Pubs, Churches, and Government Rules

The strict and prolonged lockdown in Victoria has tested the most resilient among us. As the State slowly opens up we should not be surprised if we find ourselves affirming some decisions and disagreeing with others. Where discrepancies appear and they are irreconcilable, it is incumbent on the Government to explain and to justify their rationale.

The example I want to talk about here concerns churches. On September 28th Eternity newspaper approached me for comment on Victoria’s roadmap to recovery. I said, 

“The Premier’s announcement on Sunday was encouraging because it means 130,000 people are returning to work and primary aged children returning to school…While I appreciate this, most of Melbourne’s restrictions remain in place. In my view, the Government’s roadmap is treating churches fairly at the moment, although we are still a couple of months away from being allowed to gather in any sizeable number.”

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. As of today (October 19), in regional Victoria pubs and restaurants can now have 40 patrons indoors and 70 patrons seated outdoors. Churches, however, can only have 20 people gathered outside and no church of any size is permitted indoors. At the moment all churches in Melbourne are closed and so we are watching with interest the roadmap in regional Victoria. The disparity between churches and pubs is unfortunate. I trust this is nothing more than an oversight which will be quickly resolved, rather than the beginning of a longer term trend.

At yesterday’s press conference the Premier made a comment about why greater numbers of people are allowed in pubs than in homes. The reason given is,  restaurants and cafes are a regulated industry. But what of churches? I trust the implication isn’t that churches cannot be trusted to organise and regulate safe COVID-19 practices.

On the Neil Mitchell show this morning on 3AW, Victoria’s new Health Minister, Martin Foley, claimed that the reason for the differences between pubs and churches is that international and local evidence points to church communities being unsafe.  

Where is the evidence? What international scientific research is Mr Foley referring to? 

In July the New York Times in July made a similar statement and it was quickly proven incorrect.

On July 8 The New York Times published an article claiming that churches were Covid-19 super spreaders. The headline read, “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.”

The article alleged, 

“Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.”

The problem with the NYT article is that the maths didn’t add up. Even the evidence mentioned in the piece contradicted the main thesis. The article cites several churches where multiple cases of COVID-19 were found, and it also disclosed the total number of COVID-19 cases linked with churches: 650. At the time, the United States had 3 million confirmed cases. The total number of cases connected with churches across the entire nation represent 0.0002% of all cases in the country.  Writing for Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer noted that a tiny number of churches had not done the right thing, but the overwhelming majority were conducting church according to strict Covid-19 plans.

“Churches have been remarkable partners in the fight again the coronavirus, with the vast majority closing their gatherings all around the country. Yes, there have been a few outliers, but their paucity demonstrates the cooperation of churches with officials throughout this pandemic.

Churches have overwhelmingly been partners with health authorities and have carefully taken each small step.”

I know many pastors and churches around the world and interstate. As they reopen they are taking Government policies seriously and acting responsibly and pastorally toward the people under their care. It is part of what we do in loving our neighbours. 

Throughout the pandemic Church leaders have spoken regularly and consistently about obeying Government directives, and about ensuring churches have responsible plans in place for a return to public gatherings. We continue to pray for our Prime Minister and our Premier and all who lead in Government and in health agencies. Churches are not asking for special treatment, but it is not too much to request that churches be permitted to open up with parity to restaurants and pubs and other analogous organisations and events.

Governments play an important role in society, but they do not give meaning to people. Governments provide structures and protections for its citizens, but offering the message that nourishes the soul, brings forgiveness to transgressors, and eternal life is beyond their job description. Churches are essential for Victorian communities. In a year where millions of Victorians have struggled and where many have lost everything, we need a message of hope. We need good news of hope that surpasses the material and temporal, and a hope that is more secure and certain than what we had once relied upon. It is possible that churches have never before been so important for this State and the future wellbeing of the people.

The Bible offers a message of living hope, not only to churches but even for those who have considered themselves disinterested in things spiritual. By definition, it is a breathtaking announcement for people who have lost hope,

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:3-4).

People are not disembodied beings. We are physical creatures who require physical presence and social interaction. We are also more than flesh and blood. We are mental and spiritual beings, who depend on more than food and sleep for life. It was Jesus who famously said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

Churches provide one of the few remaining places where people can meet and share the joys and sorrows of life, and where supportive relationships are created. Zoom and social media are a blessing but they are no substitute for real and personal meeting. Indeed, church by definition is the physical gathering of Christians, meeting to worship God and to encourage one another. 

I trust the Victorian Government will correct this unnecessary discrepancy between pubs and churches, and avoid similar and further disparities in coming months. 

Churches, give people a message of hope

Tom Holland is the spiderman of historians. His latest conversation with Glen Scrivener is well worth the listen for it includes more than a few intriguing thoughts in the web of ideas.

I really appreciate his thoughtfulness and honesty. It was this reflection by Holland that especially struck a chord with me. He said, 

“I felt that over the course of this year the churches have been a let down. I think that the experience of pandemic, it sets you to asking why is this happening…it raises profound issues of theodicy.”

He mentions one moment that stood out to him, when he watched the Pope give an open air mass in the middle of an empty St Peter’s Square. Otherwise the message he’s heard from churches is much like what one would find on a Government help line. 

“I felt that the response of churches was a kind of pallid echo of public health announcements. That’s what public health officials are for. I kind of think that churches are there to give answers and to situate our happening.”

When Glen asked what Churches could be doing, Holland suggested,

“I think it can be expressed in open air services…an attempt to root what’s happening in the cultural and  the scriptural inheritance of what has gone before. I haven’t almost nothing about why this is happening…what does the Bible have to say about plagues…This seems to me an incredibly important source…”

Could Tom Holland, an agnostic, be urging churches to do church and to preach Bible messages that explain the world today through the lens of Scripture? I think so.

Holland’s remarks are like a bucket of icy water, or least they should be. It could also be likened to a defibrillator. The admonishment reminds me of the Church in Sardis. Jesus addresses this church in Revelation ch.3 and he rebukes her for having a reputation for being alive but in reality, the church is dying and has little breath remaining.

Holland isn’t knocking churches for talking about their buildings, social distancing and COVID-19 plans. He notes that these things are important. The overall presentation of Christianity that he has heard and seen over the last 6 months (and keep in mind Tom Holland is a studious observer of Christianity), the message he’s received is overall bland and uninspiring and offers little hope to a world he says is desperate for salvation.

I know enough churches, not only here in Australia but also win the UK and USA, to realise that Holland’s critique is partial. There are churches trying to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sadly, this message is often drowned out by a cacophony of noisier and more appealing narratives and agendas.

It is also the case that many Churches are simply trying to remain alive during the time, keeping care of congregation members and encouraging some semblance of online discipleship. It is nonetheless worth considering the vision we are leaving the world during this time of pandemic.

For months the message from many of our churches has been dominated by hygiene rules and facial masks. In recent weeks I’ve noted that churches are increasingly calling Governments to allow a return to public worship services. Letters are being written and petitions signed, even here in Melbourne. I haven’t signed any such letter, but I understand Christians wanting their freedom back to worship God publicly in their church community. I am supportive of some reasons and may yet sign a letter in the future. It is interesting to note though how some of these arguments proceed. They explain that churches are essential; I agree. However, instead of offering the Biblical reasoning for Church, Christians are instead deferring to more secular rationales to convince Governments to reinstate public church gatherings. For example, church provide sanctuary and help for people struggling with mental health and with loneliness, and church provide so many positive contributions to local communities. This is all true and important, but it’s also falling into the same kinds of milky lukewarm explanations that Tom Holland believes are inadequate. Our community needs something more. Our world needs a bigger message, a greater story, and we have one to give and yet we are so often reluctant to tell it.

This Sunday at Mentone Baptist I’m preaching on Revelation chapters 4 and 5. The Bible doesn’t get any bigger than this passage. The message of Christianity is spelled out here with a grandeur and beauty and wonder that is unsurpassed. In our world that is despairing through a pandemic and with climate change and racism and geopolitical uncertainties, the vision of Revelation is truly stunning and shocking. 

Chapter 5 begins with a search for someone who is worthy to take the scroll from God, the scroll with contains the plans of God in the world. No one is found. John (the disciple of Jesus), is witnessing this heavenly scene and he weeps because there seems to be no answer. But then, a lamb appears. Not just any lamb but one who has been slain. This lamb however is called the lion, which means King. This lion/lamb is worthy to take and open the scroll. Who is this person? It is Jesus who was crucified, risen and now reigning.

Melbourne needs a vision beyond lockdown rules and the pandemic and eventual reopening and kickstarting schools and the economy. Churches, by the grace of God, have this vision to share and proclaim and preach to our city. Let’s do it

Revelation 5

“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign on the earth.”

11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
    and honor and glory and praise!”

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
    be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.”

Christians must not contend as the world fights

Tim Keller sent out this tweet on Saturday, 

“the demonization and dehumanization of the other side must stop. When professing Christians do it, it is triply wrong.”

The statement shouldn’t be controversial for Christians, but in today’s America (and to a lesser degree, Australia), it was outrageous for Tim Keller to make this suggestion.

Despite many people appreciating his comment (and others that he has recently made on social media), there has been a lot of backlash and complaints. For example, 

“Another comical and tone deaf statement by Keller. It’s triply wrong when Christians do it because we expect non-Christians to be awful people that do crappy things.”

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Tim Keller is observing a very real and concerning problem in our societies. Public debate no longer has room for grace, kindness, and patience.  Genuine conversations are hard to find and even more difficult to start because of the cacophony of stereotypes, insults, and shouts that now dominate public space. The force of political diatribe is sweeping aside nuance and fairness and patience. There is little toleration for paving a new path in this age in intolerance. Keller is rightly noting how it is all too easy for Christians to slide into the assumed poles that are being defined by left and right, progressive and conservative.

Today’s posture is the opposite of Proverbs 18:13 which says, 

“To answer before listening— that is folly and shame.”

The reality is, Christians may agree with a moral principle but we may believe that there are different ways to approach the issue and we might feel more or less passionately about the issue than the next Christian. Among these matters are abortion, racism, refugees, and climate change. We can agree that these are important ethical issues. We grieve over how our culture buys into and even celebrates theories and policies that dehumanise our fellow human beings. It is quite possible, indeed it is inevitable, that while concurring that a certain belief or action is wrong, there is often diverse opinion about how to best approach the issue. It may be unpopular to suggest this, but these disparate positions often have less to do with shared theological convictions and more to do with political philosophy (ie. what is the role of Government?) and personal experience. Instead of recognising the way we form our views, we have wrongly purchased the arrogant absolutism that is now pervading our society. 

I have seen this happening even in Australia as the nation deals with the latest manifestations of the sexual revolution, with bushfire crisis and now with the COVID-19 pandemic. A person may rightly identify an important issue, but if we respond to evil with more sin, how have we contributed in any constructive way? If we only react according to our sense of ‘righteous indignation’, are we not in danger of relying upon rhetorical power to fend off terrible things rather than ‘grace seasoned with salt’? 

If I need to resort to slander, gossip, and caricature, in order present my case, I have already lost.  

As I casual onlooker of American culture and someone who lives inside Australian culture, it is clear that we have foot faulted, and convinced ourselves that because others are getting away with it, so can we. One of the consequences is that instead of adorning the Gospel, we attached a pugnacious moralism.

The harder path is the road less trod. A myopic culture may not see much benefit in taking this path, but as Christians we are surely looking ahead toward eternity, not just the next social schism or election. 

Another response to Keller’s tweet said this, 

“Are we implying Christians have NO BATTLE to fight? Demolishing arguments and exposing unbiblical ideologies ≠ attacking individuals. Let’s not forfeit the battle to “the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”

The comment is quite revealing, for it makes the very mistake that Tim Keller is urging Christians to avoid. There is a battle, but we do not fight as the world fights. We don’t resort to the same tactics that are employed by Government and corporations, by Hollywood and by social media platforms. The Bible is clear, we take our stand with truth and faith and righteousness. Our feet are readied with the ‘gospel of peace’. Notice this, Paul describes God’s good news about Jesus Christ as the gospel of peace. The staggering truth is, this is inauguration of peace for those who are not at peace with God. This is a peace for people who are not at rest but who are struggling against God and even ourselves. In this way, the Christian path in our secular age is to proclaim reconciliation and forgiveness through Christ.

When our political and social commitments speak louder than our Gospel convictions we inevitably begin to mirror the culture and not the Church of Jesus Christ. The cross is not a weapon to beat down opponents, it is God’s amazing news of salvation for sinners, of whom I am the worst. 

This is the place to begin each day and every conversation, 

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15)

When we view ourselves in light of the cross, it changes the ways we understand ourselves and the way we view others. We can mourn the days in which we live (and there is much reason for mourning). There are sometimes godly reasons for anger. But the cross will surely recompose our attitudes and ambitions and avenues.

As the Lord Jesus hung on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

How can a Christian live and speak and act without seeing that it was my sin that held him there?

“It was my sin that held Him there

Until it was accomplished

His dying breath has brought me life

I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything

No gifts, no power, no wisdom

But I will boast in Jesus Christ

His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?

I cannot give an answer

But this I know with all my heart

His wounds have paid my ransom”

The Season that was Melbourne


Melbourne, Oh Melbourne,
How the proud has fallen.
Deserted streets and closed doors,
Schools without children and the MCG in darkness.


The public is masked and commanded to stay indoors.
Work, study, lonely, tired.
Don’t leave the radius, 
Charged by the dynasty of Flavius.


The most liveable city in the world,
They gasped at us and saw our triumph,
That was Melbourne in a smiling portrait,
Luna Park has now lost her grin.


Once the capital of sport, culture, and coffee,
fashion, food,  and education.
Our domination has turned to obliteration. 
This desirable city has been truly flattened.


Trust built on vanity,
Faith pumped with hubris.
We preached a message of greatness,
That’s now exposed for being ever so shallow.


Now the world looks on,
And observes with ponderous note,
What has happened to that once great metropolis,
That promised land of flowing milk and honey?


The Bible always warned,
“Pride goes before destruction, 
a haughty spirit before a fall”.
But we knew better, for we are superior,
To all those lesser places of Paris, New York, 
and Bendigo.  


Disasters come and they’re hard to take,
Lives are altered and even taken.
Hardship forced upon unwilling participants,
And prosperity’s security is proven fake.


The day will dawn and Melbourne reopen,
Sport will play and coffee drunk,
Shops will fill and come the Boxing Day Test too.
But what will Melbourne do with her ostentation?


Sailing on the bay,
And jogging the tan,
Trams running along Swanston Street,
Clogged with Melbourne’s Renaissance man.


To repeat Rome’s folly,
Is the drunken bloke’s slur.
Dressing wounds and crying peace,
Our prophets are prolific.


“Stand at the crossroads and look
    ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your souls.
    But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.

China Gaslighting Australia

Gaslighting is the art of manipulating someone into doubting what is true and even to question their own sanity.

Unfortunately gaslighting has become a popular device in much political discourse and in some quarters of the media. The Communist Government of China are also exponents of gaslighting.

The Age is reporting today that, “China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Australia had been “infected with fear, conjecture and paranoia”.”

What is this paranoia that Australia is suffering? One of our citizens, TV anchor, Cheng Lei, has been arrested in China without charge. She is now imprisoned at an undisclosed location and the Chinese Government is refusing to inform the Australian Government as to the reason. They can detain Cheng Lai for 6 months without charge. 

This doesn’t sound an “infection of fear or paranoia”. Indeed, this is far from the first time China has acted in this way toward foreign citizens. While this story is unfolding, China has added to a growing series of sanctions fixed against Australian exporters, yesterday suspending barley trade from Australia’s largest grain exporter. 

According to the story in The Age, China has spent the past year actively reorienting its trade partnerships, moving away from Australia and increasing trade with countries like Argentina, Russia, and France.

Why is this a problem? Contrary to Beijing’s gaslighting, there are genuine reasons for Australia to be concerned about the rise of Communist China. 1.4 billion people are subjected to this authoritarian rule. This totalitarian regime has an extended history of persecuting minorities. Churches continue to be closed and pastors imprisoned. Churches that remain open are usually required to adopt a corrupt version of the Bible (all the awkward passages are removed and red book friendly sayings inserted). Around 1 million Uyghurs have been forced into ‘education’ camps.  Hong Kong is losing her freedoms, military bases are being established in disputed areas in the South China Sea, and Taiwan’s sovereignty remains under threat.

In the meantime, China has been selling sugary treats all over the world to buy supporters and strategic gain, making foreign Governments dependent upon her for economic stability.  The One belt, one road scheme, which my State of Victoria has signed up to, is part of the Peoples’ Republic’s foreign policy and economic strategy.

Australia has experienced significant issues in 2020, from raging bushfires to a global pandemic and what is now the worse economic crisis since the Great Depression. Let’s not be mistaken, the fall out from these issues will not be quickly or easily resolved. On top of this, over the past 3 months the Federal Government has raised awareness over the posing complexity of Australia’s relationship with China. This has resulted in the urgent and immediate injection of $100 millions into military defence upgrades and cyber defence.  The Australian Strategic Policy Institute is also speaking more directly to the geopolitical issues arising in our region.

During this time, Europe is barely a shell of its former glory, and United Kingdom has chosen to drink the poison chalice of identity politics and the sexual revolution. The United States is genuinely reeling from its own growing internal troubles, all which require enormous political attention and which have the affect of draining people from having the mental and emotional energy for tackling other (and possibly bigger) issues that are on the horizon. The sun is setting on the West.

The point is simple, Communist China is thirsty for power and prestige. China appears to be growing in confidence and has already taken bold steps to increase her influence this year. Do they perceive that the West has become either too distracted politically or too depleted emotionally to respond with any real semblance of  fortitude?

25 years ago I listened D.A Carson expound the book of Ezekiel and heard him make the startling suggestion (which it was at the time) that the United States, like every superpower before her, would one day collapse. Sometimes Empires fall rapidly like a sudden avalanche. More often the demise takes places over many years (if not decades) like a slow moving glacier. The history of the world offers an array of geo-political, economic, and military reasons for the rise and fall of nations, but lurking behind collapse is a usual suspect; hubris. Hatred is another reason, and so is boredom.

Rome didn’t fall in a day. Through centuries of infighting, plagues, famines, and external threats, her power diminished. In 410Ad Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. With a flair harkening back to Nero and mirroring our own culture today, the Christians were to blame.  Rome was rebuilt, but only as a much weaker and vulnerable city with an ever shrinking influence.

There is more than one way to oversee the demise of a nation. One can buy influence or choose to bully your opponents. And if those methods fall short, there are always military options. So far, China has proven successful in both buying and bullying, but what will happen when others stand up to her?

History demonstrates that appeasement rarely satisfies a hungry dragon. It may delay action but only for so long.

I’ve been suggesting this for some months, but as we move deeper into this difficult year I am more convinced that the events thus far may pale into smallness in comparison with the growing threat to our north. It is time for us to get our houses into order.

Thankfully God doesn’t succumb to gaslighting. What he does do is tell us the honest truth about the world and about ourselves. Sometimes the truth is hard to swallow and so we prefer to create these imaginary bubbles where life is secure, the world is basically okay, and we deserve nothing but goodness. This may work in the short term, but as 2020 is revealing, eventually reality bursts the bubble.

2020 reminds me of how important prayer is as a Christian response to crises and threats.

I am also reminded of Psalm 146:6 which tells us, “Do not put your trust in princes,  in human beings, who cannot save.”

I am reminded of Jesus’ words to ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness”.

I am reminded of the imperative to teach my children the ways they should go and in whom they can put their trust.

I am reminded of Jesus’ words, “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.” Into such a time as this, Jesus reminds his disciples of the priority of the Gospel, “ this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

I am reminded that a pastor’s role includes preparing and equipping the church for tomorrow.

This year is a once in a generation time to reassess what are our ultimate hopes and deepest desires. This year may also prove to be a trial run for more dangerous times ahead should China insist on her agenda and should the West continue to destroy itself in a myriad of culture wars.

“Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.” (Psalm 146:5)

I’ve written a book!

I’ve written a little book, ‘Symphony from the Great War’.

In ‘Symphony from the Great War’ an Australian takes his family to northern Europe to retrace the steps of his Great-grandfather during the First World War on the Western Front. As they visit famed places like Plugstreet, Messines, and Villers-Bretonneux, Murray Campbell offers theological insights into the nature of warfare and the human condition.

History records moments of courage, genius, and creativity. Not everyone who participated in the dramas of the past is afforded such roles. William Campbell fought on the Western Front but he was no Ajax or Achilles. This is the story of an ordinary Australian who survived the Great War without fame or note.

If you are interested in Australian history, the First World War, and some theology sprinkled into the mix, you might like to buy, own, and read ‘Symphony from the Great War’. Available now on Kindle

click on the graphic below for the link

Australia: Healthy Pluralism or Dogmatic Secularism?

Australians are understandably focused on combating COVID-19 right now. We are also beginning to highlight the threat Communist China is posing to geopolitical stability around the globe. Indeed, perhaps because of the issue of Communist China’s ambitions it is important for Australians to understand and appreciate the values of our democratic system.

I’m not sure if it’s deliberate or if it stems from a failure in our university education, but it’s clear that there is an abundance of confusion regarding religion’s relationship with Australian public life. Indeed, this remains one of the key issues facing Australia, as evidenced by the same sex marriage debate in 2017 and ongoing discussions over the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

Take for example, these tweets by Jane Caro last night. Jane Caro is a well known social commentator here in Australia. She said, 

“I fiercely believe in separation of church and state and that religious beliefs should not be privileged (tax free status anyone) over any other beliefs. Theocracies are deadly dangerous, particularly to women and LGBTQI people. I don’t want to ban them, or privilege them.”

First of all, pretty much no one wants or believes in theocracies.  Is there a movement in Australia to turn our democracy into a theocracy?  This line of argument is a red herring. Supporters of theocracies are negligible, and it is certainly not what Christian Churches in Australia posit. 

Second, Christians strongly believe in the separation of church and state. It is after all, an historic Christian view. It was Jesus who said, 

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus wasn’t arguing for the exclusion of religious ideas from the political sphere and neither was he fusing them together. Similarly, the Australia Constitution doesn’t advocate for a secularism without religious ideas and contributions, but rather that Government will not be controlled by any single religious organisation.

It is important to realise that the social pluralism we enjoy today is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Indeed, Australia’s political and social pluralism  is one of the byproducts of Christian theism. If, as some hardline secularists want, that we rid our culture of all public vestiges of Judeo-Christianity, we will in fact destroy the underpinnings for a healthy pluralistic society and instead create one that is far more authoritarian and far less tolerant. Do we want to take that road?

No one disputes that there have been alternative views over 2,000 years of history, but our nation’s position on Church and State is the result of centuries of Christian influence and ideas. Christian’s aren’t wanting to diminish these distinctions.

Third, Caro’s real position is not in fact the separation of church and state, but the separation of religion and state. These are two quite different philosophical views. Caro’s public record demonstrates that she believes religious ideas should be squeezed out of the public square and receive no benefit of existence from Government.

To be fair, in last night’s Twitter exchange she later tried to backtrack a little, “Nope. As far as I am concerned you can keep your beliefs, proselytise them all you want, run & finance your schools & hospitals, exercise your right to vote, stand for office, pay your taxes & live according to your own values, just all the rest of us – no more & no less.”

In other words, tax benefits should only be given to organisations that represent a secular (which is now commonly although erroneously understood as atheistic) contribution to public life. The problem is, that’s not social pluralism.  

Earlier this year, Caro complained when the Prime Minister offered a prayer. She said, 

“Praying is fine, dedicating Australia – a secular, pluralistic democracy – to his god is not. It’s not his country to dedicate to anyone, and 30% of us have no faith & many that do – worship a different god from his. That was my issue.”

“As I responded at the time, the problem with Caro’s argument is that it falls flat no matter what the Prime Minister believes. If he was a Hindu and prayed to one of the thousands of Hindu gods, he would be out of sync with the majority of Australians. If the PM was an atheist and in principle refused to prayer, he would be out of step with the many millions of Australians who are praying during this crisis.

The Prime Minister praying for our nation doesn’t undermine our pluralism, it is a shining example of it.” 

Dr Michael Bird notes in the 2016 article, Whose Religion? Which Secularism? Australia Has a Serious Religious Literacy Problem, the parameters of secularism have been redefined, “no longer as the freedom of the individual in religion, but as the scrubbing of religion from all public spheres.”

A pluralist society allows difference whereas authoritarian secularism demands sameness. Which offers a better understanding of equality? 

At the end of the day, hardline secularists are not aiming for equality but for conformity. Behind this is either an intellectual laziness or dishonesty. The assumption is, secularism is morally superior and morally neutral. This doesn’t stack up on even a superficial level. Everyone brings to the table their own theological and moral commitments, which are always religious in some shape and form.

As Jonathan Leeman observes in his book on political theology, 

“secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps as liberal authoritarianism…the public realm is nothing less than the battle ground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favour’.

My point in writing today is this, the conversation about the role of religion in society isn’t going away soon. It’s not even on pause, the issue is simply gurgling quietly behind the scenes. Twitter is probably not the most useful way for challenging popular misconceptions about the partnership between religion and state, but conversations need to be had. 

Should the Victorian Government extend the State of Emergency until late 2021?

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been an advocate for Victorians doing the right thing & respecting the rules in place. That doesn’t mean agreeing every decision or that implementation of rules is always easy,  but we have nonetheless accepted that there are experts working hard to give their best advice to the Government. 

It won’t surprise anyone to note that there are always some Victorians who will do the wrong thing, no matter the social or legal compulsion. However, the overwhelming majority of the people are adhering to the rules, despite the significant costs. 

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

As the months progress I fear that what is already a difficult year is becoming a greater burden for huge numbers of Victorians. I am not making light of COVID-19 and the detriment it is to peoples’s lives; it is a serious disease. It is important to also highlight that a pandemic is never one dimensional; it impacts lives and communities in multi-dimensional ways. These costs are mounting: 100,000s of Victorians are unemployed, suicides related to the lockdown have been reported, mental health services are struggling, the economic picture is becoming more bleak with each passing week. On top of this, after 6 months of living under tight restrictions, the general wellbeing of people has been tested. 

For those have secure jobs and whose physical and mental health is unaffected, it is relatively easy to go along with any and every decision coming from Spring St. Not everyone is facing such a comfortable position. Indeed, eventually their costs will become ours.

Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday announced that he is requesting a 12 month extension to the State of Emergency, which will give the Government ongoing control over the everyday and personal lives of 4.9 million Melbournians, and a further 1 million Victorians who live in regional areas. This doesn’t mean that the Government will enforce all these powers for the full duration of time, but it does mean that they can do so at any time.

The announcement is a clear indication that the Government doesn’t trust the people to do what right. I understand the logic behind the thinking but I believe there is an alternative to extending this extraordinary set of powers: we trust the Victorian people to continue behaving in safe and appropriate ways. Victorians have had several months of practicing social distancing and learning to wear masks. The Government can provide detailed guidelines for businesses, schools, churches, and for outdoor activities. The Department of health and human services can provide regularly updates and inform the public of outbreaks and concerns. It remains in everyone’s interest to keep acting responsibly. Those who don’t are, for the most part, probably the very same individuals who are currently flouting the rules. 

If after 6 months the people of Victoria are facing staggering costs, how much more are we prepared to pay should another 12 months be added? Some are suggesting a compromise, perhaps allowing for a 3 month extension; the proposal has warrant. Let’s be clear, the issue isn’t only about public health and safety, nor can it be reduced to economics, but there is an issue here that drives to the very heart of democratic government. Should the people relinquish their civic freedoms and responsibilities and hand it all to the Government and to unelected officials? This may not feel like an urgent matter right now, but it rarely does. Isn’t that the point? The strength of societal freedoms and responsibilities are most tested during a trial such as this. It is a dangerous precedent that we would do well to avoid.

It is no small thing for millions of citizens to give up their democratic and social freedoms to a tiny few. No Government in Australian history has ever assumed such power. No Government in modern history, outside authoritarian regimes, has taken it upon themselves to exercise this kind of absolutist rule. Keep in mind, this includes two World Wars and the Great Depression.

At yesterday’s conference Premier Daniel Andrews made the following admissions:

  1. If there is no vaccine available in 12 months time he will consider extending the emergency powers for another year. That would make a total of 2.5 years, ending in September 2022.
  2. Should a vaccine be found, it will take considerable time before it is available for the public to use.
  3. Should a vaccine be found and made available, no one knows how effective it will be and whether it require subsequent tops ups.

I appreciated the Premier’s candour on this occasion. I’ve noticed in recent days that the Government has taken on board some criticisms and requests that are coming from various quarters of the State. For example, more information is now being provided at daily press briefings and Government websites are about to include more detailed data and information. I’ve also appreciated my local MP who is regularly keeping his constituents informed about COVId-19 related issues. I hope that the Government will now listen to these concerns.

Outrage or empathy? A President’s brother dies

President Trump’s younger brother died today. As the news broke on Twitter, the phrase ‘The wrong Trump’ started trending. This was among the less ghastly things being said about the Trump family this afternoon. Take for example The Washington Post who chose this headline for the obituary, “Robert Trump, younger brother of President Trump who filed lawsuit against niece, dies at 71”.

As Jesus once said, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:32)

Let’s be honest, we live in a world filled with hate. Twitter is a dumping ground for all manner of human bile. Twitter has become a place where people go to vent and speak the words they dare not speak to another in person. It’s a verbal firing range, often committed in anonymity. 

It is one thing to affirm and speak kindly of people you like and who agree with you, but what about people with whom you share less in common? What about people with whom you disagree on religious issues or political matters? How hard it is to find kindness and understanding across the political divide. 

The Bible, as it is so often, turns the world the right way round and flattens human wisdom and ego. The Scriptures say, ‘mourn with those who mourn’. 

“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.” (Romans 12:14-16)

Granted, these words are written to Christians (and I hope they take them seriously), but they’re not a bad set of suggestions for anyone.  

In our polarised age, it’s evident that many people no longer even pretend to express sympathy. In the game of cultural power play showing niceness to ‘opponents’ is a sign of weakness. The cultural clappers want outrage and fighting words, and anger and verbal diarrhoea aimed at all those social heretics. 

The world is returning to a fragmented past where tribalism is triumphing. We’re jumping into Lord of the Flies and instead of being repelled we’re enthralled. The President of the United States’ brother dies and it is too much for to simply offer a word of sympathy. Instead, it is an excuse to pile on a family because of political dislike. This shouldn’t be about politics. This isn’t about approving of Donald Trump’s character or his polices. It’s about treating fellow human beings with a degree of respect. If we are unable to choose a word of empathy to a family who have lost a brother, we have lost one of the most basic aspects of our humanity and become truly pathetic. 

Yes, President Trump’s behaviour has often added to the social mess in which we are squelching and churning, but the origins of our situation are far older and deeper. Both Twitter and the real world need more kindness. We need grace and mercy to cut through the vitriol that is consuming and destroying societies before our very eyes.

Imagine if God treated us the way we deserved? He didn’t wait for us to treat with with honour. Instead, he pursued us in love even while we were sinners. This God of the Bible is patient and longs to demonstrate grace and kindness, even toward the wicked, and even for you and me. 

“ ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11).

Melbourne: State of Disaster

The world’s most liveable city is now largely deserted. Her 4.9 million residents are now required to stay in their homes, apart from a few limited and important reasons.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday afternoon declared a State of Disaster. The streets are now largely empty, office blocks abandoned, schools and universities closed, and the roads eerily quiet. There was no slow procession of peak hour traffic outside my home this morning.

The trams are running empty of passengers and our sporting stadiums have turned into relics to a yesterday that we long to return.

As of last night, there is now a curfew in place. No one is allowed to drive, walk or cycle, in their suburbs from 8pm until 5am. The curfew along Level 4 restrictions will continue until at least September 13th.

 

melbourne

 

The last 5 months have been challenging and I expect the next 6 weeks will be even more difficult. Many Melbournians are already tired and anxious. Any prolonged disruption to ‘normal life’ brings with it stresses; how much more when even the basic elements are put on hold. I feel for the 100,000s plus students trying to study for their VCE during this lockdown. The economic uncertainties are real and not going to be easily fixed. The Victorian economy is losing $1 billion each week and with thousands more losing their jobs.

Melbourne is my home. I was born here, went to school and studied at university here. Susan and I married in Camberwell. After 4 years of exile (in Sydney) we returned and have since lived, worked, and raised our children in Mentone.

The experience is new to almost all of Melbourne’s residents. It is certainly my first time to live in a city with a curfew and where leaving ones home may result in a visit from the police. Thousands are defence force personnel are also patrolling our suburbs and checking on residents. It is a strange and dystopian view.

I don’t want to exaggerate; while no one wants to be in this position many people seem to be doing ok. Life is different, and at times annoying but overall they’re doing pretty well. I also appreciate that many other Melbournians are becoming frustrated and even angry. I have noted how even our  ‘progressive’ leaning media outlets are now turning on the State Government. I’m not going to pretend that the pandemic has been handled perfectly by Governments or the people alike. Isn’t that part of the reality of facing new and extraordinary times? Our fallibilities our exposed, our best efforts fall short, and the stubbornness of others intrudes to the detriment of others.

I am though urging my fellow Melbournians to adhere to the new rules. This isn’t about asserting personal rights, listening to idiotic theories, or playing political games. Most of us recognise that mistakes have been made. Had people done the right thing and had authorities better-equipped personnel during hotel quarantine we may not be in the position we are now facing. There is a time for those conversations, but now, we need to focus on following the law and looking out for the vulnerable, the anxious, and the lonely.

Our Church is praying regularly our Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Cabinet, for Premier Daniel Andrews and his Cabinet, and for those health officials giving advice each day. This is important.

This pandemic has already taken lives. It has forced many thousands to reconfigure their lives because of illness or financial hardship. Stories coming out of age care homes are horrific. The mental and social toll is near impossible to measure. Dare I suggest, not as a pessimist but as a realist, more difficult days lay ahead. Once Level 4 restrictions are lifted there were will be 4.9 million sighs of relief. The audible heave, however, won’t blow away other restrictions that will remain for some time. The economic toll for thousands of businesses will be devastating, and we don’t yet know the cost that is being born by our children.

We’re not fighting to rid ourselves of COVID-19, but to control it; according to the Victorian Government we are trying to uncover the source for 100s of mystery cases and to control (or eliminate?) community transmissions. Melbourne will come through to the other side, bruised and changed, but we will make it. But even as we stagger to our feet there is an even greater threat looming over our shoulders, namely that of an authoritarian and hungry red dragon. Could this dystopian season be but the first chapter of more to come?

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute advises the Federal Government and also informs the Australian public about the rapidly growing issue of Communist China. In an interview last week, Michael Shoebridge noted that Government military and strategic plans for the 2030s are being fast tracked for employment now. There is growing consensus that conflict in the region within months is not only possible but is now “credible”.

Melbourne has enjoyed a long summer: 75 years of tremendous progress, pleasure, and safety. There have been interruptions, but nothing like this.

Ecclesiastes ch.3 reminds us that there are many times in life. Not every season continues into perpetuity.

“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

   a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

  a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,

  a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,

  a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,

   a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,

    a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.”

 

Melbournians, for the most part, have grown up with the belief that we deserve our choice of the above times, and that those other experiences are what happens to people in other parts of the world. We are now learning that not even the world’s most liveable city is exempt.

Only a few sentences later the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “He has also set eternity in the human heart”.

Each new day is preparation for eternity; Melbourne has too often failed the test. We’ve been caught out. We can’t rely upon our prosperity, security, and health, to see us through; they are unreliable gods. This is a time where our deepest desires and most earnest hopes are being tested. If the world’s most liveable place cannot make certain our hopes and security, where must we look?

Psalm 62 takes us to one whom Melbourne believed was no longer necessary. And yet, this God remains the one firm foundation we have:

“Truly my soul finds rest in God;
my salvation comes from him.

Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

How long will you assault me?
Would all of you throw me down—
this leaning wall, this tottering fence?

Surely they intend to topple me
from my lofty place;
they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
but in their hearts they curse.

Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.

Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.

My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.

Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.

Surely the lowborn are but a breath,
the highborn are but a lie.
If weighed on a balance, they are nothing;
together they are only a breath.

10 Do not trust in extortion
or put vain hope in stolen goods;
though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.

11 One thing God has spoken,
two things I have heard:
“Power belongs to you, God,

12     and with you, Lord, is unfailing love”;
and, “You reward everyone
according to what they have done.” (Psalm 62)