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.”

A book for Remembrance day

“Whatever the rationale that attempts to explain his actions, William Campbell was no Ajax or Achilles. He was awarded no bravery medals and he was never mentioned in despatches. It is a strange reminder that the determinator of immortality are those who record names, places, and deeds. Our history books remember feats of bravery. Our war memorials recognise the dead, although we don’t know with certainty how they all died. There is a certain reading between the lines that is required. We have adopted Thucydides’ posture, “For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war.”

From ‘Symphony from the Great War’. Available now on Amazon for only $6.99

COVID anger, frustration, and recalibrating our hearts

Earlier this week a young woman was refused permission to attend her own father’s funeral in Queensland. The daughter lives in Canberra where there have been zero COVID-19 cases for two months. There are not 5 active cases or even 1. For 60 days there has been 0 cases. The Queensland Government initially gave the woman permission to travel to Queensland to visit her dying father, but only after she was quarantined for 14 days. During that time her father died. When she asked for permission to attend the funeral she was refused, and even informed that she should no longer be in the State? Why? Because her stated reason for travelling to Queensland was to visit a dying parent, it was not for attending his funeral.

The story gets worse because the Prime Minister contacted Queensland’s Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, asking for special dispensation for the young woman to attend the funeral with her family. The response was for the Premier to take aim at Scott Morrison in public and in the Queensland Parliament by accusing him of ‘bullying’. She then suggested that the decision was not hers to make but that of Queensland’s Chief health officer Jeanette Young.

Speaking of which, last night, Dr Young explained why Queensland is giving exemptions to some people. She said, “I’ve given exemptions for people in entertainment and film because that’s bringing a lot of money into this state.”

The double standards are pretty gross. I understand that no approach to the pandemic is going to be always clean, clear, and consistent. There are competing issues and needs, but in trying to protect human life we are in danger of dehumanising real people. This is not a zero-sum game. There are genuine and vital competing issues that require attention and balancing. When grieving families cannot be together, when a couple cannot marry, and when mental health issues are considered a lesser problem, we as a society are skirting a dangerous path. I fear that as politicians make decisions, hubris take control and that the science and advice from the breadth of the community takes a back seat.

Take another example from this week. I don’t agree with the Roman Catholic practice of the ‘last rites’ but I know how important it is for Roman Catholics. In Victoria, priests are not permitted to give the last rites to dying parishioners. This is a startling infringement on religious freedom. Governments should not exist to strangle the freedoms of their citizens but to protect and preserve them.*

I am not having a go at any single Government. It is all too easy for people to politicise the pandemic. I appreciate that Governments and their advisors are under are extraordinary stress and they are facing daily and often competing issues. This is one of the reasons my church is regularly praying for them. But of what value is it in preserving a State if the very means of salvation requires the demolition of communities? The question is not without warrant, what if the cure is worse than the disease?

It is okay to be angry at the decisions made in Queensland and of their woeful follow up defence about profiting from Hollywood. However, do not sin in your anger. Instead, “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15). Indeed Romans ch.12 gives the Christian much practical wisdom for dealing with difficult times. I find that when I’m being swept up in the emotion of people’s stories and the news that frustrates and disappoints, I need to turn my eyes back to the Bible. Scripture has this powerful effect of recalibrating the heart and adjusting the lens through which I measure hope and the ways I ought to see people. I encourage you to do the same.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:9-21)

We can long for Governments to behave in such a way, but as Christians, we must, and we ought to begin living this out without waiting for others to first treat us well. Remember God, he didn’t wait for us to act rightly before showing us grace and compassion; it is because he first loved us.

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 6:-8)

—————————————————————————-

*The Victorian Premier has just announced that he will rectify the issue over performing the last rites in Victoria


A Response to Victoria’s Roadmap

Yesterday was Father’s Day. it was also the day when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced the roadmap to the State’s recovery. 

Instead of enjoying a family lunch and celebrating the usual quirkiness of Dads, many households were attentive to the livestream of the Government’s announcement. 

Some Victorians are pleased with the proposed roadmap. Some Victorians are angry. Many if not the majority of Victorians are frustrated (whether agreeing or disagreeing with the Premier’s roadmap). There are Victorians who are enjoying the opportunities arising from lockdown (ie more time with children, working from home), while many others are struggling to cope with loneliness, anxiety, and economic devastation. 100,000s of Victorians have lost their jobs, 1000s of businesses will close down, and dozens of churches, if not 100s, will not survive.

As of next Sunday it will have been 6 months since our Church has met. Most school children have only had 3 weeks of onsite learning since April, and the Premier admitted yesterday it’s possible that children won’t return this year (apart from Prep-2, and VCE). 

There have been 675 COVID-19 related deaths in Victoria and close to 20,000 cases. The vast majority of these deaths and diagnoses have happened during the second wave. 

What’s next for churches in Victoria?

For Churches, the best case scenario is that groups of 10 will be permitted to meet outdoors from late October. To reach this stage, the entire State must average fewer than 5 new cases/day for a period of 14 days and have a total less than 5 cases with no known source. 

If Victoria has zero new cases for 14 days, from November 23rd  churches can open their doors and recommence services according to the Government’s density quotient.

A return to normalcy then requires 28 days of zero new cases and zero active cases in the entire State, and zero outbreaks of concern in other parts of Australia. 

In short, a medium sized Church like Mentone Baptist is almost certainly not going to meet as a whole until 2021. Based on the Government’s  plan, it may well be Easter before Churches are gathering as usual, even later. 

If this news causes you grief, as I hope it does, then pray for God’s grace and mercy, and observe the best medical advice that is being presented to the public.

Christians (and Victorians generally) are today sifting through the fine print of the Government’s roadmap and we’re also assessing our own thoughts and feelings toward the fair grim announcements that have been made for the State. I want to encourage us to avoid certain pitfalls and to stay on course in a way that honours the God and doesn’t diminish the Gospel.

  1. Don’t be an Eliphaz. 

This first word is largely for those not living in Victoria, but I suspect it’s also true for we Victorians as well. 

During a pandemic there are thousands of armchair experts, who apparently know without question what the right pathway should be. There are plenty of Job’s friends offering their thoughts and proverbial manure on social media. In contrast, I appreciated two Christian brothers from Sydney who instead of posting annoying platitudes about a situation there’re not facing, they called me and asked how am I going, and how are people feeling in Melbourne right now. When I told them, they prayed. I am thankful to God for friends whose names are not Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.

2. Pray for those in authority.

I don’t care if you voted for Daniel Andrews or not, it is the duty of Christians to pray for our Governments. Ask the God of grace to grant our political leaders and health officers the wisdom they need to do serve the State and make decisions for the good of our society. A Christian may espouse vociferous  political views, but it’s little more than noise pollution if it doesn’t begin with practicing prayer for our Governments. 

3. Follow the Rules

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:1-6)

Must I agree with every rule before I obey the law? Must I understand everything exhaustively before I comply? The answer is a clear no. 

There are genuine issues relating to extending the State of Emergency powers and to banning protests. Any citizen who takes democratic freedoms seriously, should ask questions (I say this while not supporting the current protests in Victoria), but there are constructive ways to do this and unwise (and selfish) ways.

The circumstances in which a Christian disobeys a Government are rare and exceptional, and we have not entered that territory during the pandemic. I have made it abundantly clear that such a scenario may arise in the future here in Victoria (cf the proposed ban on conversion practices), but we have not reached that point, far from it. We must not confuse our political preferences with Gospel convictions. We must not conflate our personal desires with Biblical mandates. 

4. Love and serve your neighbour

Enormous numbers of Victorians are struggling emotionally, mentally, and financially. We shouldn’t assume that Government will or can care for every need. Do you know of someone who could do with a phone call or a meal? Let’s not neglect the people whom God brings into our lives and with whom we have opportunity and the means to assist

5. Avoid false binaries

As a pastor it concerns me when I hear Christians slipping into political lanes and becoming stuck and unable to critique their own preferences and political heroes. By all means have a preference but don’t assign allegiance to political groups with the kind of zeal and commitment that you ought only to have for God. If a Christian is wanting to have a Gospel impact in Victoria right now, stop mimicking Labor or Liberal or Greens. 

It was fascinating (and frustrating) to engage in one Facebook thread yesterday. It was probably unwise of me to comment, but my intention was to help explain not inflame his post. A Facebook friend from interstate was trying to defend the Victorian Premier. He suggested that,

 “The best science we have says movement restrictions are what’s needed in a major outbreak. The government enacts movement restrictions. The science projects a resulting reduction in cases, and that’s precisely what happens. The same science advises a cautious pace for reopening, if further outbreaks are to be avoided. The government designs a process following the science”

Is this true? I suggested to my friend that leaving aside predictable political mudslinging, there is a growing number of medical experts who believe there is a valid and alternative roadmap to the one announced by the Premier. I pointed out that mainstream media have now interviewed several high ranking medical experts in Victoria who are convinced there’s another way. In addition, last week a group of doctors wrote a letter to the Premier, offering a plan to move the State forward. Over 500 doctors have now signed this letter, including several of the most senior doctors in the country. 

All this should be fairly straightforward and uncontroversial. Well, I was wrong!

The logic applied by various respondents on the thread was quite astonishing. At first, I was told that these doctors mustn’t be real doctors or perhaps they are anti science doctors (which is kind of weird!). When I noted  that the 500+ doctors include some of the most respected medical names in Victoria, the next line of attack was to say, “but they’re not epidemiologists”. Apparently, the only doctors who have anything worthwhile to say about a pandemic are epidemiologists. Leaving aside that strange assumption, I then shared an article in The Age where three Professors of epidemiology expressed concerns over the Government’s direction. Not even this wasn’t enough to convince these people that the science isn’t an infallible papal edict. I was then told that the views of these epidemiologists is irrelevant because they are not working for the Government. 

Nowhere did I make a partisan statement, but I was accused of being political. Nowhere did I suggest the Government’s modelling was inaccurate or that the State’s Health Officer’s conclusions were incorrect. I simply noted that there isn’t consensus among the scientific community as to how we should proceed for dealing with the pandemic. For stating these simple facts and demonstrably showing these facts, it was insinuated that I am science denier!  

My point in sharing this example is twofold. First, if as a Christian your political commitments don’t allow you to question or critique your own side, it is a problem (whether it’s right or left or up a gumtree). Second, please avoid false binaries. False binaries add to the ugly polarisation that now dominates our society. It doesn’t lift public conversation and it doesn’t honour the Lord Jesus. In addition, as in the above example, such myopism amounts to burdening science with an absolutism that it cannot sustain.

The Age’s chief reporter Chip Le Grand, said last night, “Daniel Andrews has placed great faith in epidemiological modelling which, by its nature, is an inexact science. He should start placing more in business, industry and others with a significant stake in Victoria’s social and economic revival.”

How can Le Grand say such a thing about the modelling? Le Grand understands what doctors appreciate although it is sometimes politically dangerous for them to admit it in public. In fact Le Grand was repeating the views expressed by Melbourne University epidemiologist Tony Blakely, who co-authored the very modelling that the Andrews Government is using! 

That does not mean that the modelling is faulty or shouldn’t be used, far from it. My point is, don’t attribute truth claims to data and information that even the experts say is unwarranted.

6. Ignore Conspiracy theories

The reality is, COVID-19 is a new disease and the best minds around the globe are still trying to understand how the disease works and how to best treat it and how to guide communities into living with it. None of these uncertainties are reason though for turning to or promoting conspiracy theories. It is worrying to hear Christians espousing conspiracy theories, arguing that COVID-19 is a hoax and so on. Most Christians don’t believe these crazy rumours, but some do. I’ve written at length about conspiracy theories this year, and so I’ll defer to those articles. In summary though, it is sinful for Christians to promote speculations and dangerous theories. 

 “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly”. (1 Timothy 4:6)

“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.” (Colossians 2:8)

7. Put your hope in the Lord

Here is a wonderful that is worth meditating on this week. Psalm 130,

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;

    Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.

I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.

He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.”

This Psalmist’s focus reflects a healthy and Christian response to a pandemic. We lament the suffering we see around us and that we experience. We listen to the authorities and follow their directives, but our hope is found in God and his unfailing love.

Times of crises reveal our heart’s deepest desires and where we ultimately place our trust. Trials test us and they expose our fears, foibles, and sins.

Without question, 2020 is a test. What is life really about? In whom am I truly depending for hope? Am I satisfied with materialism or hedonism, or will I let God be God?

Pandemics rarely change people, rather, they bring our bring our true character to the surface. Let us not be found wanting or wandering during this pandemic. 1 Peter is a letter written to Christians who are experiencing exile. They were away from home and the life they wanted to lead. Peter says to them, 

“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

If you get this perspective right, and keep our eyes focused on Christ, it will have the remarkable effect of aiding us to avoid conspiracy theories and false binaries, and to practice humble, loving, and God pleasing lives in Victoria, for the sake of our community.


The Australian newspaper has today published this important article, with interviews of scientists who have been behind the modelling being used by the Victorian Government –

“World-leading scientists linked to the modelling Daniel Andrews has used to lock down Melbourne say the research has been misrepresented and have urged the Premier to rethink the restrictions as his virus ­suppression targets are impossible to meet.

Melbourne University’s dean and head of medicine is urging the Victorian Premier to rerun the model with more ­realistic data that could allow an earlier move to ­restrictions being lifted….”

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/politics/professors-message-for-daniel-andrews-redo-the-coronavirus-modelling/news-story/5cf65533b11cce3ef23f3cfedd247143