Pursuing Public Conversation on Marriage

We live in strange days: When a Government breaks an election promise, the public is rightly critical and opposition Parties are justified to call them out. Even if we disagree with their political choices, there is an issue of integrity that the populace expect of our politicians.

Last night however, social commentators and some members of Parliament were outraged (again) that a Government has determined to keep its promise to electorate: to bring a plebiscite question on marriage to the Australian people. Is it not somewhat disingenuous to call Governments to account for broken promises one day, and then call them names the next day because they’re keeping their word?

 

Australia

I personally think there are arguments for and against a plebiscite. The pathway is a decision that needs to be made by the Government of the day.

There is precedence for a plebiscite

Since Federation in 1901, at the Federal level Australia has held 44 referendums and 3 plebiscites. The States however, have conducted many more plebiscites, covering a wide range of issues including the establishment of Wrest Point Casino (Tas, 1986), closing hours for alcohol selling establishments, extending shopping hours (WA, 2005), and daylight savings.

In other words, on no fewer than 60 occasions, Australian Governments have taken an issue to the people and asked for their opinion. That is one referendum or plebiscite every two years; meaning we’re overdue.

In 1977 a plebiscite was conducted to decide our national anthem. Now, maybe I’m not as patriotic as other Aussies, but in my view, marriage is significantly more important than choosing to sing ‘Advance Australia Fair’.

The issue warrants Australia’s input

While 94% of the Australian population don’t see this issue as very important, I am persuaded that it is of grave significance.

We are not talking about a tiny amendment to the law, but the radical and complete alteration of society’s most basic building block: from marriage comes the family unit, and from family communities are formed, and with communities a society and nation is shaped. Marriage is not everything, but it is an important thing and it is one which has held an almost universally accepted definition since history began. Until recently very few societies would even consider the question, and today the vast majority of nations remain opposed to same-sex marriage. Let us understand that no one is quibbling over a few words, at stake is rebooting the very notion of marriage. There are already community voices arguing that this rewrite is simply a steppingstone to further changes and even the eradication of marriage altogether:

In 2015, Simon Copland, a columnist with the Sydney Star Observer, argued that equal marriage might unfortunately limit expressions of sexuality, saying that ‘while monogamous marriage still works for many, our society is increasingly questioning whether it should remain as the only option’.

At the 2012 Sydney Writers’ festival, Dennis Altman, was among a number of speakers who declared their hope that the Marriage Act would be eventually repealed altogether.

The point is, it is not hyperbole to suggest that should marriage redefinition take place, it will be considered a watershed event in Australia’s history, one which will have inevitable and enormous repercussions for society.

Australians are not choosing whether to adopt a new tax or funding more schools or creating the NBN, as important as such things may be; we are deciding how Australia will view what is the most essential and basic unit of every society on earth, marriage.

While the primary issue relates to what is marriage, there are significant corollary issues that Australians need to be made aware of. There are real consequences relating to freedom of religion and freedom of speech, and there are genuine questions relating to the rights of children having a mum and dad, and to the issue of surrogacy and assisted reproduction. It is simply naive for us Australians to assume that nothing will change.

One of the largest problems facing is that, as soon as the law changes, anyone opposing the law will find themselves on the wrong side of the law, and thus exposing themselves to all manner of litigation. Law Associate Professor Neil Foster has written an important article outlining the very real threats to individual and organisation freedoms, should same-sex marriage become law in Australia.

How to conduct ourselves through this national debate

One of the 6 Liberal MPs who forwarded the proposed legislation last night, is a local member for many members of my church. I have a lot of respect for Tim Wilson, and I think it’s positive that members of the Liberal Party were able to bring forward an idea to their colleagues and to discuss its merits, even though it turned out that something like 80-90% of the caucus were not in agreement with them.

It remains to be seen whether there will be a plebiscite or not. It is doubtful that a free vote in Parliament would have the numbers for changing the Marriage Act, and it is also likely that the numbers among the Australian public are tighter than polling suggests. Whichever steps are taken in coming weeks, I am asking the Christian community to be wise and gracious in our speech. Most Christians don’t need reminding, but there are always a few who ignore the words of the Bible.

Public discussion on this issue does not justify spite or slander toward those who wish to change the Marriage Act. Throwing bile at another human being is detestable, whether it is done in person or on twitter.

Indeed, the essence of Christianity is Jesus Christ showing kindness to a world that had no room for his beliefs,

“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 Bible gives us very clear instruction on how to treat people around us, even those who disagree with us.

“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 12:17-21)

 

As important as this national conversation is, there is something of greater consequence, and that is how we conduct ourselves. Predictably although sadly, already this morning social media is alight with unhelpful and untrue rhetoric from politicians and television presenters, making assumptions about ‘equality’ and imputing all manner of malevolent motives on those who believe in classical marriage. To them, I say, please do not erroneously fuse disagreement with hate as though there is an inextricable link between the two, for this is not the case. To disagree civilly with gay marriage is not hate, and to claim such risks undermining the foundations of democracy and a free society.

Is there persecution in Australia?

I don’t know if anyone has done the numbers, and I’m not old enough to know what Australian media was like before the mid1990s. I may be wrong, but my sense is that media is reporting more stories about Christians and Christianity than even 5 or 10 years ago. Many of the stories are negative (sometimes with good reason), while some are supportive of Christianity. There are stories and op-eds being written about Christianity and culture by Christians, and by agnostics, atheists, and Muslims; even sporting journalists are getting in on the act.

A good deal of what we read skews what Christians believe and practice, but why should we be surprised by that? Even some of the sympathetic journalism is unhelpful because it paints Christianity in ways other than through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

On the upside, all the flurry of Christian attention is opening all kinds of opportunities to have conversations with people. On the downside, I am noting how many Christians are running too quickly to the poles, and not sticking with Jesus and letting his word shape our words and actions. As soon as another story about Christianity hits the news, responses are often tailored more by notions of progressive or conservative identities, and that’s a problem. When Christians too readily identify with left or right issues, we often can’t admit that there’s any problem unless it’s on the ‘right’ foot. The myopia is made worse by the fact that everyone has their preferred sources for news. The ABC is a friend…or foe. Are we Murdoch readers or Fairfax subscribers? And which journalist best represents our socio-political proclivities?

Last week’s story about children evangelising in Queensland school grounds is a classic example of this ridiculous Christian ping pong. On the one hand some Christian leaders ran to Andrew Bolt’s side, while other’s waved the Education Minister’s statement as proof that the entire story was a beat up. Both were wrong. The prohibition is real enough, and the Minister’s denial, while welcome, does not resolve the issue. Neither, though, is the Queensland Government the anti-Christ, as some silly people were suggesting.

Another example of this inane and insane polarisation took place today when Andrew Bolt jumped on the story of a Hobart Presbyterian Minister, Campbell Markham, who’s been notified of complaints made against his teaching by an upset atheist. As soon as people began to share the story on social media, it’s as though the Red Sea parted, with some going to the right in praise of Bolt’s defence, and others moving left to distance themselves from the Herald Sun columnist and all those shallow allegations of persecution in Australia.

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We would be mistaken if we defer to Andrew Bolt as some pseudo-Bishop for Aussie Christianity. After all, he does tell us that he is not a Christian. We are also mistaken if we close our eyes and claim that there’s nothing to see, and that any suggestion of persecution is simply overreach and unhelpful hyperbole.

Let’s take a look at the Bible’s language of persecution. The Biblical words convey a broad sense of opposition. The primary word, dioko, means to pursue, chase, or drive away. The aim of persecution is to drive away the Gospel, Jesus, and those who follow him.

Persecution can take on many shapes and sizes.

Persecution can be intense and severe: you may be marked out in your community and lose privileges that others enjoy. You may lose your job, be imprisoned, be forced to flee and seek asylum in another country. You may be killed. This is the experience of many millions of our brothers and sisters today in different parts of the world.

On other occasions, the Bible gives examples of ‘softer’ persecution. For example, in the Beatitudes Jesus says,  “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you.”

We must be careful not to conflate our circumstances with those faced by many of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. Disagreement for example is not persecution.

We must also be careful not to minimise real threats that have been  made again some Christians in Australia. To argue that there is no persecution is ignorant and even callous.  Sure, persecution in Australia is unusual, but it’s not unknown. Indeed, more than a few members of my church have been subjected to bullying by parents and by spouses because they have chosen to follow Jesus. This includes disownment and disinheritance, should they persist in being baptised and joining a local church.

Across Bass Strait, Campbell Markham and David Gee are the latest Tasmanian preachers to have formal complaints made against them for their Bible teaching. Being brought before a State’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, because someone took offence at your preaching, is a form of thlipsis.

Just because there is no tsunami doesn’t mean that the tide isn’t changing, and neither does the changing tide mean that there’s a gigantic wave about hit the shore.

At Mentone Baptist we are currently preaching through Romans ch.12-16, and our text yesterday was 12:14-21. No matter the direction of the tide, it is a posture to have continually define our response,

“9 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.”

What the Census reveals and doesn’t reveal about Aussie religion

If Tuesday’s headlines in the Melbourne’s media were anything to go by, the most important news coming out of the national census is that Melbourne is better than Sydney and we are about to become bigger. After all, you can’t dispute numbers! A closer inspection of the data however points out that Melbournians will have to wait a little longer for this prestigious non-title title, about 33 years!

Australia

 

A more important conversation has exploded across the country, that of the religious contour of Australia, or should that be, its lack thereof?

Lobbyists have begun spinning census numbers their way, for greater numbers supposedly means more social power and influence. However, statistics can be less useful than we are being led to believe, this is certainly true regarding the question of religious affiliation. The census is useful as a sociological exercise, for it is asking Australians to self-identify. Census data is the national collation of Australian opinion and self-allocated identity, but the numbers however may not always reflect what some are alleging.

Let us take the following two groups as an example, ‘no religion’ and ‘Christian:

No religion

Tosca Lloyd wrote a piece in The Age, with this headline, “End Australia’s Christian bias”. His was one of several examples of census overreach. It is truly an odd piece, take this comment for example,

“Does secularism commit the same offence, imposing the views of the nonreligious onto the religious? No. The advantage of a secular society is its tolerance of, and neutrality between, different groups and individuals in society providing they obey the law and do no harm.”

Lloyd equates the ‘no religion’ numbers with atheism, he wrongly defines secularism as non religion and therefore with atheism, he ignores the fact the the majority of Australians still identify as Christian (22% higher than ‘no religion’), and he doesn’t appreciate how many non Christians value much of the Christian heritage Australia has and would like this to continue, and he ignores the fact that atheistic secularism is not neutral but is frequently intolerant of other world views. Indeed, his own article reeks of intolerance toward Christianity.

I understand people feeling tempted to inflate numbers, but it is not a particularly rational response to the data. One senses from social media that some of our atheist friends have been looking for the knock out punch against Christianity, and they believe the census is just that. It seems that they don’t always know what they are swinging at.

The Australian suburb with the largest percentage of people ticking ‘no religion’ is North Fitzroy in Melbourne, with 47%. In an interview for SBS,

“Local councillor Misha Coleman said the high number of “no religion” responses may just have been a reluctance of responders in the area to identify with one particular faith.

“It’s more than privacy, it’s maybe a reticence to say they’re one thing or the other,” she said.

“Maybe people in the area don’t want to be defined, or categorised, or labelled as a particular religion.”

In other words, don’t conclude that ‘no religion’ always means no belief in God.

In the words of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS),

“Australia remains a religious country, with 60% of our population reporting a religious affiliation. However, the proportion of people reporting no religion, including people with secular and other spiritual beliefs, increased to 30% in 2016 – up from 22% five years ago.

The current state of the nation’s faith breaks along age lines. Older people keep their faith. Younger people tend to report ‘no religion’. This response was most common among younger people, with 39% of those aged 18 to 34 reporting no religious affiliation.

Part of the decline in religious affiliation is a general move away from the traditional Christian denominations. Nevertheless, 52% reported an affiliation with a Christian religion – predominantly Catholic (23%) and Anglican (13%). New South Wales and Queensland remain the most Christian states, but there is an overall decline in the percentage of Australians reporting their faith as Christian.

About 8.2% of us reported a religion other than Christianity, with Islam (2.6%) and Buddhism (2.4%) the most common.”

Christian

The census no more reveals the number of convinced atheists in the nation than it does the number of actual Christians in the nation.

The census assumes Christianity is defined in ways other than by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The only category offered is, do you self-identify as Christian, and with which Christian denomination? This is not a fault of the census as such, for ABS is simply asking questions through a different grid to that which Christians would use for working out such things.

Who is a Christian in Australia today? The census gives great laxity here. A individual may define their religion according to their cultural or family heritage. It may be that they were baptised as infants, or that  their grandparents attend a church.The connection may be as tight or as loose as each person determines.

The percentage difference between the new census figures and those who regularly attend a church are vastly different, and the numbers of Australians whose membership is with an evangelical church is smaller again. Not that church attendance is the sign of being Christian, but it is a measure.

Again, it is beyond the scope of this census to determine, but decades of theologically liberal Christianity and spiritual soft drink Christianity have inevitably led to people turning away. If I held up a faded photocopy of a hand drawn chalk copy of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, drawn by me, and I tried to persuade people that this was a genuine Van Gogh, it would make sense that people were disinterested and skeptical. Who would want to believe in and follow Jesus Christ, given the fraudulent presentations so often given in Australian Churches?

One further question that was outside the parameters of the census relates to how evangelical churches are going in contrast to other Churches. While Christian denominations are overall witnessing decline, many individual churches are moving in the opposite direction. Evangelical Churches are not confined to any single denomination but are found within and across many Christian traditions. I’m using the term evangelical in the most basic way, to denote churches who uphold orthodox doctrine, and who preach and practice this faith. These Churches are Gospel-centred, Bible based, and active in evangelism. Such churches are regularly seeing growth not decline.

Australia is witnessing multiple changes in religion

There is not one religious shift taking place in Australia, but several:

1. Other religions are growing in Australia. This is primarily due to immigration, as opposed to conversion growth. There are of course a few Australian who formally convert to Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism, but the numbers of probably very small.

2. Cultural Christianity (or nominal Christianity) continues to decline. Despite this decline, more Australians than not, still see themselves as having some affiliation with Christianity. More than that, it is highly presumptuous for social commentators to conclude that only “Christians” are interested in upholding Christian values across the cultural and political fabric of the nation. To strip away these heritages that a derivative of Christianity will eventually leave our country naked and searching for a fig leaf to hide behind.

3. Younger Australians are less likely than older Australians to align with a particular religion.

4. Humanist secularism is growing (as opposed to a properly defined secularism which gives ample public space and freedom for religious views). There are probably more atheists, as there are almost certainly more agnostics, more self-defined spiritual-not-religious people, deists, uncommitted theists, and so on.

5. Evangelical Christian Churches are growing, and there are more of these churches starting across the country.

What now?

Atheists gladly proselytise, they even organised a public campaign prior to the census, urging Australians to tick the ‘no religion’ box. Now that the figures have been released, their recruitment drive is on again. Christianity is also a missionary religion and a persuasion religion. The challenge in previous generations was to evangelise nominal Christians, today’s opportunity is to love and serve and evangelise people from other religions and those who identify with none.

Christians should not be discouraged by the census, because understanding what our fellow Australians think and believe and value, is enormously helpful.

We can expect mainline Churches to continue downward. Churches that obscure or who redefine the good news of Jesus Christ will inevitably collapse into irrelevance. While this saddens us, it is also a good thing because we don’t need more Churches painting faded fakes of Jesus Christ. More than ever Australia needs Aussie Christians to be clear on the Gospel. We Christians need to believe, trust, tell and show our fellow Australians why and how the Christian Gospel is the greatest and most vital message we can ever hear. This is imperative, not because we are trying to hijack a census or attempting to retrieve some lost national identity, but because the life of each and every Australian matters, and God matters. The ultimate numbers crunch isn’t Census 2016, or Census 2021 or 2026, but the book that will be opened on the last day. And this book will be more revealing than any census, and we long for our fellow Australians to have their names printed there.

Genderism, Atheism, and Civil Discourse falls off the precipice

Last night on live television Clementine Ford called fellow journalist, Miranda Devine, “a c**t”. The ABC has today publicly apologised to Devine, although Ford has begun moving through the expletive vocabulary as people on twitter dare suggest that a civil society requires civil discourse.

The topic for last night’s episode of Hack Live was, Is Male Privilege Bullsh!t?” With such a cleanly articulated topic for conversation, should anyone be surprised that one of the program’s guests took liberty with language?

 

Hack Live

Only hours earlier The Age published a piece by Andrew Street, asking the question, ‘Why do atheists have to behave like such jerks?’

Andrew Street bemoans the behaviour of some of his fellow atheists including the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Summarising a piece by Mark Oppenheminer, Street admits that such behaviours are a massive problem in the international atheist community. His particular and present concern is the treatment Clementine Ford has received since being invitated to speak at the Atheist Global Convention in Melbourne. Without question, the online abuse is appalling. Street quotes the moderators of the Convention’s Facebook page, ”we have been deleting specific rape and death threats as they occur… there have been substantial numbers”.  There is no justification for such demeaning and disgraceful threats and language, and I’m pleased to hear Andrew Street confronting it.

Toward his conclusion, Street makes a swipe at ACL, trying to analogise ACL with the crude atheists attacking Ford. This comparison is sadly predictable, and greatly misplaced:

He writes, “It also means such groups end up much like the Australian Christian Lobby: filled with reactionary voices that don’t remotely represent the diverse community for which they’re claiming to speak.”

The Australian Christian Lobby may not share views on sexuality and marriage that many atheists hold, but they do not resort to vulgarity, and they are known for their advocacy for women against sexual exploitation. One may not agree with ACL but one cannot associate them with the kind of vitriol that Ford has been subjected to and has also dished out.

Street’s article is revealing, for he is rightly concerned about the attitudes and behaviour of his fellow atheists, but he doesn’t recognise how their creed gives no protection from such assaults, indeed atheism gives license to demean and hate. Not for a second do I think that this is a problem exclusive for atheism, we should keep in mind that the same can also be said of many religions.

While Street’s article doesn’t dig so deep, it helpfully reminds us that worldview matters and that from the heart we speak.

“For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Matthew 12:34).

Much of Australia’s intelligentsia insists that there are few if any axioms and that ethics is mostly freelance. We cannot  however do away with them and the most convinced anti-theist recognises that there are right ways and wrong ways to treat people. This deeply rooted belief doesn’t stem from atheism but from Christianity.

We often treat people in ways similar to how have been treated, and it is a vicious cycle. With a decisiveness and efficacy that makes the Hadron collider appear like recycled garbage, Jesus Christ broke the cycle. He showed us how to live and he lived that life on our behalf. He made himself a substitute, not returning hate for hate but enduring it on the cross. This grace and kindness does more than give us the example par excellence for public conversation, for he liberates the human heart from hate, as well as from pride that stems from forced adherence to cultural conventions. No doubt Christians have at times forgotten this good news, and even proven themselves unChristian by using speech that contradicts the character of Jesus Christ. This love given by Christ changes attitudes and behavior, such that we show respect toward those with whom we have significant disagreement, not because society demands civility, but because we wish to share this infectious love that God has given to us.

We still need the Reformation

Whoever follows me on twitter will win absolutely nothing, and to prove it, why not try it out today! My account is @MurrayJCampbell

In 2013, the Vatican announced that it would offer indulgences to those who followed Pope Francis on his twitter account. According to the CBS report, the Vatican Council was recognising how many young Catholics would be unable to attend the World Youth Conference in Brazil, and so Vatican kindly arranged for people to access the events on social media.

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Other indulgences have since been offered by the Vatican in an attempt to quicken the faithfuls time in purgatory and fast track the route to heaven. In 2015, Pope Francis announced that a Jubilee year of mercy would be accompanied with special plenary indulgences.

Purgatory is not a concept that is found in nor taught by the Bible, but has its origins in Medieval Catholicism. It is believed that once a person dies, instead of direct entry into heaven, they spend a period of time in an intermediate realm known as purgatory. The purpose of this place is to purify sinners and to punish all those sins that have not been forgiven in this life. Anyone caught committing a mortal sin will find themselves going directly to hell, but others have opportunity to pay for their sins by a duration in purgatory, a timeframe which depends on the number of and seriousness of those sins.

The practice of indulgences, another teaching which is not taught in the Bible, slowly came into being from the 16th Century, and became a catalyst for the Reformation. Roman Catholicism teaches that indulgences are a means by which people can receive remission for sins, and therefore reduce the time they would otherwise spend in purgatory. Indulgences take on multifarious forms, from saying a prayer, to completing a sacred pilgrimage, to helping the poor and now, by following Pope Francis on twitter. Specifically, you needed to follow the live feed of the Youth Conference via his twitter account, and doing so will alter your personal account before God and aid you to enter heaven more quickly.

Speaking to the offer of indulgences via twitter, Patrick Hornbeck (chair of the department of Theology at the University of Fordham in New York) suggested,

“This Pope has done a remarkable job of demonstrating how well aware he is of the way in which his younger audience, his younger followers, follow things and I think it totally makes sense that young Catholics would be much more likely to participate via social networking and social media rather than through traditional ways”.

While Protestants may readily repudiate these dangerous and untrue doctrines on indulgences and purgatory, we have our own ways of slipping into similar pathways. Anytime we emphasise an experience or ritual or activity as a means of convening assurance before God or of acquiring God’s favour, we have turned our backs on the only gift that justifies and reconciles.

The Bible is clear, no works, whether religious in nature or not, can aid in any way a person’s standing before God.In contrast to depending on misleading religious works to release of jail time in a place that does not exist, the good news of Jesus Christ is this,

“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24)

“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28)

“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 4:2-5)

The rise of Pope Francis has been taken as a positive sign by many Catholics, Protestants, and by many irreligious Westerners; his camaraderie with the common person is appealing, and his commentary on social issues at times suggests ground is slowly shifting in  the Vatican. Even I would agree with Pope Francis on some points of theology and ethics, and yet on this most crucial matter he is in error and by reinforcing the errors of Trent, he is directing millions of twitter followers not out of purgatory but into hell.

This isn’t rocket science, does anyone truly believe that saying a prayer or throwing a few dollars to a charity or listening to a Papal sermon can really wipe away years of transgressions and persuade God to change his posture toward us? What volume of ‘good deeds’ is suffice and of what duration should they be? This is chasing after the wind. There is no assurance and it requires the adherer to trust the words of priests who have invented these supposed means of grace. Instead, we ought to accept what God has spoken and what Jesus Christ has accomplished.

At a gathering of the Victorian Chapter of the Gospel Coalition today, Peter Jensen reminded those present that “faith is the instrumental means of salvation… faith can never be boasted of because faith always points to its object…Faith is the antithesis of all good works…Don’t turn faith into a work.”

So long as ecclesial authorities play games with the grace of God in Christ Jesus (whatever their denomination affiliation), and so deny people the sweetness and joy of knowing peace with God, the principle of semper reformanda remains a pressing agenda. My encouragement to my Catholic friends is, bypass this nonsense of indulgences  and return to the source, read the Bible for yourself and see what not only the Reformers discovered in the 16th Century but what Christians have understood and believed since the very beginnings of the Church, 

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

 

  

Turkey, Anzac Day, and Disappearing Religious Freedom

While Australia prepares to once again remember the Gallipoli landings, the very same day, April 25th 1915, brought Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to national prominence in Turkey. As the Australians troops waded ashore and clambered up the bluffs overlooking what would become Anzac Cove, the few Turkish defenders were gradually pushed inland, until reinforcements arrived led by Mustafa Kemal.

“I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die.”

With this extraordinary command, Kemal prevented the Australians from advancing further, and the two sides began digging into the ancient soil for what would become 9 months of death and horror.

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Mustafa Kemal survived the war, entered politics, and in 1923 he closed the final chapter on the 600 year old Ottoman Empire, giving birth to a new and secular democracy.  It would be a misjudgment of history to ignore the social and religious tensions that Turkey has balanced over that century, especially when it comes to minority ethnic groups in the Eastern regions of the country, and yet Turkey has avoided much of the turmoil and bloodshed that almost every other Middle Eastern nation has experienced over the same period.

As Australia commemorates Anzac Day, Turkey is on the edge of democratic suicide, as her people vote on a referendum that will introduce sweeping changes to their constitution.

Since the failed coup d’état in July last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tightened his control over the country. Many thousands of people have been imprisoned, journalists arrested, and Christian missionaries deported. Five months following the attempted coup, President Erdogan announced a referendum, proposing 18 changes to the nation’s constitution. In short, a yes vote (which appears to have won the day) will give the President new powers over judicial appointments, cabinet appointments, calling and dissolving Parliament, setting the nation’s budget, and all without need of Parliamentary approval. Opponents are concerned that genuine democratic freedoms are already slipping from the populace and should these constitutional amendments become law, Turkey will in effect become an autocratic state. Many people also fear that Turkey is transitioning from being a secular state with a Muslim majority, to an Islamic State with a non Muslim minority.

Prior to 1915, most Australians thought of Turkey as a far away land, filled with ancient history and splendour. From April 25th our history became enmeshed with theirs, and our blood mingled with their blood. Today, Turkey doesn’t feel so remote, and yet we may not automatically see the relevance of this week’s decision.

We would do well to remember that the tide of history has often set its course from this land where East and West intertwine. For six centuries prior to the Dardenelles campaign of 1915, the Ottoman Empire ruled over much of the Middle East and North Africa, serving as both a thorn and flower to Europe. For nearly a thousand years before the Ottomans, the grand Byzantine Empire flourished, a child of the Christianised Roman Empire. This clash between East and West is an ancient one, with Alexander the Great defeating Darius across Turkey, first at Grancius and then at Issus. A thousand years earlier, the shores of Turkey were the setting of Homeric poems and the tales of Troy.

As the sun sets over the Bospherus, we would be mistaken to think that Turkey’s situation is an isolated one, for all over the world we are seeing the expulsion of pluralist societies in favour of authoritarian secularism and religious monocronism. Both are absolutist and exclusivist, with the latter however showing transparency about their religious commitments and the former hiding them behind thin sheets of quasi intellectual and moral neutrality.

Jonathan Leeman is right when he asserts, “secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps even as liberal authoritarianism. it depends on beliefs without conclusive evidence.”

At the beginning of the year I began using the phrase authoritarian secularism, as a way of making distinction between true secularism and what we now see being practiced in Australia.  When our nation adopted the language of secular, as in Section 116 of the Constitution, the intent was that the State would not create or be controlled by any given religious persuasion. Today, the language has been hijacked by popularists who allege religion has no place in the public square, whether in politics or education and even in the workplace. Such a position is not derivative of constitutional law or of reason, but the sheer and persistent belief in unbelief.

My own state of Victoria is the sharp edge of progressive politics in Australia, and it is so because authoritarian secularism has substantial sway culturally.

What is happening is this: society has begun limiting free speech in order to push out beliefs that don’t fit the current cultural milieu, and the intent is to fill that space with the agenda of the sexual revolution. What is true of Victoria is true for most other parts of Australia, and is happening across much of the Western world. The tensions are not ours alone, but with no greater zeal in Australia than what we are witnessing in Victoria.

Christians are among those feeling these cultural shifts acutely because the movement is away from cultural Christian. This is not to be confused with Gospel Christianity for the two are not synonymous. Neither, however are they impervious of the other.

It is not as though the current Victorian Government is entirely anti-religion; rather, it wants a sanitised religion and for it remain outside public discourse. In other words, progressive politics wants religion controlled. There is clear evidence of this intent, as demonstrated, for example, by the proposed amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act last year. The ‘inherent requirement test’ would have required all religious organisations, including churches, to justify before a Government organised tribunal, reasons why it is necessary for employees to subscribe to the particular religious beliefs of the organisation. In other words, a Church could be held to account for refusing employment to a Hindu, and a Mosque find itself on the wrong side should they refuse employment to a Christian. Thankfully, the Bill was unsuccessful in the Legislative Council, being defeated by a single vote!

A pluralist society, which Australia is, only continues so long as those in authority allow alternative views to be expressed publicly. The fact is that a State Government, and a number of mainstream political parties across the nation, are not only questioning freedom of religious practice, but have begun issuing policies to quell views and practices that don’t conform to the new morality.

To the surprise of many, the global movement in the early 21st Century is not away from religion to irreligion or from faith to reason, but away from philosophical pluralism to both religious and secular authoritarianism.  We are a long way from where things could lead, but we are no longer standing from the sideline and pontificating the possibilities. As Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘the game is afoot’. This should be of concern to global communities, not because pluralism is god, and not because we are moral and spiritual relativists, but because we believe that the State should not dictate religious belief.

As a Christian, I believe in persuasion not coercion. I believe in religious freedom for all, for if not for all it is not freedom at all. It is true though, Christianity can function and flourish in the midst of even ignominious regimes, because the Christian hope does not ultimately depend upon particular political structures, constitutions, and dictates. Our hope rests in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This victory-over-death hope gives us freedom to submit to a harsh Government, and freedom to dissent when they do wrong to a neighbour.

The people of Turkey are in my prayers this week. As we take note of this history turning land, we should not be ignorant of our own proclivities. Religious freedom is being contained and controlled from Canada to Cairo, and from Russia to Riyadh, and similar intent is now being verbalised politically and socially on our own shores.  I am not arguing for freedom of religion as some ultimate axiom, but as scaffolding on which a healthy society may grow, by enabling debate and disagreement, and the contest of ideas.