How will COVID-19 change the world?

Last week I wrote a piece noting 7 (possible) trends for Churches that are emerging through the COVID-19 pandemic. In this piece, I am thinking more broadly about culture and society, rather than specifically about Churches. In regard to the future of Christianity in Australia post-COVID-19, I am circumspect, trusting the Sovereignty of God and the power of His Gospel, but also noting limitations of people’s ability or willingness to change.

Without the Holy Spirit sanctifying minds and hearts, we are even less likely to choose positive change. Of course, I believe in God’s common grace that he pours out onto the world and which is received by believers and unbelievers alike. Where human progress and good achieved, we should be thankful for the evidence of this grace. As political analysts, economists, and social academics, begin to theorise about ‘what next’, what should we be thinking? Will the world change or not?

For the sake of avoiding a public stoning or being held up as a prophet of sorts, let me be clear: I don’t know what Australia will look like in 2021, let alone in July 2020. There are more variables at play here than in predicting what the weather will be like in Melbourne on any given day.

For example, no one knows what this virus will do next. Will it dissipate with time or with a change of season? Will it morph into new and more deadly strains? Indeed, there is a growing suggestion that we may not transition into a post-COVID-19 world, but rather, we may have to learn to live with COVID-19.

It is also unclear what Governments are aiming to achieve. Two months ago the objective was to flatten the curve so that our health system wouldn’t be overwhelmed. This didn’t mean more people wouldn’t catch COVID-19 but that we would slow the spread. However, toward the end of April, the rhetoric began to change, suggesting that we might eradicate COVID-19 from Australia. From my humble perspective, surely this requires either 1. long term social restrictions (including keeping national border closer indefinitely), or 2. reaching herd immunity, or 3. finding a vaccine. Depending on which immunologist or epidemiologist we listen to, a vaccine may be available as early as late this year, others suggest sometime 2021/2022, while other experts are more circumspect and are raising the possibility that an effective vaccine may never be found. It is important for Governments to be transparent with the people about what their objectives are as they look to the future.

There are two obvious conclusions that we can draw thus far. First, even the experts have little idea where we will be in 6 months time,  in terms of fighting the disease, social health, and global and local economics. Second, built into this pandemic, including responses made by Governments across the world, are some long term changes to society.

COVID-19

 

The new will be like the old

Predicting the future is a dangerous task and usually ends with inflations, conflations and misinterpretations. Looking forward is however an important step for making decisions today. We want to avoid crazy conspiracy theories like the plague, but are there indications of what tomorrow may look like?

As a Christian, I believe in listening to the experts. Scientists, economists, and psychologists are important voices to be listened to in this crisis, along with our political representatives. No one is suggesting they won’t make mistakes or that their agendas are pure as snow, but it is nonsense to ignore professional advice. As a Christian, I am also guided by Scripture, which sets our expectations for life and teaches us how to live in the midst of life’s myriad seasons.  For example, in Jesus’ famous apocalyptic sermon in Matthew ch.24, he describes life in the world between his first and second comings. He says,

“Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 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.”

If you think that these words are like the world today, as well as the world 6 months ago or 20 years ago and 200 years ago, you would be correct. Wars and natural disasters are not signs of the imminent return of Christ, but a description of the pattern of life that will be experienced until He returns. That means, events like a pandemic are not fuel for conspiracy theories and they are unlikely to be the great catalyst that fundamentally changes the world. This is an extraordinary time for us living through COVID-19 but it is not so out of place in the broad sweep of history. Such events have happened before and will reappear in the future. Whether it is disease or economic disaster or armed conflict, these things remind us that we live in a fallen world, filled with uncertainty and sin and death.

It is worth noting that in his apocalyptic sermon, Jesus tells us not to be alarmed by such events. God hasn’t been taken by surprise. He hasn’t let go of his Sovereign hand over the universe.

 

The new will also be different.

I suspect many people would like to see a return to the old normal; it is familiar and safe. Others are preaching that this is the time for radically reorienting society. For example, Leader of the Australian Labor Party Anthony Albanese this week announced a “Vision Statement on Australia Beyond the Coronavirus”. He has said that this is a ‘once in a life time opportunity’ to redefine and redirect Australian society. Which will it be? A return to normal or will a radically different Australia energy from COVID-19?

 

Here are 5 aspects of life that are likely to change due to COVID-19.

1. Socialising

While many people are eager to return to face to face relationships, others are reluctant about entering someone’s home let alone offering a hug or handshake. It is quite possible for two opposing trends to coexist and I suspect we’ll see both these attitudes running juxtaposed.

Given the 3 Stage plan to recovery that the Federal Government announced (and note that Stage 3 is far from what we can describe as normal) any return to usual socialising will take longer than many wish. We are not talking weeks or even months, but perhaps a couple of years. This will take a toll on people’s wellbeing, and it will seriously aggravate mental health issues. On May 15th the Federal Government have recognised this and so announced a $48 million Mental Health package to help with this endemic emerging in our suburbs and streets.

Human being are social beings. We need interpersonal contact and relationship for our mental health and for community strength. We should be patient and understanding with friends who are slow to take up invitations to meet in person. We also need to encourage a return to in-person relationships.

There is a cost attached to letting people congregate together and there is a cost for keeping people apart.

 

2. Unprecedented Government spending and debt.

State and Federal Governments are spending and handing out staggerings sums of money. In the space of two months, $100s billions have been committed to keeping the economy afloat during the pandemic. The forced closures of businesses and schools and communities have required Governments to step in with financial assistance, but it all comes at a cost.

There are already voices calling for some of these initiatives to remain permanently, including paid child care and the job seeker allowance (which has been doubled temporarily). This leads to deeper questions about how we want society to be structured and the role of Government.

The day is coming when we will have to pay off this debt, either with higher taxes or with austerity measures, or a combination of both. We are blindsiding ourselves if we don’t appreciate that this is likely to have long term and significant impact on employment levels, housing affordability, investments, household spending, and the viability of many thousands of businesses, community groups, sporting clubs, and churches.

 

3. Our dependence on China must change.

China isn’t an ally, she is a trading partner and a geopolitical competitor. The rise of China has been a gift to Australia and also a danger. There are enormous trade and economic benefits from the relationship, but have we been ignoring the costs?

I think the Australian Government is right to be asking serious questions of China’s role in the Corona Virus pandemic and to demand transparency. China’s evasiveness throughout the pandemic has once again demonstrated that this Communist State should not be trusted. Let me be emphatic, I am not talking about Chinese people, but the Government of China, which is a totalitarian and oppressive regime with a long record of dishonesty and human rights abuse.

China’s role in covering up the true extent of the Corona Virus and their influence over the World Health Organisation (WHO) is far from the worst of it. 1 million Uyghurs remain locked away in ‘education’ camps in northwestern China, Christian Churches are continually oppressed and Christians arrested, and there is China’s growing interference in Hong Kong and their military expansion in the South China Sea.

For the most part, Australia has, alongside many countries, tried to benefit from and also feed a China hungry for economic and political expansion.

You don’t placate a bully, you stand up to them.

I first came across Peter Jennings in an interview with John Anderson last year. Peter Jennings is the Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. In a recent article, he warns against China’s bullish tactics and their interference in the accurate transmission of information and application of international standards,

“As Beijing hardens its position on what it considers to be acceptable applications of the One China policy it is reacting badly to international judgments that Taiwan very effectively suppressed the spread of Covid-19 without resorting to the punitive measures we saw in Wuhan.

This week China’s ambassador to New Zealand sharply rebuked Wellington for backing a growing international call to make Taiwan an observer at the WHA meeting. The foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said New Zealand should “immediately stop making wrong statements on Taiwan, to avoid damaging our bilateral relationship”.

China’s ever more strident and stringent demands for countries to publicly acquiesce to Beijing’s political agenda is seemingly having the opposite reaction.”

Latika Bourke reported last Friday that Australia’s dependence on China places us in a vulnerable position. For example,

“An international study of essential supply lines has found that Australia relies on China for critical medical technology more than any other ‘Five Eyes’ nation.”

China’s behaviour is also creating unusual alliances. In what is a remarkable statement, The Australian Worker’s Union last week joined forces with Australia’s conservative Federal Government in calling China to account,

“Free trade must be fair.

Australia must stand up to China and protect our national sovereignty and local jobs.

The Chinese Government is threatening massive trade tariffs on Australian barley, beef and other products in response to our demands for a COVID-19 investigation and action taken against the illegal dumping of products by China.

Dumping of imported goods, by selling products like steel and aluminium below cost, is a trade violation which aims to destroy Australia’s industries and make us more reliant on foreign supply.

We have the right to stop cheap, low quality steel and aluminium from reaching our shores, jeopardising tens of thousands of Australian jobs. Every other country does this.

Threatening crippling tariffs against Australia’s world leading agriculture industry is a bullying tactic.

The AWU is calling on Scott Morrison and the Federal Government to stand up to China’s bullying, protect Australian sovereignty and jobs, and declare its intentions to work with nations that support fair, free trade.”

When it comes to China, we are not witnessing the awakening of a sleeping giant panda, but a dragon. In December 2019 Niall Ferguson argued that a new Cold War had begun.

“Something [else] changed in 2019. What had started out as a trade war — a tit for tat over tariffs while the two sides argued about the American trade deficit and Chinese intellectual property theft — rapidly metamorphosed into a cluster of other conflicts.

In short order, the United States and China found themselves engaged in a technology war over the global dominance of the Chinese company Huawei in 5G network telecommunications and an ideological confrontation in response to the abuses of Uighur Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, as well as a classic superpower competition for primacy in science and technology. The threat also loomed of a currency war over the exchange rate for the Chinese yuan, which the People’s Bank of China has allowed to weaken against the dollar…”

If a new cold war hasn’t descended, it should be clear by the falling autumn leaves and the dropping temperature that winter is coming. These next few years will be pivotal in determining how cold or how hot this economic and geopolitical standoff will become.

 

4. Time to rebuild traditional models of University

University education in Australia is huge. Never before has there been such a large menu of courses to choose from and so many students and so much money to be made. Education is Australia’s 3rd largest export industry, worth $10s of billions annually.

In 2017, there were almost 800,000 international students enrolled in education programs in Australia, including 350,000 studying in universities. With the arrival of COVID-19, huge numbers of students are unable to travel to Australia and many others have been forced to leave and return to their home country.

According to Peter Hurley of the Mitchell Institute,

“The university sector faces cumulative losses of up to A$19 billion over the next three years due to lost international student revenue.

Modelling from the Mitchell Institute shows the next big hit will come mid-year when $2 billion in annual tuition fees is wiped from the sector as international students are unable to travel to Australia to start their courses for second semester.

Such losses are not just a university problem. ABS data show for every $1 lost in university tuition fees, there is another $1.15 lost in the broader economy due to international student spending.

This means the Australian economy could lose more than $40 billion by 2023 because of reduced numbers of higher education international students.”

This should not be taken as a negative word toward international students. Far from it, my personal encounters with students from China, Malaysia, Brazil, and Uganda, and from across the world, has been incredibly positive. In many respects, I am glad that they have an opportunity to study here and I have valued the friendships I have formed with many students. Indeed some of these students make Australia their home, and they are welcomed and vital members of the community. The issue isn’t international students, it’s the model of education that looks more like a $ sign than actual education.

A related issue is the indulgence of our higher learning institutions to provide courses and degrees that lead to nowhere. The breadth of inane and dead-end tertiary courses is truly ridiculous.

For example, my eldest child is reaching the stage in high school where students are exploring what type of vocation interests them and therefore what university course they should consider undertaking. As part of this conversation, we have spoken with several people who work in a field that he’s interested in and who teach this area in our universities. The overwhelming feedback that we received was that it is nearly impossible to make a career in this area and to even get a job. Apparently, only two graduates for every 80 end up successfully working in this industry.

Could the massive loss in income force our tertiary institutions to recalibrate and return to traditional models of education and research? Might our universities rid themselves of the shackles of profit-making and rediscover learning? Instead of offering useless degrees that cost students $10,000s and with no job at the end, can we rewrite the young people’s ‘success manual’ and create pathways from school into careers without the ‘middle man’?

5. The social engineering project of authoritarian secularism.

This includes the latest chapters in the sexual revolution, identity politics, and religious freedom issues.

Socio-political agendas that existed prior to COVID-19 will remain afterwards. The sexual revolution may have been forced into hibernation for the time being (at the very least the media is currently distracted by other issues), but as life returns to some sense of normalcy, we can expect these social threads to be taken up once again.

There is a question mark over how successful or popular these agendas will be once we have adjusted to COVID-19. Will a few months of breathing space help us to regain our senses and to starve these already vacuous ideologies of their droplets of oxygen? Perhaps, but then again,  a survey of the 20th Century demonstrates that two World Wars, the Nuclear threat, and Vietnam, didn’t subtract from the evolving abandonment sex’s natural paradigm. The sexual revolution with its demand for moral allegiance is far from over. However, like the French Revolution, this is a movement that eats its own. Feminists, lesbians, gays, are being publicly cancelled as they don’t pay full homage to the latest theories on gender and sex. I anticipate that the West will continue to dismantle itself in the attempt to follow Romans 1:18-32 word for word. The rest of the world will look on and laugh at our foolishness.

 

Conclusion

Evidence suggests that COVID-19 will change the world, but it is not yet possible to see the extent to which these new normals will impact the average Aussie. Old attitudes and dreams will continue but newly laid roads will redirect our paths. The rush for a return to the old normal will be strong and understandable but there are socio-economic factors and geopolitical manoeuvrings that will likely stifle this revival.

Even as we are surprised and even shocked by some of the changes, none of this takes God by surprise. I am reminded of the Lord Jesus’ declaration, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

Life in this world sometimes appears like sailing with a gentle breeze and at other times, the sea is rough and turbulent and we are knocked about and fear for life itself. There is however one old message that will stand the test of time. The One who stilled the storm rose from the dead and His word of life has outlasted the greatest cultural changes of history. His Gospel is cosmic in scope and personal in efficacious power.

At Mentone Baptist Church today I gave an exposition on Colossians 1:15-23, and I think it’s a worthy place on which to conclude these reflections on COVID-19,

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[g] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”

Mocking prayer or turning to prayer?

The Prime Minister of Australia prayed for the nation and asked other Australians to join him.  There was a rare muted response by some of the usual religious critics, quite possibly due to an awareness that this is not the time to knock our national leaders or God for that matter. But as predictable as a toddler throwing their late afternoon tantrum, other secularists couldn’t control their outrage at Scott Morrison.

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Arguments against the Prime Minister praying in public are varied, from the ridiculous to the illogical and to the popular but erroneous.

For example, one of the first complaints I saw on social media took aim at  Scott Morrison for using the Prime Minister’s office and Government time to broadcast this prayer. Seriously? Give the man a break. He’s probably working 100 hours a week at the moment, sleeping little, and barely seeing his own family. Are we really going to take issue with him for taking a few minutes to pray?

One complaint, that might at first seem to carry some weight, is the perceived undermining of cultural pluralism. For example, Jane Caro tweeted,

“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.”

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. Unlike Communist States where religion is banned and unlike religious totalitarian States like Iran, our political representatives have the freedom to speak of their deep-seated beliefs about God and the world. We can agree or disagree. We can support them or not. We are free to join with them or not. 

Jane Caro is known for wanting to remove religion from the public square altogether. She is okay with religion being practised in private but not in public. This, however, is neither secularism or pluralism, it is, as a friend suggested last night, fundamentalism. This is the state of play in countries like North Korea and China. Do we really want Australia following their lead?

A truly secular society can never be a religion-free zone. That is a fictitious position that can only exist in the theoretical world and is posited by persons who are themselves reacting against set religious thinking (usually Christian theism). Classic secularism (of which Australia is an example) is designed to provide a civil public life which encourages the discussion of life’s big questions without control by any single ideologue. Secularism provides a framework for social pluralism, and pluralism shouldn’t drive religion underground but encourage honest adherence.

But what about s.116? This section of the Constitution has been floated as a directive against the Prime Minister’s action. For example, this tweet,

“s.116 of the constitution states we have no official religion. Previous PMs have been more sensitive to our diverse polis. Using the PM’s office to dedicate the nation to his particular denominational god is poor form.”

What does s.116 say?

‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’’

This clause does not preclude people of faith from holding public office or force them to keep their convictions at home while they work. S.116 explains that Australia will not be governed by any single religion, as though Australia should become an agency of the Anglican or Roman Catholic Church. It should be noted that the framers of the Australian constitution used Judeo-Christian principles to establish our secular nation. By secular they did not mean banning religious thought from politics and public discourse. Let’s not pretend that atheism equals moral and philosophical neutrality or superiority. Some of the most extreme and inhumane regimes in the world today are those controlled by atheistic political systems.

True secularism means the freedom to speak regardless of one’s religious affiliation or lack thereof. What would violate the Constitution are demands that politicians keep their religious beliefs away from the public square.

As Australians begins a third week of self-isolating, we have already learned that Governments are unsure what to do. Plans are changing almost daily. Medical experts are offering the best advice they can, while still not knowing how COVID-19 will play out in coming days and months. Economists are grappling with the short term survival requirements and theorising about the long term damage that will be made to the economy. It is natural and necessary for us to lift our eyes and to inquire of God and to ask God for his grace and mercy. I for one am thankful that such a God exists and that through Jesus we are invited to call upon him in times of need.

“Hear my prayer, Lord;

    let my cry for help come to you.

Do not hide your face from me

    when I am in distress.

Turn your ear to me;

    when I call, answer me quickly.”

(Psalm 102:1-2)

Prime Minister prays to ‘Our Heavenly Father”

As the media report Scott Morrison’s prayer, they are evidently befuddled by his use of the Bible and him referring to God as “heavenly father’. I don’t know if they are trying to suggest that the Prime Minister holds to strange beliefs or if their understanding of Christianity is so shallow that they don’t realise that Father is the normal way Christians have always addressed God.

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Anthony Galloway writing for The Age,

“Mr Morrison also offered prayer for the “Heavenly Father” to “give us strength in this country, give us wisdom, give us judgment, give us encouragement and let your peace rein let your love shower this nation at this time”.”

To be fair, I’ve read the pieces for Fairfax and in the Guardian. The journalists have tread carefully and done a decent job in reporting the story. I’m sure all the hysteria from the usual social commentators will follow shortly. One thing is already clear, journos don’t know how to make sense of the fact that an Australian Prime Minister is calling God, “Heavenly Father”.  I don’t blame them, but it is revealing.

My interest here has nothing to do with politics, but I want to explore for a moment, this idea of calling God ‘Father’.

To pray, ‘Our Father in heaven’ is to pray in line with Jesus’ teaching. The famous Lord’s Prayer that we read in Matthew ch.6 is a paradigm for praying that is given to us by Jesus himself. The disciples ask him, ‘teach us how to pray’, and so He begins, “Or Father in heaven…”

Far from the notion of God being an abstract concept or as a distant being or an impersonal force, Jesus reveals God as Father.

Jesus says later in Matthew’s Gospel, 

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.[27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

To address God as Father is an extraordinary idea. It signifies that God is personal and relational. It speaks to communication and knowing. It suggests that God is interested in us, and even that he loves and care for us as Father who loves and cares for his children.

By no means is this a right, as though I can address God as I please. The Christian message talks about this as being a gift, just like in adoption. When parents decide to adopt a child, the child has no inherent rights over the family. As a decision of love and grace, the parents welcome the child into the family, both legally and relationally. Adoption is a beautiful gift. The same is true when a gracious God welcomes us.

We might already appreciate that God made the world. We might believe that God judges the world. To know God as Father is quite different and exceptional. As Jesus also indicates in Matthew 11, it is through him that we can come to know God as Father.

‘Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves’…I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:9-11, 14)

In other words, if we want to know this beautiful Christian teaching for ourselves, personally and really, Jesus says, understand and accept him. To believe the Son is to know the Father. To connect with the Son is to gain access to the Father.

Again, leaving politics aside, if you’re curious about Scott Morrison’s prayer and why Christians speak of God as Father, take some time to wrestle with Jesus’ words and let me know what you think.

The Straw Man is about to burst!

The straw man mock-up of the Religious Discrimination Bill is getting stuffier with every passing day.

It wasn’t enough for Judith Ireland and Luke Beck to write a couple of fictional pieces last week for Fairfax. Their collation of hypotheticals have been mistaken by some readers as fact, but in the end, their scaremongering ended up belittling religious and irreligious Australians alike!

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Apparently, the straw man has yet more room to fill. A string of articles this week (once again thanks to our friends at Fairfax) have continued to make hay out of the Religious Discrimination Bill. This overstuffed straw man is about ready to burst, even before they even finishing preparing to light the bonfire.

Take, for example, The Royal Women’s Hospital. According to reporting in yesterday’s The Age, they are arguing that the Religious Discrimination Bill will lead to Doctors refusing to perform abortions and even to abortion freedoms being stifled.

First, Doctors are already protected by law to refuse to perform an abortion. Second, and contrary to the straw man, this Bill is primarily aimed at protecting already existing freedoms of religious Australians, not introducing new rights. Third, if abortions laws are tightened in the future, it won’t be the consequence of this Bill but because Australians once again acknowledge that unborn children are human beings and therefore must be treated with due dignity and worth.

Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby has joined the fray with a piece in The Age, arguing that the Bill will divide Australians and not unite them.

What is Michael Kirby’s evidence that this will be the case? For the most part, he entertains a similar line of hypotheticals that have already been paraded in the street. There is however one concrete example. He mentions the case in Victoria where a Doctor allegedly refused to prescribe contraception or advice to a patient about IVF. It is important to note however that this alleged incident has nothing to do with the drafted Religious Discrimination Bill. This case has arisen under existing laws in Victoria and not because of a Bill that has yet to be even debated before the Parliament.

It is worth noting the kind of language Justice Kirby employs to describe the kind of person who is advocating for the Bill:

“it actively facilitates intolerance and will work to divide rather than unite Australians”

“support those who use religious belief as a weapon against non-believers.”

Is this really the state of mind and heart of religious Australians? We are wanting legal protection for the purpose of using our beliefs as a weapon? There is more…

“This is something obsessive religious proponents demand”.

Of course, any person who supports this Bill is obviously ‘obsessive’ and unreasonable and a fool! For a decisive knock out punch, Justice Kirby concludes by bringing out one of the big words,

“We should be vigilant to preserve it, not erode its legacy by enacting laws to appease an extreme minority.”

Are our mainstream Christian denominations now to be described as ‘extreme’? Are Anglicans, Presbyterians and Baptists, ‘extreme’. Extreme in what and how? For affirming what Christians have believed and practised for 2,000 years? For cherishing ideas that have created the freedoms and societal goods that we enjoy today in this country?  We all know how appalling extremists are, but labelling people in this false way is incredibly slanderous.   I understand, resorting to this kind of rhetorical game can be effective and persuasive, but it does nothing to aid truth-telling and it only further exemplifies the fracturing of civil society. Of course, there are some religious tools in our community; I don’t see anyone denying that. But this narrative being spun by Kirby and others is simply disingenuous.

As I wrote earlier in the week, I’m not saying that the Bill cannot be improved. My preference would be that we live in a society where such legislation isn’t required.  It is important to remember why this Bill is even being considered: it is because of the unreasonable and hardline secularists who will not tolerate Australians who do not fully endorse their narrow way of looking at the world. The same people who cry out for love speech are calling fellow Australians bigots for not supporting their causes, and are going to great lengths to silence these Australian and even remove them from their places of employment.

Wouldn’t it be advantageous and refreshing to see disagreeing Australians discuss these matters with civility and sitting down together without spitting coffee at each other?  I remember one such example. Back in 2017, Andrew Hastie and Tim Wilson sat down with a Coopers beer in hand and chatted about their differing position on gay marriage. It was polite, honest, and respectful. Yet within hours, social media was alight with hate, and with photos of people destroying bottles of Coopers and with pubs declaring that they would no longer serve the Aussie beer. That’s the problem, we no longer wish to talk across the table or to show kindness to those who disagree with us. There is only one flavour in town and that is ‘outrage’.

Whether it is Michael Kirby or Luke Beck, the media, and the rest of us (including those who support some kind of religious discrimination bill), we really need to put the straw man out to pasture and rediscover those out-of-fashion virtues, kindness and authentic tolerance. The Religious Discrimination Bill is aimed at going some way to hold together this fraying society, but I do hope that wherever it finally lands, Christians will keep speaking truth in love and to love our neighbours whoever they may be. Yes, sometimes we will fail to do so, and so we should ask for forgiveness. We should hold to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. If our society so determines that this is extremism, then so be it. Let us be extreme in loving God and in wanting good for others

 

 

Australia is wrestling with Religious Freedom

The fight against the Religious Discrimination Bill is heating up with a submission from some of the nation’s powerful Unions and with a bank telling everyone to love their way or go away.

The Sydney Morning Herald is reporting that the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Industry Group have written a letter to Attorney General, Christian Porter, warning the Government about perceived flaws in the Bill.

I am not saying that the Bill is perfect and that improvements cannot be made. I personally wish there was no need for a Religious Discrimination Bill in Australia, but hardline secularists continue to threaten religious freedoms and raise the temperature against religious Australians such that a Bill has become important, if not necessary. 

So what are the Unions’ concerns? According to Dana McCauley, the primary issue relates to “a risk of harm to the staff and customers of Australian businesses”.

“Employers are concerned the provision will conflict with their obligation under workplace laws to provide safe environments free of bullying and harassment, risk damage to their reputations, harm productivity and make it harder to recruit and retain staff.”

The argument goes like this: this Bill will give religious people license to be mean and say horrible things to other workers and customers and employers won’t have the power to stop it. But is this the case?

Associate Professor, Neil Foster, has detailed that “The Bill does not authorise all religiously motived” acts, and second, the Bill does not create rights to new forms of horrible speech, but it does protect freedom of speech that operates against the background of already existing rights.

“The “right” to make offensive remarks, is a right which already exists as part of our long tradition of protecting free speech, even speech which we don’t like and which upsets people. That is why we need a right to free speech- none of us are tempted to censor speech we agree with!”

There has been a tidal wave of pressure to succumb to the new sexual code of conduct, and I can’t but help conclude that the ACTU and AI are just the latest to succumb. To be fair (relying on the SMH’s reporting), they are not against the Bill altogether, but those parts that they believe will undermine the employer.  Part of the issue with this tidal narrative is that religion is seen as a threat to business and as a threat to social cohesion. In reality, it can serve as a constructive partner. It is a little odd that Australian businesses are wanting to squeeze out religion when globally the world is becoming more religious.  As Dr Brian J. Grim (President of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation) has observed through his research,  “religious freedom is good for the economy, good for society, and good for business”.

Underneath this wave is a strong current to strip religious Australians of their freedom to hold and speak of their beliefs. This is no mere hypothetical; the proof is in the Israel Folau case, and in many other cases that have not gained attention by the media. Remember, it was not the tone of Folau’s Instagram posts that led to his dismissal (even I took issue with his tone), for as Rugby Australia’s CEO, Raelene Castle, admitted, even quoting the Bible would have been cause for Folau’s sacking. 

There are many workers who speak with me in private, employed across professions and industries, and who have been frightened into silence by their workplace, afraid they will lose their job if they dare mention their faith in Jesus Christ.  To be more accurate, the fictitious Jesus who embraces the new sexual morality is permissible, just not the Jesus who subscribes to the Bible. 

Both the ACTU and AI have an invested interest in this discussion and ought to be heard. I get it, anyone believing the straw man arguments may well express concerns over religious workers causing “workplace bullying, aggression, harassment including sexual harassment, discrimination, or other unreasonable behaviour”.  In reality, such cases are unusual. Is there no room for discussion and disagreement over life’s biggest questions, either in the workplace or on people’s private social media accounts? This rhetoric about harm and bullying too easily becomes political speak, cloaking what is really going on under the guise of justice and human rights. 

In some quarters, bullying is now code for, this Christian doesn’t support gay marriage. Or, that employee doesn’t join in workplace rituals for LGBT celebration days. And, I don’t like the article my colleague shared on his Facebook page and so I’m reporting him to the HR department.

Lovespeech

Let’s look at the ANZ’s new messaging. ANZ has released a document entitled, “Your Guide To Love Speech“.

“During the 2020 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, ANZ is taking a stand against hurtful language and has launched #LoveSpeech – a national campaign to educate Australians on the impact that hurtful language has on the LGBTIQ+ community.”

“By changing hateful messages to give them new meaning, we hope to create awareness, understanding, and unity. That’s what Love Speech is all about.”

I assume the document (with its accompanying posters) are mandatory in ANZ workplaces. I also assume that ANZ board are comfortable for staff to share this messaging outside of work. Indeed, ANZ specifies that this is a “national campaign to educate Australians”.

I am all for ‘love speech’, but what ANZ mean by love is, the unqualified affirmation of the new sexual ethic. And what they consider hate speech includes what are reasoned and deeply held beliefs for millions of Australians. It is quite extraordinary but ANZ feel so confident about their posturing that they can explicitly state that mere expression of a belief in heterosexual only marriage is a form of hate speech.

My question to ANZ is, what will happen to employees who cannot get behind this campaign and who hold a different opinion? What is to become of employees who are discovered expressing a different opinion? What will happen to the employee who either at work or in public voices disagreement with this campaign?

Are we to conclude that affirming gay marriage and transgenderism is an inherent requirement for employment at a bank?

It’s not as though ANZ, Rugby Australia, and some Unions hate religion, they just can’t accept religion that doesn’t fully embrace their virtue signalling.  This is about controlling religion (specifically Christianity). This wave of authoritarian secularism pervades our education systems, now employment, the public square, and may soon pour inside religious institutions and churches. We are fools to think otherwise. The gods of secularism will not tolerate an alternative, even if means dismantling the faith upon which the structures and fibres of our great society were built. Religion is to be controlled, much like during the good old days of Ancient Rome or in today’s Communist China, where Christianity is permitted so long as all the non-communist bits are deleted. This would all sound crazy and like the ravings of religious nut stuck on hyperbolic drive, except that Australia has already begun witnessing this cultural control. 

And that is why the Religious Discrimination Bill matters. The Bill aims to preserve the kinds of freedom Australians have enjoyed for decades. This is about maintaining a healthy pluralism and retaining an essential ingredient of a civilised society.  It is difficult to assess the Union’s letter through the lens of a newspaper article, for the spin may not accurately represent the written concerns; I don’t know. Is there warrant for further consideration of the “Folau clause”? Perhaps so. Of course, we should want the Bill to be as fair and useful as possible.

The broader issue is of course, that the culture has shifted. Increasingly, religious people are being informed that their opinions are not welcome in the public square. It is not acceptable to believe in heterosexual-only marriage. It is only okay to share views that fully conform to the narrow and intolerant sexual agenda that is being preached in most almost every sphere of life in contemporary Australia.  The Federal Government is acting to introduce the religious discrimination Bill for the very reason that religious Aussies are losing their jobs and being squeezed out of schools, because of their religious convictions. 

Whatever the outcome of this religious discrimination bill, I hope and pray Christians will continue to follow the ethic give to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: to honour him and to respect those among whom we work, to be gentle and kind and to give reason for the hope we have and to not shy away from the good news we have come to know and cherish above everything. 

New Concerns over Victoria’s Proposed Banning of Conversion Practices

As a Victorian, I have a moral obligation to report to authorities personal knowledge of alleged child abuse. As a pastor of a church, I have both a moral and legal duty to report knowledge of or suspicions of child abuse. Mandatory reporting is a social good. Even without the legal requirement, one’s natural concerns for a child’s wellbeing would automate contacting the police.

In Victoria, under new laws being proposed by the Andrews Government, I can be imprisoned for 12-18 months, for speaking up against the psychological and physical trauma inflicted upon children by gender warriors and dangerous medicos who work to change a child’s gender or sex.

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Last year the Victorian Government revealed plans to ban conversion practices. While the original issue was gay conversion therapy, the scope has been broadened to include any and all sexualities, including transgenderism. In November, I exposed the biased and flawed reports upon which the Government is basing its definition. I also noted at the time that the proposed definition of conversion therapy is so broad that it includes normal Church preaching from the Bible where topics of sexuality are mentioned. Indeed, a Christian wedding could also fall foul for Christian Churches define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. In what would be an extraordinary attack on Christianity, an Australian State Government is arguing that Classical Christian teaching is harmful and can be banned.

Earlier in January, retired Judge of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, Stuart Lindsay, wrote an article where he alerts Victorians to another serious implication of Government’s planned laws. With the apt title, Sound an Alarm: Gender Activism Is About To Silence Us, Judge Lindsay explains how,

“the Victorian government intends to pass a law very soon that may see ordinary citizens imprisoned if they speak up against the chemical, psychological and physical mutilation of confused adolescents.” 

And,

“The discussion paper and the reports it relies on, together with Ms. Hennessey’s public utterances about them, make it clear that Victoria intends to make plain what is latent or ambiguous in Queensland’s proposed legislation. It is not just the individual transsexual or homosexual who needs protection from conversion; no, the criminality can arise outside of any therapeutic context. It is society that needs to be protected so the mere utterance of heterodox views about affirmation of gender or sexual “choice” must be extirpated.”

“This is what is about to happen: talking about or writing about or counselling against or promoting caution about affirmation as the sole medically permitted response to any putative decision by an individual to transition to their non-natal sex, or even discussing the practice of affirmation generally in a non-supportive way, is about to made illegal. It will at the very least be subject to civil penalty proceedings (in which case, see you in the Tribunal, facing up against publicly funded gender radicals).  Much more likely are serious criminal penalties. I mean prison sentences”

The irony is not difficult to see. Indeed, it is not so much ironic as it is moronic and downright dangerous for anyone with a conscience and who still believes in science and commonsense. According to Premier Daniel Andrews and Attorney General Jill Hennessey, praying for individuals who are struggling with their sexuality is immoral, and preaching Biblical sexual ethics is also wrong. But telling a boy that they are really a girl and putting them in a dress, and changing their name, and beginning medical procedures and filling them with drugs to alter their biology and physical appearance is considered a moral imperative. Of course, the issue is becoming more insidious as a growing number of psychologists and doctors express concerns over how children with gender dysphoria are being treated.

I am quickly writing this and putting it into the public space before Parliament sits and I find writing my memoirs from a prison cell.

Judge Lindsay notes the real agenda behind the Government’s move, as I have also noted in the past. It is grievous to say but it has little to do with the wellbeing of children, and much to do with implementing cultural Marxism. Before this is dismissed as one of those tiresome and hyperbolic caricatures,  Roz Ward, (who is the architect of Safe Schools and academic at La Trobe University), has openly admitted that this is the case. 

To close, allow me to repeat what I wrote lastNovember,

As it stands, the Government’s proposal is nothing short of forced conversion. Without significant revisions, this looks like an attempt to control and redefine what religious organisations believe and teach about human sexuality and flourishing.

Victoria is witnessing a fundamental clash of worldviews, one supports a healthy pluralism in our society and the other believes in conforming to a narrow and uncompromising agenda.

The Government’s current position on conversion practice is about pressuring religious groups to change their views on sexuality. If the definitions were limited to those rare, extreme, and dangerous practices that some peoples have been subjected, there is warrant for discussion. What we are seeing thus far from the Government is unnecessary and contravenes those basic distinctions between Church and State.

Christians don’t believe in forced conversions. We believe in persuading others of a message that is good and attractive. Christianity is by definition a conversion religion. No one is born a Christian. People become Christians as they are convinced by the truthfulness and goodness of Christianity’s message, the Gospel of Jesus of Christ.

Christianity posits conversion as a result of personal conviction and choice, whereas the Government’s position seems to be, convert by coercion. Indeed, placing this conversation on conversion under the “Department of Justice and Community Safety” is probably not meant to be prophetic, but the irony is certainly not be missed.

All Victorians should be concerned by the Government’s plan to ban conversion practices. Let me reiterate, the Government is indicating more than simply banning practices that have proven harmful to some individuals, they are proposing to force-convert religious organisations and churches to the theological convictions of the new secular sexual milieu.

In the future, will Churches and religious organisations in Victoria have freedom to preach, teach, and counsel and pray in line with their religious convictions? Without significant revisions to the proposed definition, the answer is probably no

Indeed, as Judge Lindsay has now revealed, a prison term may also be in the offering for those evil Christians and dreadful medical professionals who dare speak out against the new ‘normal’.

 

 


Note: this is not a personal or political attack on Daniel Andrews. Earlier this month I praised him for his work during the bushfire crisis

President Trump is wrong about Evangelicals but he is not to blame

“Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.” (Psalm 2:7)

 

The necessary divorce

Is this the necessary divorce? The match wasn’t made in heaven. It was a coupling that shouldn’t have been, and yet some leading Christian voices in the United States laid down their theology and ascended the White House. In the last 48 hours, this special relationships has unravelled. Government and Church can be good friends but they make a lousy married couple.

Following an article written by Christianity Today’s Editor in Chief, Mark Galli, President Trump has attacked the magazine and ‘defended’ evangelicals. With what appears to be a sense of betrayal, the President has resorted to his usual public naming and shaming on twitter.

“….have a Radical Left nonbeliever, who wants to take your religion & your guns, than Donald Trump as your President. No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close. You’ll not get anything from those Dems on stage. I won’t be reading ET again!

“A far left magazine, or very “progressive,” as some would call it, which has been doing poorly and hasn’t been involved with the Billy Graham family for many years, Christianity Today, knows nothing about reading a perfect transcript of a routine phone call and would rather…..”

“guess the magazine, “Christianity Today,” is looking for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or those of the socialist/communist bent, to guard their religion. How about Sleepy Joe? The fact is, no President has ever done what I have done for Evangelicals, or religion itself!”

I’m not writing to comment on the impeachment or to even comment on President Trump’s policies. I’m not here to defend Christianity Today either. My issue relates to the necessary separation of Evangelicalism from the White House (and any single political party for that matter).

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In response to President Trump’s assertion about looking after evangelical interests, it is not the role of Government to guard the evangelical faith. That is beyond the purview of a President’s responsibilities. The Church is not the State and the State does not control the Church.

Government and Church have different spheres of responsibility. The keys of the Kingdom belong to the Church while the Government holds the sword of justice. The different roles don’t mean there is no conversation between the two and that one cannot be of service to the other, but they are not institutions designed for a wedding. This important separation of Church and State is not an argument for the removal of religion from the public square, for all politics is religious. Some pundits argue for the removal of any semblance of religion in proximity to government, but this is neither biblical nor is it ideologically possible. Whether in the foreground and background everyone brings their convictions with them into the public square. We are all shaped by views about God and the world and these beliefs impact political priorities and policies.

It shouldn’t need saying, but just in case, the Government is not tasked with the responsibility of guarding one subsection of society, but caring for all its citizens by upholding the constitution, the law, and working for the good. Christians are part of the constituency, not the whole.

Also, President Trump understands Evangelical Christianity through a political lens that sees everything through a false binary: You’re either Conservative or socialist, you either vote Republican or Democrat. This is to misunderstand the nature of Christianity and the message of the Christian Gospel.

The Christianity Today article has spoken boldly about the importance of character,

“It’s time to say what we said 20 years ago when a president’s character was revealed for what it was.”

Indeed,  too many Christians threw this qualification into the recycling bin for a season. I also remember at the time of the 2016 election, leading evangelical voices were cautioning Christians and reminding them that character matters. Ed Stetzer, Russell Moore, and Al Mohler were among them. The reality is that some evangelicals wedded Trump while others stood at a distance. By in large, the Australian media ignored all this and instead ran with the preferred narrative of evangelicals supporting Trump. The reality is far more complex than has been reported. This doesn’t take away from the fact that many Christians in the United States, especially with notable names like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jnr, anointed Trump with a sacred calling that he and no President can hold.

Lest we conclude the problem is all Trump, we would do well to recall remember some of the things that have been said recently by Democratic presidential nominees in the name of Christianity. Pete Buttigieg, for example, takes the identity of Christian while supporting many ethical positions which are irreconcilable with the Christian faith, both politically and personally.

Should we blame the President? He is certainly responsible for what he believes and says. But is he to blame for the marriage with Evangelicals? No.

The greater responsibility lies with the fact that many Evangelicals in the United States fused their hopes and aspirations onto the Presidential bandwagon. They sacrificed integrity for expediency. I am not saying that voting Democrat is the alternative. How can one support a party that advocates the killing of unborn children and the destruction of sexual norms?

Sometimes there is no viable option. Surely this has been the predicament for Christians in many cultures during many seasons in history. The Bible never gives Christians a voting card. We are meant to honour, obey and pray for the Governing authorities, and to keep doing good to all. Some Governments are better than others, and we should wisely decide whom to support.

In none of this am I making a statement about who to vote for; not at all. The issue at hand is far more important and pressing; do not fuse the Christian faith with a political party or leader. Do not give to the State that which belongs to the Church. Do not sacrifice the Great Commission in order to maintain a place in the halls of Washington DC.

This isn’t an evangelical problem alone. Conservatives and Progressives alike make this blunder with a place too much emphasis on common grace and not enough episodes on the churches mission which centres in particular grace

It has been sad to watch a word which has holds such rich theological and historical significance, being undone in such a short time. Evangelical has been regularly misappropriated not only by political pundits but also by Americans themselves. True evangelicalism has little to do with the political aspirations of right-wing America, and everything to do with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Authentic evangelicalism is defined by this Gospel as presented in the Bible, not by the political right or left, not with Democrats or Republicans, and for the Australian context, neither Liberal nor Labor.

Terribly, “evangelical” America supported Donald Trump and have been tarnished for doing so. I cannot see how this association will advance the cause of Jesus Christ. If anything, the word may become irretrievably immeshed in a cause that is not the Gospel.

It is one thing to be part of a Presidential term, but it is quite another to one day stand before the Judge of the earth and give an account for how our lives have adorned or maligned the Gospel of Christ.

This final point is not only true for American Christians but also Australian Christians. When will Christians learn not to place undue hope in Government? The election has exposed a messed up eschatology and misplaced soteriology, which will not only disappoint, but will prevent people from seeing Christ. However Donald Trump decides to build his wall along the Mexican border, it is nothing compared to the wall evangelicals have built-in this election which will block out the wonder of the Gospel. How will true evangelicals work to dismantle this false gospel? What will we do publicly and in our Churches to redress the damage caused by this political misalignment?