Vatican aiding China with Sinicization

China is pursuing its policy of Sinicization, reshaping Christianity into the image of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Australian newspaper is reporting that Beijing is to extend its deal with the Vatican, despite high ranking Catholic officials protesting, including Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen.

“The two-year provisional agreement will expire next month.

Bishop Sorondo, a close friend of Pope Francis, is on record as claiming the ­Chinese state exemplifies Catholic social justice teaching, a claim dismissed as “absurd’’ by Vatican-based US cardinal Raymond Burke.

Renewal of the deal, which has given the Chinese state control over the appointment of bishops in China, would spark outrage across the church and cause deep sadness among persecuted Catholics in China and Hong Kong.

Renewal would come as religious persecutions are being stepped up in China, which is increasingly flexing its military might in the Indo-Pacific region.”

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While the Vatican is refusing to release all the particulars of the arrangement, it is widely believed that it will allow the Vatican to have greater say in appointing future Bishops in China (but not full control). This is contingent upon Pope Francis formally recognising seven Catholics Bishops who have already been appointed by the Chinese Government.

The New York Times reported in 2018,

“The ruling Communist Party sees the compromise with the Vatican as a step toward eliminating the underground churches where Chinese Catholics who refuse to recognize the party’s authority have worshiped for generations. With the pope now recognizing all bishops and clergy members in the official Catholic churches approved and controlled by the party, the underground church may have no reason to exist.

The move is part of a broader push by the government to clamp down on all aspects of society since Xi Jinping took power as the party’s leader in 2012.”

For the most part, in history, Church and State have been duly recognised as separate entities, concerned with different spheres of responsibility, jurisdiction, and authority. That is not to suggest that there is no overlap. The Scriptures themselves testify to this in places such as Romans 13:1-7. Indeed, the Apostle Paul on one occasion appealed to Caesar without any sense of overstepping the line.

At their best and when the dynamics are suitably valued and practised, the State and Church serve society in a healthy partnership, understanding their distinct roles and appreciating the other. It’s not as the State is void of religious content; Christians and non Christians alike, and people of other faiths, are welcomed into Parliament and can contribute ideas that have been formed by their convictions and worldview. We don’t live in an a-theistic state, but a pluralistic culture.

At worst, the State has intruded and sought to control or disrupt churches and even to work for their destruction. And Churches, in a vain attempt to retain some semblance of relevance or to keep their institutions alive, have become complicit with immoral and anti-Christian agendas.  We have seen this happen with Christian denominations capitulating on the marriage issue. This has happened amongst evangelicals in the United States as they conflate the cause of Christ with the Republican Party. Indeed, the Vatican’s deal with Xi Jinping is reminiscent of former days when Rome (and also some Protestant denominations) was found to collaborate with Nazism in the 1930s-40s. The idea was, if you keep our doors open, we’ll give you our support. We’ll betray your cultural heretics and cede some of our independence so long as you let us be.

The Lord of the Church once said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”  Apparently, some ecclesiastical minds are of the opinion that one can do both.

When I wrote about this story two years ago, I suggested Daniel ch.3 as an analogy. President Xi Jinping is sounding like King Nebuchadnezzar, while Pope Francis is appearing as one of his astrologers who betrays Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Since then, more fuel has been added to the fire, and this new blast of oxygen from St Peter’s isn’t going to dampen the growing threat posed to Christians and religious minorities in China. It is one thing for the secular citizen to sell their the soul to a dominant regime, but for the overseers of a Church to throw into Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace the people under their care, they themselves are in danger of another fire where no angel will tread and save.

Communist China is an evil regime that has little regard for religious freedom, let alone political and social freedoms. The world has evidence of 1 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, being forced into concentration camps. For decades churches have been closed, destroyed, pastors imprisoned, and families threatened because they profess faith in Christ. Millions of Chinese Christians cannot meet to worship God in public or read the Bible. The threat of discrimination is a constant one. For the Vatican and Pope Francis to make a deal with the Devil is a grave misjudgment.

This is a timely reminder to thank God for the religious freedoms we enjoy in Australia, and not to take them for granted. There are sometimes tensions, but not every disagreement amounts to discrimination against Churches or religion in general. Nonetheless, this should also serve as a warning to Australian Churches and Governments alike.

When this deal with first agreed upon in 2018, I suggested,

“We are a long way from the politico-religious scene of our northern neighbour, and yet it is not irrational to suggest that should some Australian political parties and notable social commentators have their way, we would be aiming toward an Australian Sinicization, conforming Christianity into the likeness of Australian humanistic secularism.”

This threat remains. And no, I am not referring to current Governmental rules for religious organisations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Writing for ABC’s The Conversation last week, Professor Nicholas Aroney spoke of new research that has found that government-based religious discrimination is on the rise around the world. While much of the attention is duly on other countries, he notes that “the threat in Australia is real”.

We are far from the situation found in Communist China, but we do have, for example, a State Government that has previously attempted to interfere with basic religious freedoms and is currently drafting legislation that may soon see parts of the Bible banned, classical teaching on marriage prohibited, and prayers for sexual sanctification outlawed. I am of course referring to the Victorian Government’s plan to introduce legislation in 2020 to ban conversion practices.

We need to guard our own backyard while also speaking up against religious suppression that is taking place across the seas.

Christians Avoiding the Pitfalls of Political Polarisation

I get it, our society isn’t just polarised, it’s being torn apart by tribalism, divisions, and unbending ideologues. It’s hard enough being an average Aussie let alone one who believes Jesus is Lord. What are we meant to do when we disagree with the Government? How should we respond when we don’t like what a Government says or decides?

Thankfully God hasn’t left us walking in the darkness. In his wisdom, God gives us clear instructions and principles in his word. Just like me who can feel heated by some of the political debates going on and therefore needs to be reminded of these words, I suspect many of us do.

I’m not intending to pull out every nugget in every verse that I quote below. My aim is simply to draw our attention to the main imperative or principle that is mentioned in each of these Bible passages.

 

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Pray

Take, for example, 1 Timothy 2:1-3

”I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-3)

We are commanded to pray for those in authority. The imperative isn’t conditioned by our political preferences or by the decisions made in our favour. Keep in mind that Paul was writing at a time where there were no democratic societies and where there was little toleration of Christians.

We pray for our Governments and political representatives, not because we always agree with them, but they have a God given responsibility for society.

Indeed, Governments, politicians, and bureaucrats need our prayers. Not every authority is conscious of this or a would accept this proposition. They nonetheless carry significant responsibility and work long stressful and often thankless hours.  When I’ve messaged an MP and asked how I can pray for them, the response has rarely been, “no, don’t pray for me”.

Listen to what verse 3 says, “this is good and pleases God our Savior”.

 

Be subject to

What about Romans 13?

”Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.” (Romans 13:1-3)

We are not only to pray for governing authorities but also to submit to and obey those in authority. Why? These authorities have been established by God, for the good order of society and to punish wrongdoing.

Submit

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people”. (1 Peter 2:13-15)

Listening to, honouring, and obeying the Government is God’s will for every Christian. It is one of the ways we do good and it serves to silence some of the ridiculous criticisms aimed at Christians. I am surprised (perhaps not) at how our readiness to adhere to Governments often depends on who is in power. It is amazing to see how much our political preferences shape our rhetoric and responses to a Government.

Also this, it is sometimes assumed that we will make a clearer statement for the Gospel by standing apart from the authorities, but that isn’t the argument given here in 1 Peter nor in Romans 13. We can bear faithful witness to Christ by submitting to authority.

Another issue relates to trust. Do we trust the words and decisions being made by those in Spring St and in Canberra? I understand the trust issues as much as any Australian. It may also be the case that those making decisions have a fuller perspective and better understanding of the issue than I. I’m not a medical doctor or a lawyer or an economist, and so I want to tread very carefully when issues relate to those subjects and countless others. I’m blessed to have members at my church and among my friendship networks who are professionals in these areas and whom I can go to with my questions and seek understanding. My point is, submitting to authorities is not only right, following expert advice is usually the wise course of action.

 

Appeal

In Acts ch.25 the Apostle Paul, having been arrested,  is interrogated by the Roman Governor of Judea.

Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar.”

Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?”

10 Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. 11 If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”

12 After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”

On this occasion, Paul uses his right as a citizen to appeal to Caesar. During his ministry, Paul was arrested and imprisoned on multiple occasions and he didn’t always make this legal case in his defence. He does however on this occasion.

When we disagree or hold a legitimate concern, we ought to follow due process. Not every citizen in every society has the opportunity or even the political right to address concerns to their governing authorities. One of God’s graces to us is that we do have this kind of freedom in Australia. We can write to our local MP. We can arrange meetings and even present our positions to Ministers of the Government. If that fails, every few years we have the democrat privilege of voting for (or against) our political representatives.

Christians have a choice, we can join in the fray and take sides on every single issue, and so add to the anger and cultural fragmentation. Or, we can choose the more difficult path. We can watch our tone carefully. We can choose to keep our words to ourselves.  When we open our mouths we should begin with prayer for those in authority. When we speak we can find good things to affirm and not only criticise the contemptible.

We don’t all have to be John Knox all the time and in every situation. Not every issue is a Martin Luther, ‘Here I stand’ moment. Life is far more complex. Even among Bible-believing Christians, we will sometimes come to different conclusions about the gravity of a subject and how Christians ought to respond.

I can’t help but wonder whether some of our Christian voice stems from a mistaken eschatology. In our protestations are we trying to make heaven out of earth? Do we conflate the nation state with the kingdom of God? Or, in speaking up are we appealing to the common good and love for neighbour, and upholding the tradition of religious toleration, defending for all people freedom of conscience and freedom of speech and religion?

There are times for civil disobedience but those occasions ought to be rare and for extraordinary reasons. There are first order issues and situations where a Christian must say no because it would be paramount to sinning against God, but that is not every matter. I can foresee a time where churches in Victoria will be forced to choose between Christ and the State, especially on issues surrounding sexuality. We may be pushed into the insane position of deciding whether we will teach God’s view on human sexuality or comply with Government regulation. When that day comes, the stand we take will look feeble and sound reminiscent of the boy who cried wolf. We need to be careful about using up all our capital now on lesser matters.

This is a good time for Christians to press closer to what God says in his word about Church and State. Begin with prayer, assume submission and obedience, do good, and choose our battles carefully. “This is good and pleases God”.

 


Let the reader note, in this piece I’m not addressing specific stories that have come out this week, but  I am thinking more generally.

Banning Books in Hong Kong and more

“As a young person, to already have the courage to face the pitiless glare, to overcome the fear of death, and to regain respect for death – this is the task of this young generation. And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed – a deed which should document the following for the world to know”.

The above words formed part of a speech which was aimed at calling people to a return to morality and social decency. This address given to university students was of course delivered by Joseph Goebbels directly before one of the most infamous book burning scenes in history.

During the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, purging the population of dissenting ideas was seen as an essential step. The Säuberung or cleansing included destroying religious and political texts that didn’t conform to the new normal. 

The destruction of books is as old as literature. Hate is a strong motivator, as is fear. To be honest, there are plenty of books that I believe are dangerous, and I’m happy to warn people about their messages. There is a vast difference though between informing people about a book’s content and removing those same volume’s from libraries and blowing their ashes into the wind. 

The Age is tonight reporting, 

“Books by prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy figures have become unavailable in the Chinese-ruled city’s public libraries, days after Beijing introduced sweeping national security legislation, according to online records and one activist.”

A search for books by young activist Joshua Wong or pro-democracy politician Tanya Chan on the public libraries website showed the books, including Unfree Speech, co-authored by Wong, either unavailable or under review.

“The national security law … imposes a mainland-style censorship regime upon this international financial city,” Wong tweeted on Saturday, adding his titles “are now prone to book censorship.”

…It is unclear how many books are under review. Two titles by Chinese Nobel Peace Prize-winning political dissident Liu Xiaobo were still available, according to the online”

This isn’t the first attempt by the Chinese Government to eradicate writings that don’t support the State’s unbending ideologies.

In 2018, the Government began work on a new version of the Bible, to ensure that the Bible affirms ‘socialism’ and doesn’t contain ideas that might subvert the Government. One can imagine how distorted the Holy Scriptures will become once this atheistic, militant, and totalitarian, regime has finished their rewriting project. In many regions of China it is already difficult to own and read a Bible, let alone teach this book in a semi-public setting. Preaching ‘Jesus is Lord’ is likely to end in arrest and possible imprisonment.  

without the permission of the authorities, you can’t organize a Bible study. And if you do get permission, you’d better hold it in a Party-approved religious venue, at a Party-approved time, with a Party-approved leader and using the new Party-approved Bible, which contains quotations from Confucius and, of course, Xi Jinping.”

Not even Christians are permitted to change the words of Scripture, let alone a Government who wishes to change and control its message.

“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”  (1 Peter 1:24-25)

Let’s shine the camera on ourselves. 2020 is the year of cancelling. We might look at China with disgust and growing wariness of their geo-political agenda, but our own background is a growing mound of buried careers, reputations, and lives. We have long lost the will to disagree with other, even with passion. The mob demands destruction of any idea that is not representative of new morality and decency.

Let’s not forget, even the beautiful State of Victoria has faced the Government’s axe. In 2016, Christian programs were removed from State schools in light of many Christian ideas being deemed inappropriate. The same Government has recently reaffirmed its commitment to ban conversion practices (which under their current definition will probably include Christian teachings on sexuality. This includes normal Christian teaching and prayer that takes place in Churches). It would be silly to equate this situation with China, for the two are not the same. The point is simply, our own societies are not entirely blameless.

The Chinese Government is afraid of the Bible, and so are we. Perhaps we ought, for it is no small thing to contest the Sovereign God who made the universe and whose word says he will judge all the living and the dead.

Hong Kong libraries are beginning to experience what is commonplace in China and what religious groups have been forced to do for generations, hide their precious books under the bed because the bookshelf isn’t safe.

No society should take their literature for granted, especially the words that give eternal life.

Put away the matches, because as cancel culture is demonstrating, once it starts, it very easily burns out of control. Perhaps we, who want to preserve the freedom to read and teach our texts, ought to show a little humility toward those who prefer and magnify a different set of books. Let’s argue with words not by deleting them. 


Correction: I originally said ABC when it should have read The Age

Can 2020 get any worse?

Can 2020 get any worse? Of course, no one yet knows the answer to this question, but an announcement made by the Prime Minister today is certainly ominous. The ABC headlined the news with “If Morrison’s defence strategy sounds like war talk, that’s because it is

There hasn’t been a year like it since the 1940s.

In Australia, we started the year with the worse bushfire season on record and with much talk about Climate Change. These were soon laid aside as the reality of COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic. This virus soon created another plague, that of economic uncertainty, the staggering accumulation of rapid national debt, and a million jobs gone. No one knows when this pandemic will end and what the final toll will be, the human, social, and economic costs.

As the country begins to loosen restrictions, Victoria has experienced a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases, with Premier Andrews forced to shut down 10 postcodes in Melbourne. Other State Premiers have warned their people to stay away from Victoria and borders are being closed to keep Victorians away.

One month ago, in response to the shocking murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests erupted across the United States, and even here in Australia. While much progress has been made since the days of old when the White Australia policy was in place, and since the horrific treatment toward Indigenous Australians when they were excluded from citizenship, when families were ripped apart, and the silent screams of aborigines who were massacred throughout the 19th Century. Much work toward reconciliation has taken place, but we have been reminded that racism has not been fully defeated. These stories continue to make the news each day.

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Photo by Denniz Futalan on Pexels.com

Somewhat caught behind these news items, but still present and making news, is each new chapter of the rapidly changing sexual revolution. In particular, the transgender movement which is requiring total allegiance and the automatic cancelling of anyone daring to question their dogma.

Today, July 1st marks the halfway point of this unforgettable year. On this day our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, made a major announcement regarding an issue that is still not receiving the public attention that it requires. The PM gave a rare and important address regarding the Defence of the country. Last week he informed Australians about a significant cyber attack on Government departments and Australian businesses by a foreign State. He has increased funding for cyber defence by $100s millions. Today he announced  a$270 billion investment for our military, including long-range missiles. This is a direct response to the growing geopolitical threat posed by China.

I’m not surprised. For some time, Defence experts have been warning the Government of the growing danger of Communist China. A defence white paper was given to the Prime Minister of the time, Malcolm Turnbull, outlining strategic necessities for Australian defence against China. Peter Jennings, who is the Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, has repeated warnings about Australia’s lacking defensive capabilities and unpreparedness for a China who is hungry for power.

Several weeks ago I wrote a piece detailing 6 ways the world may change as a result of COVID-19. My third point was about China. It’s worth revisiting some of the details. I suggested,

“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.”

Since then, China’s Communist Government has taken further measures to take control of Hong Kong.

Niall Ferguson is the Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In December of 2019, he 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…”

The Prime Minister’s announcement today will probably send shivers down the spine of many Aussies and create an audible backlash from others; I think the decision is a sensible one. This significant increase in defence spending doesn’t heighten the dangers around the Indo-Pacific, rather it highlights the already alarming situation. The reality is, we are not witnessing the awakening of a sleeping giant panda, but a dragon.” 

“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”.

When history books are written in 50 years time, of the myriad of issues faced this year, it probably won’t be the bushfires or race protests or transgenderism, or even the pandemic that will feature; the story will be China.

If a new cold war hasn’t already 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.

As we enter the second half of this strangest of years, I’m praying that Australians will wake up and understand that what we assumed was normal and secure isn’t so certain and reliable. We need to anchor life and hope in something better than the health and prosperity that we’ve been gorging on for so many decades.

“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25) 

At the same time, as a Christian, I’m comforted by the words of Jesus,

 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains. (Matthew 24:6-7)

These words don’t diminish the existential realisation of such events. But God is not surprised. For 2,000 years Jesus’ words have been accessible but not always believed, read but not always grasped. We should not be alarmed or surprised by events that take hold of people, nations, and the natural world. We can be appalled and grieve these sharp reminders of a world that is cursed and cannot redeem itself. Alarmism, however, isn’t befitting for the one who trusts in a God who is Sovereign.

What we are experiencing in 2020 is a massive doss of what millions of people around the world regularly experience, and what many past generations have also lived through. What is new, is perhaps the legion of major issues now facing us and perhaps also the lack of political and social will to deal with some of them.

Jesus adds, during this eschatological season, the Church has a mission and it remains unchanged,

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (v.14)

The hope of the nations is this Gospel of Jesus Christ, the one who died and was raised to life. I wonder, do our churches still believe this? No Government or superpower has a weapon of such power in their arsenal, such that the dead can be raised to eternal life. Churches, be clear about the Gospel. Be committed to preaching this Gospel, because nothing else can save us from hell to come.

Racism, Protests, and our faith in Christ: a letter to my church

“Turn from evil and do good;

    seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14)

 

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Dear Church,

I have never written an email of this nature to you before. I do so out of love for you all and also love for our neighbours.

I understand that among us there will be different reactions to the events transpiring in America this week, and there will be varied thoughts about how to respond.

As a church, we, of course, hold substantial agreement on account of our union with Christ. We confess Jesus is Lord. He is the One Saviour of the world. Together we affirm all human beings are made in the image of God and all are therefore equal before him and have inherent worth. We affirm that racism is anti-Christian, anti-God, and is destructive to society.

This week we are being reminded of how highly charged and partisan our societies have become. In the name of ‘love’ and ‘truth’ too many people have given up love and truth and instead turned on one another. Sadly, cultural movements often have the effect of dividing rather than uniting. We need to resist those temptations and false binaries, both in the church and as we live in the community.

There is a mass protest being organised in Melbourne city this Saturday, to support ‘Black Lives Matter’.

As your pastor, while recognising our freedom both in Christ and in the State to voice our concerns, I want to draw your attention to the following important points:

  1. In the State of Victoria, there remain strict laws enforcing social distancing and limiting meeting in large numbers, both indoors and outdoors. COVID-19 remains a health issue in our society. Both the Federal and State Governments, and the State Police are urging Victorians not to attend because of the COVID-19 situation
  2. Authorities have issued a warning, informing the public that there are protesters planning to incite violence and disorder.
  3. The organising group behind this particular city protest (Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance) does not recognise Australia’s legal system and has called for the dismantling of Australia.

I’m not arguing against the principle of public protest, nor am I telling anyone what they should or should not decide. I personally don’t think protests and marches are the best way to argue a point. But I acknowledge that there can be value for this kind of social action. I have friends who have participated in different protests in the United States in recent days, and many who have not and yet they are very much grieved by the events in Minneapolis last week. It is incumbent upon each of us to make decisions that are appropriate and reflect love for neighbour and that don’t dishonour the Lord Jesus in any way. 

To anyone planning to protest this week, know why you protest and understand your aim. If you are joining with others, know why they are protesting and what they are aiming to achieve.

We can stand against racism and not join this particular protest at this time. You might like to post a statement or prayer on social media to express our belief in the dignity of Indigenous Australians or call for greater measures to tackle the terrible numbers of Aboriginal people who have died in custody since 1991. You could post appropriate Bible verses.

When restrictions are lifted then perhaps organise an appropriate event: a prayer vigil, or prayer walk, as I’ve seen Christians doing in the US this week.

I’ve just heard Mike preach on Psalm 34, which was recorded for this Sunday. I encourage you all to listen on Sunday; it is a good and timely word. We want to be focused on God, we want his word to direct our motives and attitudes and thoughts. Even as a church where we agree racism is evil, we may want to respond in different ways. Be gracious to one another when we talk and share. Be prayerful. Find ways to love your neighbour: welcome them into your home, speak a kind word, ask them how are they doing.

We want to avoid the danger of falling into popular narratives from the left and from the right. Instead, our identity and our lives are now defined by the Gospel of Christ; this is what it means to be Christian. Therefore, let our motivations, words, and actions promote this good news. Doing so doesn’t make our voice weaker, it is more powerful and attractive.  It allows us to grieve with those who grieve,  to express anger for those who are trodden on, to forgive, and to know God will do right. 

“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,

    and his ears are attentive to their cry;

but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,

    to blot out their name from the earth”. (Psalm 34:15-16)

Nancy Pelosi repeats President Trump’s mistake with the Bible

“Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning”. (Ecclesiastes 4:13)

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” (Proverbs 26:14)

 

If President Trump acted with hubris and foolishness yesterday by standing in front of a church building and holding a Bible in his right hand, then someone should have told Nancy Pelosi not to repeat the mistake.

Nancy Pelosi is the serving Speaker of the United States House of Representative. She has responded to President Trump’s awful photo op by offering one of her own. During a press conference at the Capitol Building today, Nancy Pelosi held onto a Bible and spoke to the media. She had learned one lesson of what not to do from President Trump, she opened the Bible and read out loud what can be described as a loose paraphrase from Ecclesiastes ch.3

“There’s an appointed time for everything…A time for every event under heaven. … A time to heal, a time to embrace and a time to shun embracing..a time for peace…”

She might have continued and read what follows in that chapter, 

 And I saw something else under the sun:

In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

 I said to myself,

“God will bring into judgment
both the righteous and the wicked,
for there will be a time for every activity,
a time to judge every deed.”

 

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Nancy ‘the Bible teacher’ Pelosi may have offered at least a conciliatory tone but the grandstanding is nonetheless equally egregious. It was a silly game of oneupmanship, made using the word of God as the instrument of choice.

The fact that she opened the Bible and read a few verses holds her to a higher standard of responsibility. As the Scriptures says,

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror” (James 1:22-23)

I’m sure this press briefing will be received positively by many. The media hasn’t treated it with the same kind of disdain that has been expressed over President Trump’s efforts yesterday. Let the reader understand, the media isn’t interested in the word of God being rightly handled, and neither are partisan hacks. As followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we ought to be.

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

These words are not written for politicians, they are directed to pastors, and they are also applicable to Christians in general. Christians should not be fooled by either photo op. Mocking God is not a wise course of action, and we don’t want to find ourselves excusing or supporting these behaviours.  Pretending to hold Scripture in high regard while openly legislating against its teachings is known in the Bible as ‘hypocrisy’.

As a result of criticising President Trump yesterday, I received some pushback, which is unsurprising in our fractious world. As Christians we must understand that the standard for Christian faith is not allegiance to any given political party, it is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is a real danger for Christians living in a polarised and politically partisan society. Of course we all hold political preferences, and I appreciate the real ideological difference between Republicans and Democrats; these things matter,  but they should never supersede our allegiance to Christ.

Criticising the wrongful actions of one political leader does not mean an endorsement of another; that is a logical fallacy. If we cannot hold people in public office to account even when they represent our political party,  and call out their abuse of God’s word, then perhaps we need to ask ourselves what kind of Christianity we are believing.

The footage of President Trump was poor and should not be defended by Christians. There was no calling the nation to open this word and to live by it. There was no humility. Today’s footage of Nancy Pelosi similarly speaks to political expediency.

Caesar is not infallible and neither is Brutus. I would love to see both Pelosi and Trump reading and meditating upon this precious word that truly gives peace, life, and hope to all who receive it. It is truly insane when the very word of life is being held in the hand and yet rejected. I encourage my American brothers and sister in Christ to pray for their leaders, as the Scriptures urge us to.

Let me finish with the words of a pastoral colleague who is serving in a church in Virginia. He summarises the issue well:

“Beware of those who use God’s Name for political gain.

Jesus is neither a Republican or Democrat.

His Kingdom is not of this world.

“God’s name is blasphemed…b/c of you.” Romans 2:24

In the past 24 hours, 3 leading political figures have presented themselves as representing Jesus without giving evidence of knowing Him.

Our church would welcome each as guests & we’d share the Gospel w/ them but I’m grieved when people confuse people about what it means to know Jesus.

To be clear: Christians can vote for candidates who are not Christian. We often will.

But beware of forming your opinion of Jesus based on the lives of those who use Jesus to further their own anti-Jesus ambitions.”

An Australian watching America this week

“He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight”. (Ps 72:14)

“Blessed are the peacemakers,

    for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

 

Australians live many thousands of kms from the shores of the United States, but we are watching a compelling and disturbing drama unfold. It is difficult to look on and not feel a wave of strong emotions.

I am writing as an outsider and conscious of that fact. I have twice visited the USA, and have made many friends during those stays. I have visited some of the great cities that are now facing upheaval. Only yesterday I saw footage of the street where I lived for a month in Washington DC, as vehicles and trucks of the National Guard drove through carrying soldiers to a hot spot. Across the road from the Capitol Building, I have sat in a restaurant and enjoyed lunch with a brother in Christ. He is an African American and a member of the Church where I attended while in DC. As we broke bread together, we chatted and I listened to his thoughts about racial tensions in the United States. We have remained friends on Facebook. As I see him and other friends posting on Facebook this week, I am reminded to pray for them.

Many Images coming out of America

There are many images being shown across the world from Minneapolis to Washington DC, from Atlanta to Los Angeles. We are hearing multiple narratives told by media, politicians, and by the general public. The problem in weighing up all this information is that much of it is conflicting, some of it is unverifiable, and a lot is infused with different political and ideological agendas.

The fact is, leaving aside exchanges with friends, the noise of social media gives little place for nuance and calm. Public opinion sadly feeds off anger and loud rhetoric. Twitter is hardly known as a platform for peacemaking.

One week ago a man was murdered on the streets of Minneapolis. George Floyd was killed by a police officer who used excessive and brutal force. Floyd’s cry, “I can’t breathe”, was ignored by all four police officers present at the scene. It is difficult to watch the video and hold back from shouting at the officers to let him go. It is horrifying to watch. George Floyd’s death was so unnecessary; it was an act of evil.

Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, many cities in America have erupted in social turmoil.

I am hearing that many African-Americans are fearful, angry, and hurting. Many are not on the streets protesting, but the sting of May 25th is very real. Others are protesting, quietly or loudly, fervently with purpose.

There are many peaceful protesters. There are also violent rioters and looters. I suspect some are lashing out in anger and fear, not knowing how else to respond. It is also clear that George Floyd’s murder is being exploited by criminal elements, including ANTIFA. It is only right for police to prevent these people from destroying property and harming human life, and to arrest them when they do.

There are members of the media doing their job impartially and in a considered manner, while others agitate the situation by throwing flammable words on television and in the news. It’s not only American media, but Aussie reporting of American stories is often blinkered and biased.

We have witnessed politicians and community leaders speak with passion and reason, and we have also heard politicians from across the spectrum use the situation to push their own drum. The political grandstanding and ideological manipulating of some is disgusting and is so counter productive.  There is already blood on the ground, without piling on rhetorical mud and manure from self interested people wanting to win votes or to buy more viewers.

Obviously, I am not an American, nor am I a person of colour, but we do share our humanity. I feel grief and anger for those who are mistreated on account of their race. Pain runs deep and the past is not quickly healed. How can one watch images of African Americans crying in the streets and shaking with fear…it should not be. All human beings are God’s image-bearers. All are wonderfully made by God and deserve to be treated with dignity and great value.

Amidst the footage that shows escalating violence, there are also many beautiful images to be found: a policeman embracing a young African American boy who is trembling, a police chief removing his riot gear and joining a crowd of protestors in solidarity with them. People need to see these stories of peacemaking in order to help change the narrative that is dominating the news. How can we encourage peace and progress if our newsfeeds are cluttered with violent scenes and with angry commentators hurling abuse at political opponents? Of course, we need to recognise the ugly and the evil, but we must also display the good.

 

An Image

There is one image that has taken hold of the story today, and it is of President Trump standing outside St John’s Church in Lafayette Square, holding up a Bible in his right hand. The previous night rioters had set fire to the building. Today it was used as a symbol of Presidential fight back.

As a Christian and as a pastor of a church I am less than pleased to see the Bible being used in this way. I trust many more Christian leaders will speak up about this Presidential stunt.

 

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The Rector of St John’s and the Bishop of Washington have both expressed anger and dismay at President Trump using the outside facade of St John’s and him holding a Bible.

Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington said of the uninvited visitor,

“I am outraged…And I just want the world to know, that we in the diocese of Washington, following Jesus and his way of love … we distance ourselves from the incendiary language of this President. We follow someone who lived a life of nonviolence and sacrificial love”

I think it’s wrong for the President to stand outside and use a church building without the express permission of its clergy. What’s worse is him holding up God’s word for a political photo-op. Keep in mind, President Trump is not the first American leader to misuse God’s word in public office and he won’t be the last. But this calculated image is foolish. It is foolish because few people are convinced the President takes the Bible seriously, let alone reads, believes and practices what the Bible says. It’s also foolish because the Bible isn’t a book to fool around with.

As the writer to the Hebrews says,

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

By this word God saves and he judges. By this word, God mocks rulers and the nations, and he speaks comfort and peace to those who humble themselves. It is this word that alone declares all people are made in the image of God and are therefore equal in his sight. It is this word that declares Jesus Christ is Lord and that all people are accountable to Him for how we live. It is this word that speaks of God who loves us profoundly, such that his only Son laid down his life for sinners. Indeed, the very Bible President Trump held in his hand with that defiant face, is the word that says,

“Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.

11 Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.

12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Ps 2:10-12)

A friend of mine noted the irony of this chosen site for politico-religious vanity. Outside St John’s, the cameras took photos of a President who does not believe the Scriptures nor does he practice what they teach. Inside St John’s Church, there are clergy who also do not believe or practice the Scriptures. St John’s Church and the presiding bishop of Washington are known for their errant views about Christianity. Both inside and out, they treat the Bible with disdain.

The most profound irony is that this Bible, when opened and read and considered, offers truth that sets people free. It offers life to those who believe. It brings forgiveness to those who repent. It lifts up and gives hope to those who are hurting. If people are serious about racial reconciliation and the healing of political and social wounds, don’t copy the President and avoid listening to clerics who similarly misuse the Bible. Rather, open it and hear the word that changed the world and can also change us. Here is sound advice from Jesus, 

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24)

 

 


I’ve posted a Part 2, in light of Nancy Pelosi’s own Bible photo op

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.