A Day of Reckoning: Victorian Government pushes to ban Christian practices with threat of 10 years in prison

The day has come in Victoria where Christians and Churches need to decide whether to obey God or the Government. Such a decision should never be forced onto believers but the current Victorian Government insists that it must be so.

There are times when we use hyperbole and exaggerate the significance of words or decisions, but I do not think this is one of those occasions.

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 has been tabled in the Victorian Parliament. This is the most significant threat to religious freedom in Victoria in living memory. The current Government has been slowly removing religious freedoms for a number of years, but nothing quite like this.

Anyone found engaging in ‘change or suppression practices’ may face 10 years imprisonment.

Premier Daniel Andrews

“Cruel and bigoted practices that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity will soon be stamped out across Victoria, thanks to new laws introduced to Parliament today.       

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 will put in place new measures to protect Victorians from the serious damage and trauma caused by conversion practices.

The Bill denounces such practices as deceptive and harmful, reinforces that the ideology behind these practices is flawed and wrong.

The laws empower the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) to consider and respond to reports of change or suppression practices from any person, as well as launch investigations where there is evidence of serious or systemic change or suppression practices.”

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill may have wide-reaching ramifications for thousands of religious groups in Victoria, for 100,000s of Victorians, and for the entire State as it turns its back on religious freedom in favour for State-controlled religion. 

Now that the Bill is available to read, what does it mean for Christians and for churches?

The Bill is long and complex. There are important details that need to be addressed which I or others will do so later on. I want to comment here on some of the larger issues.

I want to begin by stressing that if the Government’s intention is to protect vulnerable people from extreme practices that were once employed by a few and marginal religious groups, there is a warrant for conversation.

When the Guardian reported, 

“Religious groups have sought to distance themselves from the older practices of electro-shock treatment, aversion therapy or other extreme methods, while arguing that religious counselling encouraging people to change their sexuality or gender identity should not be banned if a person consented to the treatment.”

I must respond and say, not true. We are not distancing ourselves from these older practices because almost no church ever engaged in them. Until a few years ago I didn’t know that such practices once occurred in a few religious groups. Despite the efforts of the Government and various advocacy groups, this is not and was never widespread among Christians in Victoria. In addition, I note the government has carefully avoided telling the public that this the so-called ‘conversion therapy’ originated not with Christian churches but within secular psychology. Decades ago, some well-meaning people unfortunately adopted the ideas and practices from psychology and added a spiritual twist. 

If the Government is concerned with banning shock therapy and particular counselling methods, pretty much all Christians would find agreement. For those people who have undergone those kinds of experiences, I pray that they will find healing and come to know the God of all comfort. However, these narrow and debunked practices are not the parameters of this Bill, nor the goal of this Bill. Both the Premier and the Attorney General have made it clear,

Premier Daniel Andrews referred to conversion practice as,

 “This bigoted quackery”, 

and 

“The Bill denounces such practices as deceptive and harmful, reinforces that the ideology behind these practices is flawed and wrong.”

Attorney-General Jill Hennssey said,

“We’re sending a clear message: no one is ‘broken’ because of their sexuality or gender identity,” 

“These views won’t be tolerated in Victoria and neither will these abhorrent practices.”

Let us take note, it is not only the alleged activity that Daniel Andrews and Jill Hennessy want to be eradicated from Victoria, it is “these views”. In other words, to think or have ‘these views’ is something that the Victorian Government wants rooted out.

In other words,  the Government is not only targeting those rare, few and extreme practices (that frankly don’t happen anymore), the government is aiming its intention at the beliefs and the thoughts of 100,000s of Victorians. Is it the role of government to police our minds and to decide what theology can and cannot be believed? Since when did God give them jurisdiction over the conscience?

Churches are left with little protection

The Bill contains no explicit protection of the rights of religious people to believe and teach their views. At one point it refers to the Charter of Human Rights but it fails to offer any specific protection to religious people and religious organisations. With a note of irony that can’t be missed, the Bill’s explanatory memo references to “freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief”, in the context of constructing an entire Bill aimed at taking those freedoms away.

The Government’s position is of course hypocritical and disingenuous. For example, while they argue sexual orientation is fixed and that persuading anyone of an alternative is morally wrong, the Bill offers protections for those who are in the business of transitioning people into a gender other than their birth sex. In another law that the Government pushed through a year ago, on one’s birth certificate you are free to legally change the gender on your birth certificate every 12 months. When it comes to children who are wrestling with gender dysphoria, they are now encouraged and urged to no longer identify with their biological sex but to assume a new gender identity. The government have acted in this manner despite an increasing consensus in the medical fraternity that this kind of counselling and medical intervention is fraught with danger and is unlikely to resolve the issues facing these children.

What is considered ‘conversion or suppression practice?

In terms of the particulars of this Bill. it is important to understand how terms are defined, in particular, what constitutes ‘conversion or suppression practice’.

5 Meaning of change or suppression practice 

(1) In this Act, a change or suppression practice means a practice or conduct directed towards a person, whether with or without the person’s consent—

(a) on the basis of the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity; and

(b) for the purpose of—

(i) changing or suppressing the sexual orientation or gender identity of the person; or

(ii) inducing the person to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity.

(3) For the purposes of subsection (1), a practice includes, but is not limited to the following—

(a) providing a psychiatry or psychotherapy consultation, treatment or therapy, or any other similar consultation, treatment or therapy;

(b) carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism; 

(c) giving a person a referral for the purposes of a change or suppression practice being directed towards the person.

Take note of the following details:

  1. The Bill will ban consensual practices. If a person invites a pastor or person to pray for them in relation to their sexual orientation or gender identity, the pastor or person can be charged according to the Act.
  2. Section 5.3 provides examples of what constitutes ‘practices’.  Prayer is banned. For example, if a person asks for prayer that they would live a godly life and refrain from sexual activity that they believe is inconsistent with follow Jesus Christ, the person praying can be charge according to this Act. 
  3. Section 5.3 specifies that practice is not limited to the examples that are provided. 

Where does this leave preaching and teaching the Bible’s sexual ethic? What of the sermon, the Bible study group, and seminars? 

To be clear, Christianity does not teach that a persons gender or sexual orientation will change. Christianity does however teach and urge Christians to live sexually godly lives which include only having sexual relations within the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. The Bible contains many exhortations for believers to not engage in sexual activity outside marriage. Will these formal and informal conversations be permitted under this Bill? At the stage, that is far from certain.

For teaching abstinence or offering pastoral counselling in line with the Bible’s vision of sexuality, and praying with fellow believers that they will be godly in their sexuality, does this fall foul of the Bill?  

This ambiguity needs to be clarified in the Bill. If teaching and sermons and study groups are not subject to this Bill, then it needs to be made explicit so that religious organisations are afforded due protection.

As it stands, there are details that this Bill does not answer and deliberately (or least it seems a conscious decision) leaves open. What if a church runs a seminar on marriage or raising children and we explore the bibles teaching on sexuality?

Where the Bill is silent, we may turn to the Bill’s explanatory memorandum and to the HCC and HRLC reports which the Government used extensively for shaping their position. 

The explanatory note states,

“These examples are illustrative only and do not narrow the definition in subclause (1) which is intended to capture a broad range of conduct, including, informal practices, such as conversations with a community leader that encourage change or suppression of sexual orientation or gender identity, and more formal practices, such as behaviour change programs and residential camps.”

In other words, a conversation is deemed an offence. A chat where a Christian encourages another Christian to follow a Christian ethic could become unlawful.

The Explanatory memo doesn’t hold as much legal weight as the Bill itself. However, I am reliably informed that a Court may refer to the explanatory note.

The Health Complaints Commissioner’s Report for the Government, adds this information,

“Conversion therapy/practices reinforced homosexuality as a form of ‘brokenness’”

And

“Church teachings that homosexuality is sinful;”

Notice the attention given to Church teachings (as opposed to other religions who also identify homosexual practices as sinful). In other words, classical Christian teaching about sexuality is deemed to be harmful. According to the HCC, an exposition of Romans ch.1 or 1 Corinthians ch.6 would fall under the umbrella of harm. If a Church organises a marriage enrichment day where the Bible’s presentation of marriage is affirmed, this event could fall foul of harm. From weddings to Sunday sermons, from Bible study groups to counselling sessions, in contexts where sex outside of heterosexual marriage is spoken of as sinful or broken, the Health Complaints Commissioner identifies all of the above as harmful and therefore the State can justify limiting religious freedom.

The other report which the Government has underscored is from the Human Rights Law Centre.

Under  conversion practice they include,

“pastoral care which includes (or claims to include) ‘counselling’, ‘healing’, claims about ‘curing’, ‘changing’ or ‘repairing’ a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, or claims about improving a person’s mental or physical health, would likely still be classified as a health service, and the above regulations would apply.”

Indeed, the definition is so expansive that it may include sermons, Bible Studies, marriage courses, counselling, and prayer.

The HRLC report also included new forms’ of conversion practice, among them is self-control and abstinence.

“Instead, they are beginning to promote activities designed to help same-sex attracted people live chaste and celibate lives, in accordance with the sexual ethics of their religious traditions.”

The HRLC and HCC reports are not part of the Bill, but they do form background and reveal the sorts of practices that are being views. The Government has a responsibility to clarify where the HRLC and HCC understandings of ‘practices’ can or will influence interpretation of the Act.

Concluding Remarks for now

Once again, we can all agree that there used to be unhelpful and damaging practices done to fellow Victorians. We oppose them and pray that those individuals who have been harm, may find peace and healing. The Government’s Bill, as it stands, goes well beyond those archaic and now debunked practices. This is an attack on normal and deeply held beliefs and practices among Christians all over the world.

I am less shocked by the Government’s narrative as I am saddened. Pumping children with hormones and cutting off breasts and penises is not harmful, but Christianity is harmful. Praying for Christians to be godly about sex is harmful. Teaching the Bible’s vision for human sexuality and relationships could be defined as harmful. 

Without important revisions and corrections, this Bill will make vulnerable 100,000s of Victorian Christians who are persuaded by the Bible’s vision for human sexuality.  For Christians, this is never about forcing our views on anyone. It is about casting a better vision for the world and human life, and about persuading and loving others as Christ has loved us.

If the Government doesn’t intend to prosecute Christians or Churches for praying or teaching or practicing a Christian view of sexuality, then it is incumbent upon them to clarify their goals and to correct this Bill.

I trust that the Victorian Parliament will see commonsense and introduce significant revisions to this anti-religion Bill. 

To Churches, faith groups, and denominations, I encourage you to write to your local members of Parliament and express your concerns winsomely and clearly.


LGB Group opposes the Bill

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/conversion-therapy-ban-may-backfire-lgb-group/news-story/f065829f62254bfdbdaac91961b9ab20

Associate Prof. Neil Foster begins to unpack the legal issues with the Bill – https://lawandreligionaustralia.blog/2020/11/26/victorian-conversion-practices-prohibition-introduced/?fbclid=IwAR1FXurFqxt6SFJojCi5BvSFK_agfYbp8Zn18UyY0E8qa4vcuG2QJ4l8ouA

This legal analysis exposes deep problems with the legislation, including how it works against children and families. No wonder LGB groups and some transgender people are appalled by the proposed Bill – https://freedomforfaith.org.au/library/labor-government-in-victoria-makes-prayer-a-criminal-offence?fbclid=IwAR378h-hypTQLwfVRM0KAoY-WRnhdQ22L2xUaJLgtXldSWSolZlBypYP8pw

Goodness in Victoria Exposes Dreadful Hypocrisy

Victoria should we known as the State of Confusion.

A beautiful announcement was made in Victoria yesterday. Victorians who have lost a baby during pregnancy can now apply for a certificate from the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

13 years ago Susan and I were overjoyed to learn that we were having another child. This elation broke on the day he had the ultrasound and learned that our little one’s heart was no longer beating. Even today, there is an echo of grief in our hearts as we remember our child. There is also a joy and anticipation in knowing that the day of resurrection is coming and we will be reunited in heaven. 

Susan and I are but one of 100,000s of couples in Victoria who experience a miscarriage. It is believed that perhaps 1 in 5 pregnancies ends in miscarriage. 

The concept for the certificate started with a Ms Moran, who works for SANDS, an organisation who supports families through miscarriages, stillbirths, and newborn deaths. This recognition by the State of the life and value of these little children will be welcomed; it is a wonderful idea.

Victoria’s Attorney General Jill Hennessy commented, 

“These certificates are a meaningful way to recognise this significant event,” she said.

“It’s important we remember those children who were taken too soon.”

Victoria’s decision comes with an elephant of mammoth proportions. On the one hand, we are affirming the life and value of little ones who die in the womb, while also advocating the killing of children in the womb. 

Under Victorian law (since 2008), a mother may abort her child, even up until the point of birth. 

In 2015, Dr Rachel-Carling Jenkins MLC  introduced a Bill to the Victorian Parliament, calling to ban abortions after 24 weeks. It was defeated. Jill Hennessy, who was the Health Minister at the time, rejected the Bill. She said

The really challenging decision that women may have to make about the future of a pregnancy is one that should be kept between the woman and her doctor. This is a matter that has been settled for a long time in Victoria, and we intend to ensure that continues to be the case”

Legislative Council member, Ms Patten responded to the Bill,

“I can’t believe that in 2015 we are even discussing abortion laws any more”.

Five years later, babies who die in the womb, even in the earliest weeks, can now be formally acknowledged by the State. And this, while we continue to legally permit many thousands of abortions every year, even at the point of birth. 

There is a ghostly horror lurking behind this irreconcilable contradiction. Either there is a human being in the mother’s womb or there is not.  They are a child or they are not. This isn’t rocket science. Indeed, with more technology at our disposal and with greater knowledge, the more we have discovered about life in the womb. We can see the heartbeat of a baby in the earliest weeks. We can delight at a child’s fingers and toes growing at 6 weeks. We now know that babies can hear and respond to music by 16 weeks; the next Mozart is already learning to feel and marvel at the beauty of sound.

If the State now recognises an infant who dies in the womb, how can we also persist with the view that it is right to kill a child of the same age? The disjunction is obvious and grotesque.

Behind claims of equality and human dignity are assumptions that contradict such public speech. Human life in Victoria does not have inherent or equal worth. Rather, life is defined subjectively and only carries the value assigned by other individuals. This is the law for the unborn. A child is not to live and have life because they are intrinsically human and have inherent worth; under Victorian law these are qualitative and conditional features assigned by a mother who chooses to keep her pregnancy.

With knowledge comes responsibility. With information comes accountability. Instead, my own State of Victoria which I love sadly testifies to the fact that wisdom doesn’t also accompany greater knowledge. Righteousness does not necessarily flow from increased learning.

To argue, it is the women’s choice, does not stand to moral or scientific reasoning. If this child is a person, as Victoria’s Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages now recognise, and as medical science has long established as fact, we can no longer sustain the view that the child’s life depends on a woman’s choice.

Should we be surprised that most media outlets have overlooked the fantastic story of the certificates? Or is likely that the jarring contradiction is too obvious for public consumption?

I am reminded of a young couple whose little boy died one week after he was born. The Dad fell into deep grief. This same man later wrote a Psalm where he not only expends his grief but also his contrition for decisions he made which led to this overwhelming situation.  The Psalm is pertinent for Victoria because on the day our consciences are shocked by the reality of decisions we have made, and we are disturbed at the thought of what we have done, we will look for One who can forgive us. Thank God that such a God exists and who forgives more fully than we can ever imagine or deserve.

“Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.

Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me 

Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me” (Psalm 51:1-12)

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. 

Operation Soteria

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

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

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

Victoria, especially Melbourne, is living with the greatest restrictions imposed on personal liberty and social freedom that has ever been witnessed in Australian history. A strict curfew has been enforced for months and Melbournians cannot leave a 5km radius from their homes. Schools are shut and most of the workforce must work from home. Churches have not met since March and may not for some considerable time. Families and friends are not permitted to mingle, either indoors or outdoors. 

The pandemic and how it has been handled in Melbourne reveals human nature in ways that we may find uncomfortable. Once the second wave has left our shores, I imagine millions of Melbournians wanting to move on and to leave behind 2020 as we would an awful nightmare. Relief is a powerful medicine, albeit a placebo. I want to offer three observations about how the pandemic is revealed our societal health.

1. Self Preservation or Self Sacrifice?

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

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

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

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

2. Fear or Love?

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

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

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

3. Suspicion or Trust?

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

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

While there is certainly an air of trust in Government directives and following public health warnings, the COVID-19 response was not be built on the premise of trust, but of suspicion. The Government anticipated that people won’t follow best medical advice and that people won’t follow reasonable measures (ie social distancing). Their suspicions have some warrant. 

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

Take for example this new Bill that the Government is brining before the Parliament, ’COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020’. If it passes any citizen can be appointed and given the authority to detain any fellow citizen who is suspected of having COVID-19 and whom authorities believe may not fully comply with quarantine.  In theory, as an untrained citizen who is not a police officer, I can be employed to report, check on, and even detain fellow citizens in a manner reminiscent of the Stasi. 

A significant number of QCs and SCs have written a letter outlining concerns about this Bill, including Retired High Court judge Michael McHugh and former Federal Court judges Peter Heerey and Neil Young. They explain,

Authorising citizens to detain their fellow citizens on the basis of a belief that the detained person is unlikely to comply with emergency directions by the ‘authorised’ citizens is unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse”.

“The bill would also allow any person the secretary considered appropriate to be authorised to exercise emergency powers”.

“There would be no requirement that persons authorised be police officers, or even public servants.”

As astonishing and dangerous as this Bill is to a free and democratic society, the Government not only has the gall to argue for it, but many Melbournians I suspect will be okay with it.  I suspect this doesn’t bode well for the future.

Choosing suspicion over trust works both ways. I’ve noted voices making unrealistic expectations and unsympathetic calls, condemning any and all mistakes. This fails to appreciate the nature of this pandemic; it is new and scientists are still trying to understand how the virus works and what is the best public approach. We may not know for another year which nation stumbled into the most advantageous roadmap. There is also a difference between mistake and incompetence. In the swamp of news conferences, tweets, and inquiries, discerning the truth is not always easy. 

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

Just today, Health Minister Jenny Mikakos fell on her sword, the morning after her boss stabbed her in the back. Sure, there have been apologies for “Operation Soteria” and even admissions of mistakes made, and yet when it came to the Inquiry no one it seems knew the answers to key questions. Instead, there was lots of blame shifting. It is quite extraordinary (and sadly predictable) that in the case of the worst disaster in our State’s history no one is taking responsibility. How can the State expect its people to behave with integrity when its leaders play blame games in order to save their own political skin? 

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

We need a better rescue plan

“Operation Soteria” has proven to be an ironic an even sardonic name. The rescue turned out to be a sinking ship. 

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

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

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

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”

COVID anger, frustration, and recalibrating our hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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)

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.

The Victorian people need greater clarity from the Government for pandemic objectives

Throughout this pandemic I have encouraged my fellow Victorians to follow government restrictions and the official health advice from the Department of Health and Human Services. Not understanding an issue or not agreeing with a policy is not sufficient reason for ignoring the rules. As a Christian the Bible tells us to honour those in authority and to follow the law, this is something I take seriously. It is also the case that in our system of Government we are able to participate and to ask questions and to be informed about reasons for public policy. 

I can only imagine how difficult this year has been for our decision-makers. This is not only the first pandemic in a century to hit Australia but this disease is new and scientists still know very little about how it works. 

Governments around the world have approached COVID-19 in different ways and these varied approaches don’t always conform to a set pattern or align with success ratios of other countries that are following a similar set of rules and guidelines. This is not a criticism of any single approach but simply noting that when it comes to tackling COVID-19, certainty is elusive and only with hindsight will we really know what was the most sensible strategy.

Many have made the crucial point that in the pandemic there are competing issues and concerns. I agree, it would be derelict of us to focus on just one aspect of the pandemic at the neglect of others.

To repeat, I don’t envy those who have responsibility for making these decisions. One thing I am continually doing (as is my church and many others too) is praying that those in authority will have wisdom and understanding, and choose the best path forward. Indeed, we are doing more than pray, for this is a time to assist our fellow Victorian in all manner of practical ways. 

In my role as a Melbourne church pastor, I listen to people who are struggling and finding life difficult.

I am concerned for the mental health of many Victorians.

I am concerned for school students and their education this year, and for their mental, social, and physical well being.

I am concerned about the economy and 100,000s of Victorians who have lost their jobs. Losing $1 billion per week from the Victorian economy is not about the money, it is about peoples jobs and livelihoods. I am also concerned about the staggering debt we are accumulating which our children and their children will have to pay back one day.

I am concerned for thousands of Victorians who are too afraid to visit their GP or to receive the medical treatments that they require.
Victoria’s State of Emergency powers is set to expire after being in place for 6 months. On Sunday, the Premier announced that he wants a 4 week extension. There is also the State of Disaster powers which were brought into play at the beginning of August and will continue until September 2nd. Such powers are rightly limited in duration because under normal circumstances, it is inappropriate and immoral for the State to limit the rights of citizens to work, travel, and participate in everyday activities.

From my perspective, before any such extensions are given, it is incumbent upon the Victorian Government to explain their objectives and to be clear about the details with the Victorian people. It is not healthy for any Government to keep Victorians in the dark. 

At this stage, Melbourne will remain under Stage 4 until September 13th. We have not been told under what conditions these restrictions be relaxed, nor when we will return to Stage 2, which is the point where most Melbournians can return to work, restaurants opening, and with schools and sport resuming. Under Stage 2, only the smallest of churches can recommence normal services.

It may be the case that the Department of Health and Human Services and the Premier have not decided what numbers are required before loosening the restrictions. It is apparent from various medical doctors who are publicising their views, that there is wide and varied opinion about what the aims should be in fighting COVID-19.  This is unsurprising, given the nature of this disease. When medical doctors and scientists voice their opinions in the public square (which they are entitled to do), it is not always helpful and sometimes it exacerbates public confusion. For example, are they simply expressing their opinion or are they trying to influence government directives? Are we aiming to lower the curve or to reach elimination? Is the aim of the lockdowns to have zero community transmission? Are Governments planning to suppress social freedoms until there is vaccine? 

While many are hopeful that a vaccine will be soon discovered and made available, no one yet has any idea what length of time we’re talking about. The Prime Minister has this week indicated there are positive signs about a vaccine coming from Oxford University, which sounds promising. At the moment estimations for having a vaccine in our hands range from 6 months to 12 and 18 months time. This is assuming that a suitable vaccine is found.

I am not advocating for a Swedish method or for a China style lockdown or anything in between. There are enough arm chair experts in our community without me becoming another annoying one. All I am saying is that we are now 6 months into this pandemic and there is uncertainty in our community about what the objectives are, both for the short term and the longer term. 

The request is simple and it’s important, the Victorian people deserve greater clarity about what the goal is for September 13th, and what the Government’s goals are for each following stages on the path to recovery. This information will not only assist compliance with rules, but also help business, schools, churches, and community groups to begin planning for the future. 

Rest assured, I continue to pray for our Federal and State Governments, and for our Health officials as they tackle this pandemic. 


Since writing this piece I have learned that the Oxford Vaccine “makes use of a cell line cultured from an electively aborted human foetus.” This raises important ethical questions about its use here in Australia. See https://www.eternitynews.com.au/world/covid-vaccine-protest-by-three-archbishops/