No Sean Winter, you are wrong about the Bible and abortion

Do you believe the Bible supports abortion? I’m not asking whether you support abortion or not, and to what extent. My interest here is more narrow. As you read the Bible, is your impression that the Scriptures advocate abortion or speak against abortion?

Photo by Melike Benli on Pexels.com

Sean Winter, from the University of Divinity, argues in The Conversation, that Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion is a cultural and political stance. It has nothing to do with the Bible.

I’ll admit, I was taken back when I read Winter’s argument. Even now as I write, I am stunned by his colander approach to the Bible. Winter makes some effort to quote many of the Bible verses that Christians refer to, but for the most part, he simply throws them away as irrelevant to any discussion on abortion. For someone who repeatedly states with imperial determination, ‘the Bible says nothing’, he offers virtually no interaction with the body of teaching in Scripture that speaks to the issue. Quoting and then dismissing Bible verses isn’t an argument. 

Winter’s (mis)use of the Bible deserves a response, not because I think there is any weight in his argument but because the issue of abortion matters, women matter, children matter, and what the Bible teaches matters.

His central thesis is, “Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion is a cultural and political stance. It has nothing to do with the Bible.”

The article reads like a classic example of, I know what my conclusion is, therefore I’m going to do my utmost to squeeze Christian theology into my preconceived preferences.

Does the Bible use the word abortion? No.  Does this mean that the Bible is silent on the issue? Absolutely not. There are many words not found in the Bible and yet the Bible speaks clearly and wonderfully into these situations.  For example, the word ‘Trinity’ doesn’t appear and yet the Triune God is the most foundational of all Christian beliefs. Christian theology is rarely built on a single word or sentence from the Bible but properly takes into account the entire counsel of God and rightly attributes words and teachings according to their context in God’s schema that is salvation history. 

Let’s take a few examples, 

Of Psalm 139 Winter suggests, 

“What the Bible does contain are some verses which seem to refer to the status of the unborn fetus. The most famous and commonly cited is Psalm 139:13–16, a poem in which the Psalmist expresses the view that God created them in the womb.”

Winter offers virtually no argument, he simply discounts this famous Psalm as offering no contribution to the subject of abortion.  Let’s examine the verses in question,

The Psalmist is adoring God and recognising God’s exquisite craftmanship, and he shouts what is true of all children, 

“For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.” (Psalm 139:13-16)

The child inside the womb is a child. This child is God’s creation and known to God, they are not a mere clump of cells and nonperson. There is no point at which the embryo is not human life and worthy of living. There is no artificial date set, as though they became a person at 12 weeks or at birth. The beauty and wonder of personhood is observed and considered from conception, ‘when I was made in the secret place’.

When it comes Jeremiah 1:5, Winter again wants us to think ‘there is nothing to see here’.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

    before you were born I set you apart;

    I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

At the very least, this verse attributes Divine value and purpose to Jeremiah, which exists even before the point of his conception. Far from adding nothing to the conversation on abortion, Jeremiah 1:5 heightens the importance and dignity of the child carried in his mother’s womb.  

Winter then resurrects the worn-out trope, ‘Jesus said nothing’. This line of thought is sometimes brought out of the cupboard when someone wants to argue that Christianity supports homosexual relations: Jesus never said anything, therefore the act is morally good and Christians should support it. It doesn’t take much scrutiny to realise how tenuous is this argument. For example, when it comes to marriage, Jesus affirmed the Genesis paradigm, that marriage is for a man and a woman and all other sexual relations is porneia.

Winter asserts, 

“Jesus isn’t remembered as saying anything about the unborn. Paul is silent on the issue.

Attempts to claim otherwise are ideologically informed cases of special pleading.”

On the question of Jesus and abortion, Winter’s logic can as easily be reversed. Jesus never spoke in support of killing unborn children, and so “attempts to claim otherwise are ideologically informed cases of special pleading.”

As we read the Gospels in the New Testament what we find with Jesus is that he repeatedly and consistently affirmed the value of human life, from the youngest to the oldest. Jesus was known for his welcoming of and love of little children. Jesus loved the vulnerable in society and taught his disciples to do likewise. Who is more vulnerable than a little baby not yet born?

Perhaps the Bible’s clearest word on the topic of abortion is the 6th Commandment, 

“You shall not murder”.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reaffirmed God’s law, including this prohibition, do not murder. If Jesus upholds the commandment on murder and murder is killing innocent human life, then it’s not ‘special pleading’ in believing Jesus disproves of abortion. That is the natural and right way to read the Bible. The only way for Winter to get around this teaching is if he believes the child in the womb isn’t a person. On this point, Winter seems unwilling to tell his readers. He is quite absolute about some things, but for some reason, he’s not able to tell us whether the embryo is a person or not. 

Although, at one point he makes this rather odd statement, 

“The Christian rejection of abortion seems to have been predicated on assumptions the fetus is a person”

Ummm…yeah, and it’s not an assumption, it is a biological fact. Is Sean Winter seriously suggesting that the foetus is not a person? Before ultrasounds, some abortion proponents could trot out that view, but we can now see with our own eyes how false that myth is. It just happens that the Bible was already right in what it describes about the unborn. 

The Bible is clear on these two factors: the unborn is a person and murder is wrong. Combining these two teachings of the Bible which is the logical thing to do, it’s apparent that Sean Winter is not even close to finding support for his thesis. Again, he may find a little traction amongst those who are searching for religious support for abortion, but even a half-measured reading of the Bible demonstrates that he falls shorter than teeing off a 5 par hole with a breadstick.

Once Winter has finished dismantling nothing from the Bible, he then proceeds to whitewash the known views of early Christians who consistently saw abortion and infanticide as sin. 

Early Christians were renowned for saving newborns who were unwanted and left to die from exposure and starvation. Abortion was an acceptable practice in many ancient civilisations but not among Jewish and Christian communities. In the ancient world, abortion was not always successful and doctors couldn’t discern the sex of the baby until birth. Hence, at birth, many little girls were left to die. Christians took them in and loved and raised them. Why? Because it was a political maneuver? Or perhaps they were convinced from the Christian faith that saving the lives of the littlest children was right.

The first century Jewish text, Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides 184–186 (c. 50 B.C.–A.D. 50) says that “a woman should not destroy the unborn in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as a prey.” Christians adopted the Jewish view of the unborn, as they did with many ethical principles from the Old Testament. 

The Didache 2.2 (c. A.D. 85–110) commands, “thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.”

The Letter of Barnabas 19.5 (c. A.D. 130), said: “You shall not abort a child nor, again, commit infanticide.”

500 years before the invention of the ultrasound, John Calvin said this of Exodus 21:22

“The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy…if it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light,”

The position Calvin spells out from Scripture is today demonstrably proven through scientific technology. The living mass growing in the mother’s womb is indeed a human being.

One doesn’t need to be a gynaecologist or obstetrician or theologian to realise that the Bible is big on life and takes a very dim view of killing innocence. Winter is so far off the mark. “Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion is a cultural and political stance. It has nothing to do with the Bible”? Not even close. The Christian view of life has everything to do with the Bible and everything to do with Jesus. Yes, this has political implications, as does every worldview. Winter’s claims are big and will no doubt be taken up as truth for some readers, but they are as false as the yeti and bunyip. 

Winter’s most significant transgression is how he snuffs out hope. By stripping the Bible of its meaning about life and killing, Winter rips the hope of Christ who offers forgiveness and new life. In recasting abortion as no longer an issue for God, Winter’s position leaves women without the hope that someone is able and willing to remove the guilt and pain they carry. I understand that it is currently popular to boast about abortion, but I also know the profound scars that are left behind. The Gospel is good news because Jesus sees our sins and he loves to forgive and restore. For Sean Winter to take away the need for forgiveness and restoration, is simply cruel and unbiblical. 

What should we think of overturning Roe v Wade?

On June 24th 2022 the Supreme Court of the United States overruled Roe V Wade, and thus returning the question of abortion to the States. The below piece was written almost two months prior to the decision in light of the leaking of the draft majority opinion. The observations made and the points argued remain unchanged in light of the decision.

———————————————-

There are quite literally millions of strong opinions and emotions being expressed right now about the future of Roe v Wade. By no means am I attempting to say everything or even to offer the final word, but as an outsider, there is a message that I wish to convey to my American friends and even to Aussies, for the issue of abortion is also present here in Australia. But before I comment on the leak coming from the Supreme Court, I want to draw attention to an ancient, yet famous and important story.

Last Sunday our church started a new sermon series on the book of Exodus. I gave the series the title ‘Journeying Home’, as I think it captures the meaning of Exodus and the language used in Hebrews ch.11 that summarises the story’s theme and trajectory. 

Exodus begins with a violent and discordant juxtaposition: on the one hand, the LORD blesses his people and they multiply. From the 70 men and women who entered Egypt at the time of Joseph, generations later they now number more than a million, even more. At the same time, Pharaoh is threatened by the Israelites. He deems them a threat to social cohesion and cultural prosperity, and so he enslaves them. This strategy, while brutal, proves inadequate for God continues to bless the Israelites and their numbers increase. Pharaoh then sanctions the deaths of all newborn male infants. 

Two Hebrew women, Shiphrah and Puah, become heroes as they ignore Pharaoh’s decree and refuse to end the lives of these children. Frustrated that his ‘health plan’ was failing, he pushes further.  The river Nile may be the source of life for Egypt but Pharaoh turned it into a graveyard as thousands of babies were disposed of in the waters. 

I begin with the Exodus story, partly because it’s fresh in my mind and because we are rightly appalled by what we read. To hear of the mass destruction of the young should create outrage and tremendous grief. How can a civil authority feel so threatened by a people group that he gives licence for infant boys to be disposed of?  At the same time, Pharaoh was trying to protect a way of life; his autonomy, position and future. 

Of course, there are significant differences between Exodus and the United States and how the removal of the unborn or newborn is considered. However there is also an uncomfortable parallel, and that is, that the life of the young is conditional and the State can justify taking life when these little ones are deemed unwanted or a threat to personal progress and way of life. The evil perpetrated by Pharaoh does not stop at the fact that he sought to control an ethnic group, but that as an ethnic group these baby boys are human beings and therefore should never be treated as a commodity or considered as having less value or with fewer rights to live. 

United States Supreme Court Building. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. by Carol M Highsmith is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

Today, the news story dominating the United States is the future of abortion. Yesterday a draft majority opinion was leaked to Politico. Written by Justice Samuel Alito, the paper outlines the argument to overturn Roe v Wade. This is the first time in American history that a document of this nature has been leaked. Many people are interpreting this leak as a last-ditch attempt to pressure the Supreme Court Justices to change their minds and uphold Roe v Wade.

Overturning Roe v Wade does not mean abortion will become illegal throughout all of the USA. It does, however (and in my mind correctly) determine that the United States Constitution nowhere presents or protects abortion as a right. If it turns out that the draft opinion accurately reflects the final decision of the court, it means that the issue of abortion will return to the states and therefore will become the responsibility of the people to decide what laws will govern the unborn. In practice this will probably mean some states will restrict abortion (limiting it to pregnancies under 24 weeks or 15 weeks), others may prohibit abortion altogether,  while other states will continue to commit abortions even up to the point of birth.

Any decision made by the Supreme Court of the United States has no legal bearing on my part of the world, but the cultural influence of America eventually washes across the Pacific Ocean. My own home here in the State of Victoria is more akin to New York State where abortion is lauded, even for infants who reach 40 weeks. While I am thankful for any public and legal decision that weakens the abortion position, I am reminded of how far my own context has regressed from upholding the sanctity of human life.

In the 50 years since Roe v Wade, 60 million children in the United States have been taken from the womb. In Australia, 10,000s children are aborted every year, many because they are diagnosed as carrying a disability or disease, and many because the child is felt to be an impediment to the dreams and life preferences of the mother (and sometimes the father).  Over the weekend, a famous (now retired) Australian swimmer revealed how her coach once pressured her into having an abortion. These stories are far more common than we dare acknowledge. 

As news broke about Justice Samuel Alito’s draft statement, one could hear the palpable joy and thanksgiving among many Americans. One could also hear the anger of others. From President Biden to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren, and even to politicians and commentators across the globe, including the Mayor of London, there is an anxious and loud demand to keep what they crudely describe as a ‘woman’s health care’. 

Should Roe v Wade be overturned, and I pray that it is, I also pray that pro-life Americans will not gloat or pride themselves and disdain others. Instead, give humble thanks and continue to give due love and care to women who are grappling with unwanted or difficult pregnancies. Justified anger at the destruction of life can be coupled with compassion and commitment to helping those who struggle.

When the Supreme Court decision is finally announced and comes into effect, may the final word not be one of triumphalism or anger. The story of Exodus doesn’t end in chapter 1 and with a river of death. There is much grace and mercy to be found in the story of Exodus. There is atonement for sin and freedom found for those who cry out to God.  

The blood of 60 million babies cries out for justice; God hears.  There are also countless women who to this day grieve over their dead children and the decision they once made.  The wonderful news to which Exodus points and which is found in Jesus Christ, is a word of forgiveness and hope and restoration. The final word isn’t judgement. Forever guilt isn’t the only option. The God of the Passover, the God who rescued Israel from Egypt, is the same God whose only Son gave his life to remove every stain.

As Jesus himself said, during that most famous of Passover meals, on the night he was betrayed, 

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Christians, encourage and support the removal of Roe v Wade, and let us not lose sight of the Gospel of grace and forgiveness, which is our ultimate and only hope.

Shane Warne and our own mortality

I think it is fair to say that the whole nation is in mourning. The cricket world is in shock. At the age of 52, Shane Warne is dead. This legitimate Aussie larrikin and cricket legend (and legend is no exaggerated term) died suddenly on Friday night, apparently from a heart attack. To his family and friends, we cannot understand your loss and grief, and yet we want to mourn with you. Australia has lost one of our greatest ever sportsmen, and yet you have lost a Dad, a mentor, a friend.

It seems as though everyone has a Warnie connection. Conversations are taking place across our streets as neighbours and mates talk about some special moment with Shane Warne or memories of a special ball they witnessed him bowl at the G one day. I never met him, even though we share the same backyard. His local cricket club is one my boys play matches against regularly. Warnie’s former school is literally a one minute drive down the road from my church. Like millions of Aussies, I spent many a day admiring his cricketing genius as we watched him on the television or at the MCG.

The shock of Shane Warne’s unexpected death is doing more than creating conversations, The Age published this piece, “Warne’s untimely death a wake-up call for men in their 40s and 50s

Josh Gordon writes, “Shane Warne’s death from a suspected heart attack at the age of 52 has come as a wake-up call for middle aged-men across the country, many of whom took to WhatsApp groups Saturday morning to question their sense of mortality.”

Yes! Aussie men aren’t generally the most congenial visitors to the local GP, let alone verbalising their fears about mortality.  Visiting your local doctor for a check-up sounds like a pretty smart move. Now, I’m several years younger than Warnie and I’ve never smoked and never drunk the volume of alcohol that our famed Aussie cricketers are renowned for doing, but then again, avoiding such things is no guarantee of making a century. I mean, isn’t this the issue? None of us knows how long the innings will last. If Shane Warne’s passing has made you gasp in horror, talk to your GP. But let’s not stop with a stethoscope, blood pressure machine and cholesterol test. The question of our mortality goes well beyond what any doctor can observe and diagnose. 

The issue of human mortality is often laid hidden behind sterile rooms and hushed tones. When it comes to death, Aussies are not an upfront people. It’s not a subject for polite conversation. However, talk about death has become more urgent and real and public over the last two years. The COVID pandemic, especially in its earliest days, rushed forward the issue of mortality, entering people’s minds and even spoken on our lips. War in Ukraine is reminding us of the violent presence of death as does Afghanistan. And punctuating the thinly veiled pride and sense of masculine endurance is the sudden death of an Australian icon.

What are we to do with our mortality? How can we resolve this ignominious question? 

Death is the inevitable door that we long to avoid. For all our momentum in running away from the grave, we are all in fact heading along the same road: the great and the small,  the iconic and the average.

As a minister of a church, I have often spoken with people who are approaching death. There is always sadness for death is a great enemy, destroying life and ripping apart relationships. Rarely does anyone want the innings to end, perhaps ‘retire not out’ but no one wants to be bowled. Yet, we do not choose the day or manner of our dying, whether we are given time to assess our end or it comes suddenly and without warning. Ignoring the question will not fix it and save us. 

If it is time for middle-aged men to ‘wake up’ and get a check up, it is also wise and imperative that we find the ultimate answer to death. 

My Twitter feed has been filled with ‘RIP Shane Warne’ and ‘RIP Rodney Marsh’. When a person dies we often resort to this simple and hopeful phrase. I was reminded today of how the saying has been shortened.  The phrase was originally and purposefully longer: “Rest in peace and rise in glory”. This is a Christian idiom that harkens back to the early centuries AD and whose meaning is found in the Bible and rests in the person and work of Jesus. As the Scripture says, 

“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Hebrews 10:27-28)

If this is indeed the time to evaluate our mortality, then may I suggest we need to go no further than the One who died and went to the grave, only to defeat death with resurrection life. You see, the answer is staring at us and has been for millennia. We have heard the words spoken at funerals, in school chapels and at church. These living and hope bringing words are found in every Gideon’s Bible and available to us on our smartphones. 

Young and old, men and women, cricket devotees and those who should be, if we are serious about answering the question of our own mortality, then believe the One who has gone ahead of us and conquered death for us, that it may not have the final word:

“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

Do I watch the Beijing Winter Olympics or not?

I’ll be honest, when it comes to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games I feel torn. In light of recent human abuses in China and the growing tensions over her intentions with Taiwan, and the wellbeing of tennis star Peng Shuai, several nations including Australia refused to send Government representatives to the games. I also have friends who have decided not to watch the Games as a form of protest. 

Politics has never been far from the Olympic Games. In 1968, two American sprinters took a stand against racism on the dais. The 1972 Games was marred by a terrorist attack against Jewish athletes. Nations boycotted the 1980 and 1984 Games due to the Cold War. Games in the 21st Century have been increasingly influenced by cultural movements. And of course, there is the infamous 1936 Berlin Games.

 

I saw a few ‘highlights’ from the Opening Ceremony and was floored by the reuse of John Lennon’s insipid song, Imagine. Leaving aside the fact that one must have very little imagination for trotting out this dribble again, but did others notice the palpable hypocrisy of having those words resound around the Bird’s Nest?

“You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world”

One might ask, but what of the Uyghur people? What of the treatment of Christians? What of the military threats facing Taiwan? Hong Kong? Perhaps the CCP read ‘join us’ and ‘the world will be as one,’ and assumed Lennon was talking about the Communist utopian dream!

After all,  Imagine is a fitting anthem for the Chinese Communist Party. The song is explicitly anti-religion, anti-pluralism, anti-God, and near nihilist in its agenda. 

Leaving aside the bizarrely befitting opening ceremony song, I’ve been trying to figure out whether I watch the games or not. To be honest, I’ve been feeling pretty blah about a number of the recent Olympic Games. Indeed, what is one to do about the Soccer World Cup hosted by Qatar later in the year?

I understand why a lot of people aren’t turning on the television to watch the Games. Why do we want to encourage in any way, a regime that stands in opposition to the values of liberal democracy? Why we would we wish to promote in any way, a Government that is actively stifling social and religious freedoms. No doubt, some in the CCP might turn and ask, well what about your own backyard Australia? Yes, indeed. 

While part of me wants to protest the Games by not watching, another part of me enjoys sport and I like watching the Olympic Games, both Summer of Winter. After all, some of these winter sports are pretty specular, from downhill skiing to bobsledding and aerial snowboarding. And don’t I want to support the Aussies competing? I suspect I’m not the only one facing the dilemma, do I do what I enjoy doing or do I hold to my principles? Do I stand by the belief that the CCP is a dangerous Government who should not be given support and praise (as these Winter Olympics are most assuredly doing) or do I cave in and submit to the Aussie primal urge for sport?

Maybe can I do both?  I can voice my objections with a swift statement on Twitter and then quietly turn on the tv in the background! Who would ever know?

In the case of the Winter Olympics, as with many sporting events, the answer isn’t always straightforward; there is some grey. For example, the Olympics isn’t solely about China: we want to see our fellow Australians compete and succeed, there is something noble in admiring human athletic brilliance. Again, in this conversation we may reflect and ask, is our own Aussie backyard pure as snow? 

The dilemma isn’t new. This Beijing impasse reminds me of that most ancient of battles, where we acknowledge God who is right and yet we decide to go our own way. Even today, we look at the life of Jesus and read his words, and yet the power of doing our own thing most often wins the day. We may be convinced by the moral norms presented in the Bible, but then the pull to satisfy personal desires and preferences leads us to explain away such Christian principles. We are proficient compromisers; revising, excusing, and justifying all manner of behaviours despite what we might ascend to formally.

Such paradoxes, tensions and even hypocrisies are noted in the Bible. For example, in the book of Roans the Apostle Paul notes this spiritual and moral disjunction that we all suffer. The assessment is fair as it is bleak. For him, it is autobiographical.

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

The prospects of surviving this hypocritical life are zero. The way to resolve the problem isn’t today’s ‘gospel’: just be true to ourselves. After all, is not the Chinese leadership being true to their own values and desires? Is Putin not being faithful to an old Russian dream?

In the same letter, Paul furthers the discord that many of us are subconsciously aware of. 

“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? “

The story could end like this, in a spectacular fall that makes downhill skiing look like a novice’s act. But it doesn’t. Paul, who authored these words, was both a legal and religious expert. He was a fervent advocate for his national identity and he openly opposed a new minority group that had appeared on the scene; Christians. This same man later admitted that the greater conflict wasn’t the one taking place externally in the geopolitical scene, but the one facing his own heart.  The sun may be out, but what can warm this heart of ice? I suspect that as readers soak in his reflection, we may well recognise the anx and conflict that we also experience inside our own consciences. 

Then comes this life giving, relieving and redeeming word,

“Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

If you happen to be like me and feel conflicted over watching the Olympic Games, why not dig a little deeper. Sitting behind the world stage of ideological clashes are human lives whose hearts are in conflict with someone far greater than ourselves.  Why do we do what we ought not do?  

One of the greatest movements in the last 50 years took place in China. I don’t mean Communism and I’m not referring to China’s massive economic growth. I am speaking of 10s of millions of Chinese men and women who, despite the CCP’s active opposition, have found the answer to the conflict human heart. The solution is God’s gift of his Son, Jesus Christ. 

Maybe Australia does need to take a look at China, a deeper look behind geopolitics and into the way in which a people who lost all freedoms have in fact found the greatest freedom, namely Christ.

Devonport: a word offered when no words can be found

A devastating tragedy struck the Tasmanian town of Devonport yesterday. On what should have been a fun filled celebration for Grade 6 children who were finishing their final day of primary school, became the worst of nightmares. Children were playing on a jumping castle when a sudden gust of wind swept it high into the air, before plummeting 10m to the earth. Five children have died and another four remain in critical condition. 

One dares not speak a word, for what can one say? Even as a parent with 3 children, what words can I utter? One cannot understand what these families are going through unless one has already experienced such loss ourselves. How do we make sense of the senseless? The death of any child is beyond words, but five lost to such circumstances? The reporter on the news last night added the note that this accident has happened so close to Christmas.

I don’t think the proximity to Christmas makes this awfulness any more harrowing than it already is. But perhaps there is something in the Christmas story that touches and empathises with the inexplicable. 

Soon after Jesus’ birth, a tragic incident occurred in Bethlehem, and it forms part of the Christmas story. It is part of the original Christmas although we don’t often read it. And fair enough, it was a terrible event that involved the deaths of many little children.

“A voice is heard in Ramah,

    weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children

    and refusing to be comforted,

    because they are no more.”

There are words in Scripture that speak the word of unspeakable grief in losing a child. The circumstances and time and place are different but they nonetheless echo the human heart. Indeed, those words from the prophet Jeremiah are all poignant and jarring for the loss of those little ones in Bethlehem following the birth of another child, the Christ.

This Son of God, whose name is Jesus,  would one day preach a sermon which today echoes through the generations and still pierces light and life into the darkness. In the address, Jesus spoke these words,

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

He is willing to comfort those who cannot be comforted.

On another occasion, in Jesus’ inaugural public address, he chose for his Bible text, verses from the book of Isaiah,

“the people living in darkness

    have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of the shadow of death

    a light has dawned.”

What an astonishing announcement, the darkness will not win. The shadow of death is long and thick, but its hold will not last forever. For you see, this same Jesus doesn’t only offer comfort, he has walked the path none of us wishes to undergo and yet will do so one day. He accepted the cross and descended to the dead so that he might punch through the darkness and bring the light of life that can never be dimmed.

We may struggle and grasp to find words to express our sorrow for these families in Devonport today, and that’s ok. For what can one say?  Sometimes all one can do is sit and quietly grieve. 

The one thing I can say to my fellow Aussies as we look on is this: the message of Christmas has a word to offer in every situation, even the darkest grief and unknown. Strip away Christmas from all the presents and food and decorations, and we uncover in the biblical story a God who hates death. He is appalled by it. He opposes it.  His only Son experienced the harrowing of that darkness, for us, that one day death may be defeated forever and all who call on him will know his resurrection power.

We cannot answer the ‘why’ of much that happens in life. The unfathomable can sit like an incurable pain. The Jesus of Christmas tells us there is one who knows and we can go to him, not because we can explain everything, but because he has already taken that journey through death and he has broken through to life again. 

Let us rediscover the power of forgiveness

As  I watched one of my boys play a cricket match over the weekend, I chatted with one of the dads for much of the time. As we talked about how our kids are growing up and the challenges they face in the big mean world of Melbourne, the conversation turned to the topic of forgiveness. This cricketing aficionado said to me with a tone of sadness, we live in a time where people no longer know how to forgive. 

I agreed. One of the key ingredients for human living is forgiveness, and it’s now lost. Our societal impulse is no longer to forgive (let alone understand the other). In today’s Australia, the first to throw the stone is the victor, regardless of whether the offence is real or just perceived. Anger is the mood of today. Controlling the story line and asserting individual rights is the power play at work.

It is interesting to observe that as our self-appointed cultural adjudicators assess the merits of Christianity and move from defining her teaching as half-baked to harmful, we should not be surprised to see our society also shifting away from forgiveness. 

Expressive individualism is god and politics, education, and social media are the priesthood. People and society exist to serve my interests, rather than I have a duty to love my neighbour as myself. But what good is a power play like this if we lose our soul in the process? In ditching the message of Jesus Christ, we are not gaining, we are losing.  If you don’t believe me, spend a few moments on Twitter today.

I’m not suggesting that only Christians know how to forgive (and yes, some Christians need to relearn this basic good), but I am saying that it is because of this Christian message our world learned how to forgive. As we turn away we leave behind key ingredients that keep society together.

There is a distinctive element in this Jesus framed understanding of forgiveness, one that is inescapably powerful in its goodness. Forgiveness isn’t something we practice because of self interest (although forgiveness brings benefits to the person doing the forgiving in important ways). Forgiveness isn’t a decision we bring to the table when we believe the offender is deserving of those words, ‘I forgive you.’ The very nature of forgiveness is that the offending party has wronged you and shouldn’t expect a semblance of peace making. 

Forgiveness is acting in mercy toward an individual in light of their transgressions toward you. In what is one of the greatest words ever spoken, on the cross Jesus sees those responsible for his public execution and prays, “Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

All this is to preface a word of grace and forgiveness that was spoken recently by a young woman at the funeral of her father. It is a word she shared about what she now wants for the man who murdered her dad.

Police Officer Richard Houston, of Mesquite, Texas, was killed in the line of duty by 37-year-old Jaime Jaramillo during a domestic disturbance.

At Mr Houston’s funeral, she said, 

“I remember having conversations with my dad about him losing friends and officers in the line of duty.

I have heard all the stories you can think of, but I’ve always had such a hard time with how the suspect is dealt with.

Not that I didn’t think there should be justice served, but my heart always ached for those who don’t know Jesus—their actions being a reflection of that.

I was always told that I would feel differently if it happened to me. But as it’s happened to my own father, I think I still feel the same.

There has been anger, sadness, grief, and confusion. And part of me wishes I could despise the man who did this to my father.

But I can’t get any part of my heart to hate him.

All that I can find is myself hoping and praying for this man to truly know Jesus.

I thought this might change if the man continued to live, but when I heard the news that he was in stable condition, part of me was relieved.

My prayer is that someday down the road, I get to spend some time with the man who shot my father—not to scream at him, not to yell at him, not to scold him—simply to tell him about Jesus.”

Do you find in her intent something hideous or something beautiful? Are we repelled by her attitude or intrigued?

The enacting and receiving of forgiveness is fast becoming a social memory. We all know how important it is, but the identity games that control social media and politics is creeping into our homes and every aspect of living. And it’s not only forgiveness that is being lost, we are also losing our grip on patience and gentleness and kindness; all virtues that are necessary for maintaining healthy relationships and a civil society. 

So long as we’re the one holding the stone or the dislike button, and everyone’s retweeting our version of justice, we can get by for a while. However, sooner or later we are the ones needing forgiveness. Indeed, one day the toll will toll for thee!

Jesus once taught his disciples to pray this,

“And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Is this Jesus so dangerous that a young woman finds in Him the power to want good for her father’s killer? Even that she might one day be able to tell him about Jesus? No one is ignoring the fact of the heinous crime or pretending justice should not be acquired. Just as we cannot live in a world without justice, we cannot live without forgiveness and neither will we survive for long without knowing the One who purchased for us Divine forgiveness.

May I suggest, don’t listen to our cultural overloads, avoid getting swept up by the tides of rage and intolerance that’s drowning our souls and dividing our society. Instead, let’s reconsider the powerful story of the Christ whose forgiveness so reconfigures the human heart, that we can be moved to desire good for those so undeserving. If we restart our own story with the definitive story of forgiveness, I can guarantee it will move our lives forward in ways that will surprise and surpass everything else.

John, one of Jesus’ disciples put it this way,

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”

The real boy called Christ(mas)

I admit it. I’m a bit of a fan of Christmas movies. It doesn’t fall as low Hallmark, but put on a classic Christmas show I’ll make the popcorn.  As a kid and now with children of my own  I love sitting down and watching the snowfall and a Christmas tune and trying to take in the smell of pine and fir trees through the tv screen.

Home Alone, the Grinch, and A Christmas Carol are perennial favourites in our house. Even a Harry Potter Christmas scene is enough to take me in.

At this time of year, everyone is churning out new seasonal Christmas movies. Among the most anticipated Christmas movies for 2021 is ‘A boy called Christmas’. The movie features a lineup of British actors including Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent and Toby Jones.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but the trailer certainly caught my attention. First of all, ‘A boy called Christmas’ has all the hallmarks of another half-decent, fun viewing, film for families. It has the right amount of snow and pretty lights and elves and Christmas jargon to draw us into the story being told.

But if the movie is anything like the messaging that’s promoted in the trailer, ‘A boy called Christmas’ deserves an eye roll the size of Hollywood.

Covered with enough sugar dusted on top to make it all sweet, the story projects a couple of myths about Christmas.  

Before I dare follow the well-trodden path of the Grinch and criticise anything connected with Christmas, let’s keep in mind that this new version of the origins of Christmas is fantasy and fiction; the producers and writers aren’t pretending otherwise. Nevertheless, ‘A boy called Christmas’, reinforces (as truth) two myths that are perpetually bouncing around our culture today.

First of all, Maggie Smith’s character makes a claim as she tells  a group of children the story of Christmas,

“Long ago nobody knew about Christmas. It started with a boy called Nicholas.”

Ummm….no. There was once a man named Nicholas. He lived in the 4th Century AD and served as a Christian Bishop in the city of Myra (located in what is today, Turkey). But Christmas didn’t start with him, nor was it about him. In fact, one can pretty much guarantee that Nicholas would be appalled by any suggestion that he invented Christmas.

The event that we know as Christmas today certainly started with a boy, but his name wasn’t Nicholas; it was Jesus.

It’s worthwhile separating the day on the calendar called Christmas and the original event it is honouring. By Christmas, I’m not referring to the public holiday or to December 25th, but to the event that changed the world and which the world has sought fit to mark with a celebration every year in December. In fact, while Christians have always believed and held onto the birth of Jesus as a crucial step in God’s plan of redemption, no one celebrated a day called Christmas for hundreds of years. 

I realise the name kind of gives it away, but in case we’re unsure, Christmas has something to do with Christ. Indeed, it has everything to do with the Christ. Christ of course is the Greek noun for the Hebrew name, Messiah. It’s a title that denotes ruler and anointed King. Christ is God’s promised ruler who will receive a Kingdom that will never end, fade, or perish.  

“The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:25—26)

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.” (1 John 5:1)

This first faux pas from ‘A boy called Christmas’ is forgivable, in the same way, Narnia and Dr Seuss aren’t given to us as history or sacred writ, but please make sure our kids realise this is the case. It is this next line from the movie trailer (which presumably features as a motif) that is nothing short of inane. A young Nicholas is given this advice, 

‘Things only exist if you really believe in them!’

What a stupid thing to say! Does gravity only work when we believe it exists? Is Mount Everest only real because it has been seen and climbed? Do I cease to exist because most people on the planet have never heard my name or seen my face?

The advice, as insipid as it is, is however true to form. The movie is mimicking the way we are now trained to think and make choices and choose beliefs today. In Western culture, truth is no longer truth. Truth is your truth. Truth is the set of ideas that you preference and want to hold onto for meaning and guidance in life. One of the startling consequences of this is that we now live in a post-science age. For example, biology no longer determines reality, what matters is how you feel inside. Whether the issue is vaccines or climate change or a host of important issues, the scientific task is often considered little more than an instrument used to promote various socio-political agendas.

In a similar fashion, history has succumbed to revisionist keyboards, where events are rewritten and retouched according to a priori commitments to identify politics and other prevalent social preferences. 

Here’s my advice, don’t learn theology from Netflix. Don’t use Hollywood as a history book or as a manual for learning about God, or pretty much anything for that matter. I guess this advice is kind of obvious, and many of us not only agree but respond with a rather dull ‘duh’. However, perhaps we underestimate the extent to which movies and tv shows influence the way we think about issues and the way these mediums inform our understanding of history and world events. 

Movies are successful, not only because of their entertainment value, but because of the ways they both mirror the culture and change the culture. Hollywood, Netflix and Stan each echo the clarion call from our academic institutions and leading social activists. They are today’s poets and preachers, both teaching and enticing us to adopt new ways of thinking and living. Movies are designed to recalibrate attitudes and even to normalise ideas that are not yet embraced by our neighbours.

The real story of Christmas exceeds Netflix’s best attempts. It is more powerful and stunning and dangerous and wonderful than the best of fantasy writers, except the Biblical story is true. 

The birth of Jesus is not a fact of history because I choose to believe. I believe because the events are historical and because they speak of wonders that are too good to ignore.

The Bible (yes, that ancient book which is supposedly unreliable and bad for your health), says some pretty startling things about belief and what is true and the great existential dilemmas. 

The Bible authors insist on recording history with accuracy. The Bible writers also provided an explanation for the meaning of these events. Historians do not doubt the birth of Jesus Christ, and historians do not deny that the Bible is the earliest and most reliable source for retelling the circumstances of His birth, and life, death, and resurrection. Of course, some of the details are astonishing, for example, the presence of angels and the virgin birth. But this is the point, amidst seemingly ordinary history, such as the birth of a child, there was something extraordinary taking place.

In 2014 (note: this was said before the pandemic), historian Dr John Dickson went on the front foot to expose the view that real historians doubt the historicity of Jesus’s birth. He said,

controversial enough to get media attention. They have just enough doctors, or doctors in training, among them to establish a kind of “plausible deniability.” But anyone who dips into the thousands of secular monographs and journal articles on the historical Jesus will quickly discover that mythicists are regarded by 99.9% of the scholarly community as complete “outliers,” the fringe of the fringe. And when mainstream scholars attempt to call their bluff, the mythicists, just like the anti-vaccinationists, cry “Conspiracy!” 

Christianity isn’t true because we choose to believe. We believe in this Jesus Christ because he is proven true and we trust him with all life because he is demonstrably good and efficacious. 

So yes, I’m looking forward to watching ‘A boy called Christmas’, but kids please don’t get your theology from Hollywood. Parents, it’s okay to let your children enjoy these Christmas movies, but take a moment and explain to them that these are fun but untrue stories, and the real story is better than any fiction. 

I thank God that the advice given to Nicholas isn’t true. Think about it, what a burden to carry if truth and reality were dependent on my understanding and adherence. I thank God truth doesn’t come from within. Thank God truth doesn’t depend on me believing it to be so. 

Christmas didn’t not with some boy named Nicholas, but with God sending his one and only son into the world. He didn’t hide away in a toy factory. He didn’t hand out bicycles, lego, dolls, X-boxes, and puppy dogs wrapped in colourful paper. He laid down his life for us. As the book of Romans testifies about the Christ,

“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.” 

The incarnation (that is, God the Son becoming human) is inescapable. The imprint of Jesus coming not only remains at Christmas but is all around us today. As we follow this Jesus we gain the greatest gift that no Christmas tree can hold or no toy factory manufacture: Peace with God, the forgiveness of sin, and eternal life. 

What Melbourne’s Earthquake reveals about ourselves

On the day Melbourne equalled the world record for the longest lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic and during another day of violent protests in our city, we were struck by a surprising visitor.

About 9:15 in the morning, our house began to shake violently. For the first 3-4 seconds I assumed a large truck was speeding down the road past our home. I soon realised then that this was more than a vehicle travelling too quickly. The floor and the walls continued to sway for over 20 seconds. 

The earthquake hit 6.0 on the Richter scale, just north of Melbourne. Thankfully no one was injured and the damage was limited to 40 buildings.  

Melbourne isn’t exactly the epicentre of earthquakes. Australia sits comfortably in the middle of a tectonic place, and yet even this seat proved unstable.

At the time my 12 year old daughter  described the event as “surfing on concrete”.  Over the course of the morning Melbournians came together in a way we rarely see, and on Twitter of all places! Comedic memes and funny one liners appeared. One of the best ones was a take on our Premier, then Dan Andreas Fault! Even better was the meme featuring Melbourne’s Federation Square with the tag line suggesting that the earthquake has improved this iconic building.

As the day progressed, people tried to explain the earthquake. Scientists suggested New Zealand was responsible, an explanation that makes sense to most Aussies. Apparently it’s something to do with moving plates and the Kiwis jumping and breaking them in order to keep our nuclear subs away.

Other people pointed to the protests erupting in Melbourne or the Government for its continued lockdown rules.  Others again, suggested the event was some kind of Divine sign, even if most said it in jest. 

It’s this last thought connection which is most interesting. There remains in Melbourne’s subconsciousness, a reference to God and the supposition that behind cataclysmic events is God. Sadly though we less often associate all the good things and beautiful things with God, even though God, 

“satisfies your desires with good things

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:5)

This thought process isn’t a drop of evolutionary dross that remains to be drained from our minds, it is evidence of the God whom we are trying to shut out.

Should we connect the earthquake with God generally or with God’s anger more specifically? The Bible has much to tell us about this question. For example, God is Sovereign and the earth is His. He made all that is and he remains in control.

“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)

Earthquakes are mentioned in the Bible, usually as historical events and other times as analogies illustrating God’s activities and character. And of course, as Jesus hung on the cross and died, there was a violent earthquake in Jerusalem. 

Perhaps the most poignant Biblical reference to earthquakes is found on the lips of Jesus, 

“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” (Matthew 24:6-8).

Jesus is describing the world as it is and the world that will continue to be until the Son of Man returns to judge. Jesus’ explanation doesn’t ignore a scientific one, he is answering the why question rather than the how. To be clear, Jesus’ summary of world history is not connecting specific ‘natural’ events with particular human transgressions, as Melbournians suggested with humour yesterday. For example, in Luke’s Gospel the story is retold of a tower collapsing in Jerusalem and 18 people died. Jesus says of this tragedy, “do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” The answer was, no. 

You see, the jokes about judgement, while missing the mark in one sense, are in another way closer to the truth than may realise. Earthquakes, bush fires, pandemics, and wars each defy and destroy the hopes we have. They are violent reminders telling us that life isn’t right and that the world isn’t what we long for it to be. This is why, even in our subconsciousness we desire for things likes  restoration and reconciliation. Even in our secular age where unbelief is the passport to intellectual and popular success, we cannot escape the inbuilt desire to explain our world in design with God, and with a God who both judges and saves.

Today Melbourne has taken the world record for having the longest lockdown, and we know that are many more weeks to go. Dreams have been shredded. Securities have come up empty. Suffering is real. For many, hope has fallen through the cracks.

Jesus understands. He has interpreted the world for us and his words are written down to prepare us. Jesus doesn’t leave us with a world of hopeless despair. He entered it with us and for us, even death on a cross. Through resurrection from the grave, he offers something we need, not just for heaven, but to make sense of today and to give the peace and joy today.

In the same message where he talks about earthquakes, Jesus also says this, 

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it[e] is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

The 20th Anniversary of 9/11

16,000kms may separate Australia from New York but no distance could keep us apart from our American friends on that day, September 11th 2001.

I don’t remember the exact moment I turned on the television. I think it was about 11 pm. Susan and I were getting ready for bed but I thought to quickly look at the late night news before going to sleep. 

On the screen, I saw a plane crashing into what appeared to be a skyscraper in New York City. For a few moments, I asked myself, what movie is this? It took me several seconds to release that this was no Hollywood production. I was seeing a real passenger airplane explode into a ball of fire as it struck the World Trade Centre. I called out to Susan and for the next 3 hours we sat in horror at the unfolding scenes taking place in New York City, Washington DC and a Pennsylvanian field. In real-time we saw real people jumping out of buildings and those buildings crash to the earth. In real time we saw the Pentagon billowing with fire and smoke. 

Our generation had never witnessed an event on this scale: Three thousand people murdered by a group of Islamic terrorists who hijacked four civilian aircraft, filled with innocent passengers. 

Susan and I were living in Sydney at the time, and I was studying first year of a Divinity degree at Moore College. As we woke up in the morning in the safety of our home and street, I turned on the news again. As the Manhattan skyline was filled with choking smoke, our suburb of Erskineville and Newton was in stunned silence. I don’t recall everything that happened that day at College but I do remember the community gathering to pray. My first-year chaplaincy group later met across the road at a cafe called the Green Iguana, where we sat, shared, and prayed. 

Twelve years later, in 2013, Susan and I took our 3 children for a holiday in the United States. For 5 weeks we lived in New York. The city of Seinfeld, Home Alone, and the Muppets had enthralled my imagination since childhood and the opportunity to visit with our children was too good to decline.

 

Our Greenwich Street apartment was situated only 50m away from where the Twin Towers once stood. Outside our window, we would see the queue forming each day as people waited to visit the 9/11 Memorial. Every morning we walked past the NYC Fire Fighters memorial wall as we went about enjoying the incredible city that is New York. For that short time, we were New Yorkers, observing the tourists.

One afternoon I visited the 9/11 Memorial with a friend. His father had worked on the construction of the Towers in the late 1960s.

There is an entire generation of Australians and Americans growing up with no recollection of 9/11 and with little appreciation for what took place. I’m so glad my children have seen the area in lower manhattan and know what happened on September 11th 2001. Although, even now it is impossible to grasp how Greenwich Street was once filled with thousands of fleeing office workers, a ferocious dust storm, twisted metal, and millions of paper sheets drifting through the air. The streets are still noisy with people and the occasional blaring of a siren from police or fire trucks. But it in the late Autumn of 2013 the city of New York was healing, Christmas celebrations were gearing up, and the new skyscraper that is One World Centre was well on its way toward completion. 

Today marks the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. In the 20 years that have past it is not only the New York skyline that has changed. While American resilience and muscle proved to be strong in the months following the attack, and the world largely stood alongside our American friends, today the world is very different. It is the same world with the same fundamental flaws and sins, but the pieces are shifting on the global stage. 

America was proven to be vulnerable that day. Not only the United States but the West itself. Years followed with terrorist attacks all over the world and armed conflict in the Middle East. At the same time, these 20 years that have gone by have also produced years of economic growth, technological advancement. Yet the cracks are more pronounced. The West no longer needs enemies abroad. Al Qaeda may have injured the West, the West is killing itself. Block by block we are removing the very foundations that created the modern secular and pluralist society we enjoy. Tolerance is giving way to strident opinion. Basic facts about the human condition can no longer be spoken without fear of losing one’s job and place in society. The ability to listen and engage the other is now a luxury few can afford. Words are now rarely used to unite and bring peace, they are weapons of power used to breed fear, and to humiliate and silence those who think differently. 

Several years ago I met an American man by the name of Mack Stiles. His story is well known. He and his wife have a heart for the Middle East and to share Christ with Muslim people. Their decision to leave the United States and move to UAE was interrupted by 9/11, or least one would have thought so.  Instead, the Stiles resolved that the Gospel is good news even for the millions living in the Middle East. On September 13th 2001 the Stiles sold their home. They then flew to Dubai. For the last 20 years they have been serving Christ, planting Churches and loving Muslim people in the UAE and in Iraq. 

Without ever diminishing the evil done that day 20 years ago, and without us pretending that the sins committed against us are ever okay, there is an alternative to hatred and the persistent rage, selfishness, and hostility that is now controlling public discourse in many Western societies, including Australia and America. Now, I am not a pacifist. I accept Romans 13 which speaks of Government having authority in taking up the sword. Sadly, Governments often wield the sword unjustly, even if it there was justification in unsheathing it to begin with. What I am saying is that the answer our societies so desperately need is the good news we are turning our back on. We are not rejecting it through sword, but with words and heart. With a hubris that it’s only matched by the indignation shown toward the very worst of public sins, our cultural leaders deem Biblical Christianity to be a threat to society. In some Australian States, our Governments are even beginning to legislate in order to protect society from Christian teaching. This is a mistake. 

“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)

“For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10)

What if we grasped that God has loved those who do not love him? What if we understood that the God of complete holiness is also the God of mercy? What if we had ears to hear the announcement that God who just in punishing evil has also spoken a word of forgiveness and reconciliation? This isn’t something we should be deleting from the social consciousness but resurrecting in order to save us from community self-harm and cultural destruction.

In the day following 9/11 Mack Stiles was persuaded by the Christian message such that he left his home to love and serve a people who were despised in the West. If this Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to do that, think of the good this same message can accomplish in Australia today, and in America, Afghanistan and across the world. If it is wrong to bite the hand that feeds us, let us not despise the Son of God who died to save us.

I will never forget 9/11, but even more I pray that we will never forget the One who laid down his life for his enemies.

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.