliefs to all people and permit religious counselling, pastoral care and prayer for people over 16 with informed consent and the right to leave
  • VEOHRC’S powers under the bill should be the same as under the equal opportunity act in dealing with discrimination and exclude new compulsory powers and issuing enforcement notices

Melbourne 2020: the year that undid our hubris

The Victorian Government gave the infamous hotel quarantine program the code name, Operation Soteria. In light of the disastrous outcomes from the program, ‘goddess of rescue’ is hardly a suitable name. Eris seems far more appropriate. 

Melbourne is slowly emerging from the worst disaster in her 185 year history. The past nine months have revealed Melbourne’s heart and the diagnosis is not altogether positive. Good has been uncovered and also much that should concern anyone who knows that a malfunctioning heart is likely to cause future grief. 

The Covid 19 pandemic in Victoria has thus far resulted in over 20,000 cases and 781 deaths. In terms of global statistics, these numbers are relatively small, but of course, in June the State was approaching almost zero cases, following a small first wave. Something like 90% of all Victoria’s COVID-19 cases and almost all the deaths occurred in the second wave. Since July 100,000s of Victorians have lost their jobs, 1000s of businesses may never reopen, the economy is bleeding a $1 billion every week. The impact on individual lives can scarcely be measured. The pandemic has compounded mental health issues, children’s education impacted, churches closed.

The pandemic has revealed our human nature in ways that we may find uncomfortable. Once the second wave has left our shores, I imagine millions of Melbournians wanting to move on and to leave behind 2020 as we would an awful nightmare. Relief is a powerful medicine, albeit a placebo. Yet, 2020 has exposed realities about our societal health that we would do well to carefully and humble examine.

1. Self Preservation or Self Sacrifice?

The pandemic began with hoards of people rushing to supermarkets and emptying shelves of essential goods. The situation deteriorated to the point that supermarkets set aside the first hour of each day for our senior citizens so that they would not go without because of the surge of people fighting over toilet paper and grabbing the final bag of rice or pasta.

We became a state of dobbers. In May alone, Victorian police received 80,000 calls from Victorians who were reporting on their fellow citizens for allegedly breaking restrictions in one way or another. I am not excusing those who foolishly think they can live in disregard for the law. Yes, there were cases of people being ignorant of the rules, but more often this exposed a selfish impulse. However, the fact we have accumulated 100,000s of complaints over the course, and that the Government urged us to betray our neighbours, is quite telling. 

In the meantime, many other Victorians worked tirelessly to fight the virus and keep people alive. Working long hours and putting themselves at risk to care for the sick and for those who are most vulnerable. 

There is a telling disparity between those who preference self-preservation and those who choose self-sacrifice.

2. Fear or Love?

Whether we like it or not, the base motivator that has been used to control behaviour during the pandemic is fear. Government press conferences and public commentary were primed with scaring people into submission. 

Let it be said, it is foolish to think COVID-19 is not a serious and deadly disease. It is no Spanish flu or Bubonic Plague, but the virus is nonetheless highly contagious and is life threatening for the elderly and people with preexisting medical conditions. Without diminishing these facts, it has been interesting to watch the narrative used to force compliance. There is little talk about loving our neighbour, instead, many threats have been made and cataclysmic proclamations given to funnel the population into ‘doing the right thing’. 

Fear can be a useful tool. We should not discount it altogether. Even the Bible speaks of fear as being the correct response to particular scenarios. However, what does this prevalent public narrative say about our society? What kind of city are we living in and raising our children in where the threat of punishment rather than compassion has become the normal modus operandi?

3. Suspicion or Trust?

This leads to a third observation, who do we trust. On the one hand, reactions to the Government’s position on COVID-19 soon fell into political partisanship, and conspiracy theorists didn’t let this opportunity slide either. Yet overall, Victorians followed the rules. This may be a sign that we trust the Government or that we’re afraid(I suspect the truth is a mix of both). 

The speed at which Victorians gave up basics freedoms was interesting to watch. The willingness in which we have filed away the State’s Human Rights Charter probably speaks to a combination of self-sacrifice and fear. Once upon a time, we would look at the world’s most authoritarian regimes, perplexed at how people give up freedoms to the State. A question for Victorians is, for what other reasons are we prepared to accept rigid limitations on personal liberty? Are there other scenarios in which we would lay down our freedoms to associate, work, play, and live? While Australia was built on certain myths, these are more fiction than fact, and among them is our belief in independence and self making. 

This is an uncomfortable truth, Victoria’s COVID-19 response was built on the premise of trust, but rather that of suspicion. The Government anticipated that people won’t follow the best medical advice and that people won’t follow reasonable measures. Their suspicions had warrant. 

Suspicion can be a powerful delusion and for others, it is a source for angry repose. In some circumstances, it can also serve as a wise friend. Unfortunately, our suspicious minds have led to an ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy. This absolutism has controlled much of the rhetoric causing needless divisions in the community and had the effect of pushing aside reasonable and respected voices from the medical fraternity and from the Melbourne world of law, business, and economics.

The Victorian people deserve to know the truth of what happened in Melbourne hotels, and yet it seems increasingly likely that we will remain in the dark. 

A few have fallen on their sword while also being stabbed in the back. Apologies have been offered, blame shifted, and still no one seems to be at fault. It is quite extraordinary that in the case of the worst disaster in our State’s history no one is taking responsibility. How can the State expect its people to behave with integrity when its leaders play blame games in order to save their own political skin? 

This has been a difficult year for everyone. For those who have lost loved ones, the pain is excruciating. For those who face financial ruin, the road ahead is long and uncertain. If anything, 2020 is a rehearsal for times that are yet ahead, and challenges that will shake our city to the very foundations. 

We need a better rescue plan

“Operation Soteria” proved to be an ironic and even sardonic name. 

To be fair, what COVID-19 reveals about Melbourne did not begin with the pandemic, rather it shone a light on our preexisting condition. To build relationships on trust, to do right out of love, and to self sacrifice: these are noble virtues and they are far too rare and absent in our city.

During the inquiry into the hotel quarantine, the Bible was held aloft, and yet sadly its message is all too often ignored. Instead of making promises on the Bible perhaps we should open its pages, then read and follow what it says. On the sacred page is a story of the original and best, Operation Soteria. It’s not another Greek myth or Melbourne fiction, but the account of the Son of God whose trust triumphed over worldly suspicion, whose love conquers all fear, and who laid down his life for the sake of his enemies. 

Melbourne has long turned its gaze away from the person of Jesus Christ. As we seek to recover surely it’s time to revisit him and to discover the One who truly rescues. As our city has faced the pandemic our foundations have been proven frail. I suspect that as Summer arrives and in our desperation for normalcy we’ll try to forget the year that has been. I understand the sentiment, but there are harder and deeper lessons to learn, ones which require us to look beyond even health and economic issues and into the very soul of our city. 

The prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming Christ,

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;

    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—

    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

    the Spirit of counsel and of might,

    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—

and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,

    or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,

    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

 He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;

    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt

    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.”

(Isaiah 9:1-5)


This article is a revised version of a post from September

The Christmas Peace of 1914

Christmas 2018 my family visited the famed ground of the 1914 Christmas truce near Ypres.

Here’s a short excerpt from ‘Symphony from the Great War’, where I consider this paradoxical moment in time,

“The field today doesn’t look much like a place for sport. Then again, neither did it in 1914. While the ground is still soggy and uneven, in 1914 it was also filled with shell holes, barbed wire, unexploded bombs, and human body parts. War is an ironic and awfully sardonic affair. “Silent night” hovered over a battlefield. The message of “peace on earth” found a temporary home on that violent soil of Flanders.

The unofficial Christmas armistice lasted for one day, although along some other sectors of the Front, troops were reluctant to fire their weapons for several days. It required officers to threaten their men with disciplinary action, should they not repent of fraternising with the enemy. A snippet of grace amid continual bloodletting. A single day of peace during four years of unspeakable suffering. But like the sudden alarm clock that arrests a serene night’s sleep, peace evaporated with the inevitable, although probably reluctant, first shot fired.

This famous soccer pitch can be visited today, as we did two days before Christmas in 2018. Two markers note what took place on the field on Christmas Day 1914. One is located on the very edge of the ground, placed by the famed khaki chums (an organisation of army enthusiasts). Across the road, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) unveiled a humble yet befitting memorial on the centenary of that game with a modest sculpture. Lying in front is a box filled with soccer balls of all colours, although now faded and deflated with the seasons. Standing behind is a fir tree decorated for Christmas.

What makes this field pertinent for Campbell history is that this is where the 35th Battalion ascended on the morning of the battle of Messines. That morning when the whistles blew, it wasn’t to start a football match, but to announce the launch of an attack; what General Monash referred to as his Magnus Opus.”