One of the important topics today is understanding church and state. I gave this sermon recently at my home church, Mentone Baptist Church.
The sermon explains why hardline secularism is problematic and so is Christian nationalism. The Bible doesn’t lead us in either direction but provides a better and dynamic relationship between church and state whether the two don’t fuse together and neither do they ignore each other.
Preface: please read the entire piece & not just one or two snippets. The whole argument matters, not just a quote or two. thank you
I’m beginning to think that when some people read ‘1984’ and ‘A Brave New World’, their impression is, what a great idea. Let’s model our society on ‘Oceania’ or ‘World State’!
There is a certain predictability about our political and social overlords: Christianity is bad, science is a subject in the Arts faculty, and conscience is only free for those who follow the right agenda.
In its latest iteration, Victorian Legislative Council member, Fiona Patten, from the Sex Party (sorry, it’s now called ‘Reason’ Party) is tabling legislation that will force Church-based hospitals and health institutions to perform abortions. Patten’s Bill threatens these hospitals with losing their public funding if they refuse patient requests for abortion.
Before I respond to Patten’s reasoning, I want to admit that abortion isn’t a topic I like to write about. I appreciate how this is a very real and sensitive and emotionally charged issue for many people. Despite angry messages that I receive from certain quarters, the reality is, women carry tremendous guilt and pain from having an abortion, even many years later. ‘Celebrate your abortion’ may be a thing right now, but behind the slogans, many women struggle. The way to find forgiveness and freedom from the past isn’t to redefine a wrongful act as good, as our political representatives feel necessary today, but to take the harder and better road that Jesus outlines: admit our terrible decisions and turn to God who is big enough and willing to wipe away every spot of guilt. Churches and religious organisations remain communities who gladly help where there is a difficult pregnancy, and who also gladly welcome people who carry heavy burdens. Churches are not communities of the moral oppressors, but of those who found a loving and forgiving God. I encourage readers to ignore the caricatures of Christianity that we read about in the media and instead check out the real thing for ourselves.
Having said that, Fiona Patten explains her legislation,
“Publicly funded hospitals and other health institutions have no right to refuse these legally enshrined rights that a woman has control over her body and reproductive health.”
“Religion is a blessing to many amid the mysteries and vagaries of existence, but imposed religious faith has no place in the public health system.”
“Patten said institutions should not be able to claim “conscientious objection” and that the bill would ensure public hospitals were not able to prevent a doctor from performing legal abortion procedures.”
First of all, let the reader understand, Fiona Patten does not believe in the separation of Church and State. She thinks that the State ought to control religion. The State of Victoria has witnessed the slow erosion of this healthy distinction (and partnership) in recent years, including the State removing freedom from religious institutions to employ people on the basis of their religious convictions, and banning certain prayers and conversations with fellow Victorians. Patten believes that the State should force religious health providers to perform acts of killing unborn children, an action that deliberately cuts against sound religious convictions.
Patten regularly campaigns to have any vestige of Christianity removed from the public square (ie think the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament*) and she regularly promotes legislation that will bring down State sanctioned secular ideology onto religious organisations. This is but the latest manifestation of a growing trend.
This is dangerous political overreach.
Second, does Fiona Patten appreciate that her threat will only further harm our health system, a healthy system that is already overburdened and not coping? Is throwing rocks at vital and overworked hospitals going to help the sick and injured? Removing public funding from these hospitals won’t save lives and relieve the mounting pressures and massive backlog of important surgeries.
Instead of threatening religion-based hospitals, perhaps our political representatives should ask, how can we be helping?
Third, in the grand tradition of doublespeak, Fiona Patten obscures the reality of abortion by ignoring the life of the child and speaking of a woman’s right. Few activists admit today that the child in the womb is anything less than a human being. Science and technology simply won’t allow the ‘clump of cells’ myth to continue. We can see the little human inside the mother’s womb growing. Even at 16 weeks, we now know that babies are thinking and feeling. They respond to sound and to music. Their cognitive faculties, creative faculties, and listening and communication skills are far more advanced than was once believed.
“I am reminded of the words spoken by one excited mum, ‘As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44).
A society that claims a right to destroy such life is a society that has lost sight of its humanity and its obligations to the most vulnerable. But not content with abortion taking place in public and some private medical centres, move is afoot to force religious medical providers to perform this unconscionable act.
The prophet Isaiah said,
“Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.”
I suspect Fiona Patten’s Bill will fail to win sufficient support in Parliament. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the majority of Victorians would think her reasoning is reasonable. Nonetheless, let the reader understand that she doesn’t represent a marginal cultural perspective but rather she belongs to the vanguard of cultural change. We shouldn’t be surprised to see, as we have on other issues, that ‘try, try, again’ will eventually see hardline authoritarian secularism succeed.
I wonder, does Fiona Patten believe that the State should have the power to coerce her to act against her conscience? As we’ve seen with the Manly 7 and a growing list of examples, the argument for conscience moves in only one direction, and that’s not a song and dance routine that I want to follow.
What do other Victorians think? Should doctors and nurses be compelled to take human life?
What a crazy, sinful, grief giving world we live in.
The insatiable blackhole of today’s groupthink requires a response that our political and culture wars can’t handle. Facts, figures and commonsense rarely belong to the debates of today, and even more rare is the nuance and grace that we desperately need. In our thinking, we need to dig deeper.
Of course, Christians aren’t going to cave into Patten’s threats and start killing babies. What an absurdity! Without giving an inch to this grim ideological pressure, I caution against responding with anger or with spite. Rather, follow the example of Jesus. At the beginning of what we now called the Passion week, Jesus stood over Jerusalem, and he wept. Jesus said,
“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” He then entered the city, resolved to lay down his life for those who wanted to take his.
Christians recognise there are valid reasons for keeping the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament and for removing the Lord’s Prayer from Parliament.
“I’m not an idiot”, so said Michael Jensen in an interview with Peter FitzSimons for Sunday’s Sydney Morning Herald.
FitzSimons opening barrage on Jensen was to portray Christianity in his typically parodic manner, as though Christians are a bunch of uneducated, antiscientific, and annoying cluster of flies. Hence, Michael’s initial response. Although to be fair, apart from the opening line to Jensen, the article is pretty decent and Fitz does a good job in questioning both Fiona Patton and Michael Jensen. His topics were the Lord’s Prayer and churches’ tax exemption status.
For those who don’t know of Fiona Patten, she is a member of the Legislative Council in the Victorian Parliament. Her party, Reason Party, was formally called the Sex Party. Unsurprisingly, Patten is a passionate advocate for progressive sex ideology. Michael Jensen on the other hand is Senior Pastor at St Mark’s Darling Point in Sydney and holds a PhD from Oxford University.
On the topic of the Lord’s prayer, Michael Jensen is typically Christian as he sees both pros and cons with Parliament reciting the Lord’s Prayer. On the issue of tax exemption rules, Jensen explains,
“the first thing to say is that Jesus told us to pay taxes and churches should too, on [straight-out businesses they run]. But churches as places of worship come under the charity law as a community group and for the purposes of taxation don’t have special privileges that other community groups don’t have. So sports, for example, don’t pay tax because they are a community group, as are trade unions, things like Men’s Shed, the CWA and indeed political parties. So this is not a special provision just for churches. And when it comes to churches, the view is that money put in the plate has already been taxed – it is people’s after-tax dollars – and so doesn’t need to be further taxed, just as when people donate to community groups.”
“Tax law needs supervision, needs compliance and needs data to be administered properly. Most of the long-established churches like ours have an accumulated wealth, particularly through property, because of our longevity in Australia – and most of our buildings are held in a trust to support the purposes for which the organisation exists, which is not for making profit. So we’re not remotely a business in that sense.”
Jensen is correct. I acknowledge that I’m biased, but it does not require a PhD from Oxford to realise that Jensen’s explanation is reasoned and grounded in what actually happens in churches across Australia and how their financial paradigm fits comfortably within the ACNC (Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission). Of course, where churches engage in business enterprises they rightly follow the law and pay their taxes. If and when there are examples of churches failing to comply, it is appropriate for authorities to investigate.
Fiona Patten holds a very different view from Michael Jensen. In this interview, she offers a clear explanation as to why she believes churches should be taxed: she doesn’t like them.
“If you are talking about religious charities, providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry – what we in society consider real charity – I absolutely think those genuine charities should be tax-exempt, and I totally support that. But the problem is the tax exemption the law provides for “the advancement of religion”. That used to be regarded as being for the public benefit but fewer people than ever think that. And why should you get a tax break for promoting a superstition?”
First of all, what Patten describes as ‘real charity’ is in error. The ACNC includes all kinds of organisations, including, community sporting clubs, unions, political parties, Rotary and Lions, and more. Is Fiona Patten suggesting that all these should have their tax exemption rescinded because they are not involved in giving food to the hungry?
If you look at Patten’s words, her position is hardly an argument, but it is a reason of sorts. She doesn’t like religion, therefore churches should lose their tax exemption status. Now, there are many charitable organisations that I don’t particularly like or attach much value to. I don’t enjoy swimming or basketball, but should these sporting clubs lose their not-for-profit status because I personally don’t receive benefit? Can I not admit what is true, and that is, that other people find value in these community organisations even if I don’t? But of course, this is the issue: Christianity is not only viewed as irrelevant, but it is also immoral and dangerous. Or at least, that’s the narrative being preached around the country from university campuses to school classrooms and newspaper opinion pieces.
In this interview, Michael Jensen is simply stating facts, as the Federal Minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, confirmed. And yet, social media yesterday turned on industrial-sized heaters, blowing angry and distasteful commentary.
John Dickson said,
“The Fitz article is good. The responses demonstrate a key point in our debate about taxing churches as businesses. Those who oppose church tax exemptions do so (almost invariable) because they despise – ‘bigoted’ ‘stupid’ ‘paedophilic’ ‘nonsense’ ‘fairytale’ – religion!”
A few hours later John tweeted further,
“The level of anti-religion argument in this country is very poor. It is emotion and distaste all the way down. Bring back the old atheists, I say!”
Over at the land of twits I offered a simple affirmation of Michael Jensen’s answers, and it didn’t take long for Fitz’s followers to unload. It’s not as though people offered rebuttal as such, it was more akin to pointing a flamethrower at anyone standing with Jensen.
“I just read this, all nonsense. You talk about dependence on God, which one, Thor, Odin? Get this nonsense out of our govt.”
“What benefits did christianity bring again? Ignorant belief in imaginary gods used as an excuse for control of others, forced unwilling pregnancies on women, looked away from paedophilia & domestic violence, great examples of man’s evil though.”
“Seriously, can’t you do better than that?
“Let’s reverse it – You just love religion. That’s the only real reason you have for defending tax breaks for religion.
See how facile that is?”
And then this doozy for a happily married man of 22+ years…
“You virgin Murray!”
I can receive a lot worse than these contributions, but the examples I’ve cited are nonetheless telling. These comments and countless more like them simply rehash Patten’s view: ‘I don’t like religion, therefore we should remove their tax exemption.’
It’s a sad state of affairs but this is the calibre of what’s becoming normalised public scrutiny and debate today. Rather than weighing on facts and reason and listening carefully to the other, debate is shut down by the loudest mob. They don’t need to rely on evidence or rationality, pushing people into silence is effective. And it’s proving effective because Christianity is no longer seen as stupid, it is an evil that requires intervention. Of course, Christianity and evil are diametrically opposed, but this is not how Aussies are taught to view Christianity any longer.
Yes, Christians are at times obnoxious and give off an unpleasant smell. More often, Australians assume to be true what they hear repeated often enough and they believe what they are taught, and what we are taught is that Christianity is bad for you. Hillsong was used as an example by both Patten and people on social media. Hillsong is a popular target, and for some reason, but 99.9% of churches are not Hillsong, and judging the whole on the basis of that single example is superficial at best, and fallacious at worst.
It’s important for Christians to come to terms with how the fabric of education and belief has shifted in Western countries like Australia. The Christian message, and therefore Churches, is a social toxin that requires social, political, and even legal action to minimise its spread. It is therefore only natural for people to believe churches don’t deserve their tax exemption status. After all, if Christianity is bad for you, why should the Government provide tax exemptions?
There are people who are hurt by religion. There are people who hate religion, by which they usually mean Christianity. There are many people who simply do not understand Christianity. Michael Jensen has served us well.
Yesterday’s pushback on Jensen reminds me how Churches have more work to do to correct these misnomers about churches and money, and most importantly about the nature and purpose of the local church. Of course, churches can preach and live as faithfully to Jesus as possible and still face wild outrage and bitterness, but let’s not be too quick to throw out all opposition into the basket named, ‘hatred’. One of the trends we are seeing is growing ignorance of what Christianity is about and for that, we can hardly blame the average Aussie. To be sure, our cultural elites must take some responsibility as they distort Christianity in the ploy to remove her influence from society. Churches shoulder greater responsibility for the confusion that exists in our broader society. Why? Gospel clarity and conviction and teaching and life are often missing from our churches. The beauty and power of the Christian message is often defused by poorly trained pastors or through religious Benedict Arnolds.
I happen to agree with Fiona Patten in that some religions are little more than superstition, but others are not. Christianity is necessarily and integrally grounded in history and reality. The claims of Jesus Christ are consequential because they are rooted in real events and real people and for a real world. Far from superstition, Christianity provides the very ideas that have converged to build the very best of Australian society and the building blocks necessary for democratic liberalism and social pluralism: the equality and dignity of all human beings, the art of persuasion not coercion, belief in the rule of law, and so on.
Christians have a better story. It’s not a story that Christians are somehow better than others (for we are not), but a living example that shows how crucified and now living Christ is better. The Federal Minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, is an atheist and yet recognises the ways in which belief in God and joining a religious community changes peoples lives for the better, creating greater generosity and servanthood and helping out for the good of others (cf Leigh’s interview with John Dickson).
While fewer Australians are formally identifying with religion, the fact is that the advancement of religion remains hugely important to millions of Australians. More so, at a time when Australia is experiencing less social cohesion and staggering levels of loneliness and people living without hope, there is an argument for churches having an even greater role and responsibility in bringing people together. Removing the tax status of churches is not only irrational, but Australian society will also be worse off. Churches are communities where people come and share life together and find the answers to life’s greatest questions. These are communities where people enormous amount of time and energy to loving others and sacrificially giving. These are voluntary associations where people gather to learn and discover the greatest message the world has ever known. Yes, it requires money for the upkeep of buildings and utilities and ministries. The social capital for broader Australian society is huge, and dare I say it, the implications are of eternal nature.
Disagree with Christianity by all means. Let us listen and argue well and disagree well, but removing churches’ tax exemptions will achieve little more than shooting ourselves in the head and expecting a good outcome to follow.
“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.” (2 Corinthians 10:4)
Australia has a new Prime Minister and a new Federal Government.
Millions of Australians are happy and excited by what may come about as the result of Saturday’s Federal election. Millions of other Australians are disappointed and even angry and concerned by the political shift. A large number of more Australians, probably in the millions also, are despondent with politics in general. Christians will also be found across this political spectrum. Christians may or may not be less favourably disposed toward the new Government. It is certainly the case that no Government will fully align with or be supportive of every issue that is concerns Christians. Indeed, we should not expect this to be the case, for it is the church that is God’s centrepiece, not a human Government, and hope is found in Christ, not in any political system or party. Theonomy is a dangerous and anti-Christian notion, as much as hardline secularism opposes healthy pluralism and democracy.
I am not intending to dig into my own political preferences, nor to offer here any sociological insights into what the election may or may not mean for Australia’s future. Such analysis is outside the scope of my interest here. The point I wish to make is a simple one. The observation ought to be an uncontroversial one, but knowing how polarised and tribal our communities are becoming, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of a basic Biblical imperative.
Regardless of how one may feel about the election result and who your local MP is or isn’t, there is a Scripture that remains compulsory for all Christians. And it is this,
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4)
I was reminded of this timeless word by Justin Moffatt, the Senior Minister at Church Hill in Sydney. He said,
“One of the things I like about the prayers in the Anglican Prayer Book is that we always pray for the government of the day, and we pray the same thing no matter who governs.
It moves effortlessly from one to the next, as though the problem of the world isn’t government, and the hope of the world were found elsewhere.”
Whatever our reaction to the election, Justin is right. This Christian imperative doesn’t necessarily legitimise or remove how we are feeling about the election outcome, but it ought to remind us of the bigger picture and it rightly reorients us to what is eternal and ultimately important. There ought to be a certain constancy, evenness, and repetition that is evident in our churches as we note the changing political landscape.
Because we have the habit of assuming that we live in the worst of times (or the best) it’s good to remember the plasticity of that view. The Apostle Paul wrote his words at a time when the Roman Empire was expanding and where there was no political freedom and where opposition to Christianity was emboldened. This was not an easy time to confess Jesus is Lord and to belong to a local church. One of the Emperors during Paul’s ministry was Nero! Nonetheless, the Apostle commands the church in Ephesus to pray for those in authority.
The duty of Christians around Australia has not changed. And yes, the language of duty is appropriate. There is a new Prime Minister in the new Government and with that will come all kinds of policies and decisions impacting the economic and social landscape of the country. Anthony Albanese and his team are taking the helm following a very difficult season in our nation’s country and I suspect the more difficult place ahead, especially in regard to the question of China.
Prayer like 1 Timothy 2:1-4 can circumvent Christians from overly aligning with any single political movement, and over eschatologising hope in political agendas, rather than in the Gospel of Christ and God’s mission into the world.
It is very easy to be swept up in the political narratives that are preached around the country. As Christians, we need to resist these (or at the very least, temper them) by instead reminding each other of the lordship of Christ and the purposes of God that are found in the gospel. I am not suggesting that followers of Jesus ignore the political process and not participate; not at all. We, as with all citizens, have the opportunity and responsibility to serve the common good of our nation, and this includes political discourse. ‘Love your neighbour’ remains a word for us today. However, the prayer in 1 Timothy 2 frees us from both the jubilation and the despair that accompanies political change.
Of course, with any change of government, there will always be questions about the good and bad in changing policy and direction. Neither am I suggesting that Christians shouldn’t engage with these issues and offer advice and opinion. When choosing to do so, we must however be clear about God’s mission and his character and not be dragged into compromising the gospel for the sake of political expediency. A new government may bring about significant change and re-ordering of social policy and moral direction; it’s naive to suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, as the Apostle Paul reminds Timothy in Ephesus, we know and pray to God who is sovereign over all things including governments and the nations. Our responsibility and opportunity as Christians remain the same: commit to God in prayer those in authority.
The duty of Christians in Australia has not changed. Pray for the new government and our political representatives. Live quiet and peaceful lives with all holiness. Keep the Gospel front and centre in both our hearts and lives and words, because God longs for people to be reconciled to him and come to a knowledge of the truth. Let us not allow our emotions and words to inhibit, disguise, or confuse this good news of God in Jesus Christ.
During last night’s debate between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese, a mother of a young autistic boy asked a question about funding,
“I have a four-year-old autistic son, we are grateful to receive funding under the NDIS. I have heard many stories from people having their funding cut under the current government, including my own.
‘I’ve been told that to give my son the best future, I should vote Labor. Can you tell me what the future of the NDIS looks like under your government?”
Mr Morrison replied, “Jenny and I have been blessed. We’ve got two children who haven’t had to go through that.”
Within a nanosecond, social media filled up with anger, and fair enough. Did Australia’s Prime Minister really say what we heard him say about children with disabilities?
I’m pretty sure Scott Morrison misspoke. I don’t think Scott Morrison believes that children with disabilities are not a blessing. There is in some Pentecostal circles some pretty awful theology when it comes to understanding suffering but I suspect Morrison wasn’t mimicking those terrible and wrongful beliefs. Rather, I suspect he was trying to convey thankfulness for healthy children. Are parents not thankful for when our children are healthy and doing well? I assume this is the kind of thing Scott Morrison was thinking and meant to say. Nonetheless, his actual words were wrong and parents are understandably offended by them.
“I found it really offending and quite shocking, and it is something that people who have a disability, children with autism, it is a kind of response they get all the time,” she said.
“That people are blessed not to have what they have when, in actual fact, every child is a blessing.
“Certainly my daughter enriches my life and my partner’s life every day”
I am reminded of how Jesus welcomed young children, despite his irritated disciples trying to move them away,
“People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them.When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”
There is something profoundly good and human about a society that welcomes, protects, and provides for children. There is something beautiful about recognising the imago dei in others, especially in those who are different to ourselves in some way.
There is also an air of hypocrisy amidst today’s public outcry. Some of the very voices calling out Scott Morrison also support the killing of unborn children. Some who are angrily tweeting have actively legislated to legalise abortion, even up to birth.
Thousands of children are aborted in Australia every year on account of them being diagnosed with a condition of some kind. Indeed, in some countries, certain disabilities are becoming rare because they are being wiped out in the womb. The shocking reality in Australia is that all children are a blessing, apart from those who are deemed unworthy of living.
This is the grotesque outworking of the utilitarian ethics of Peter Singer and others. Professor Singer is renowned for his support of killing the disabled. In 2007, writing for the New York Times, Peter Singer suggests that the life of a dog or cat has more value and ‘dignity’ than a human being with limited cognitive faculties. He even argued that an unborn child only has value insofar as they are wanted by their parents. In other words, the baby does not hold inherent worth but holds importance because of the value attached by others.
“she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her“.
I hope this logic sounds abhorrent to you, but understand, that this is the ethical framework supported by our culture and by the law.
I am still horrified by what a doctor once said to Susan and me. During the pregnancy of one of our children, we were having a checkup and the doctor informed us that our child might potentially carry an illness (and not a particularly serious one), and in light of that possibility did we want to continue with the pregnancy?
If all children are a blessing, and indeed they are, why does our society legalise and even celebrate the destruction of so many of these little ones?
The Psalmist shouts out what is true of all children,
“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.” (Psalm 139)
It shouldn’t need saying, but all children are a blessing: the youngest and the oldest, those who are healthy and those who are ill, those who are strong and those needing special help. We thank God for them and we ask God for grace, strength, patience, and wisdom as we care for and nurture our children.
It is refreshing to see how a poorly expressed sentence by our Prime Minister has been turned into many words of affirmation toward children with disabilities and difficulties. Love and reality press against the utilitarian and selfish individualism that so often captures sex and relationships and family today. Let us remember that all “children are a blessing and a gift from the Lord.” (Psalm 127:3 CEV)
A mother and daughter from my church are currently residing in Ukraine. Bombs have hit the city near where they are living. Thankfully, for now, they are safe. While internet connections have become unreliable, the mum has been able to send a message to one of our church members. For us at Mentone, as with many families across Australia, the events unfolding in Ukraine are more than just stories in the news.
I think it is fair to say that many people around the world are stunned by the audacity of President Putin’s actions, but we should not be surprised. I don’t believe these are the decisions of a madman but someone calculating with warranted confidence. For more than a decade Russia has had military successes with incursions into Crimea, Georgia, Chechnya, and Syria. More than that, as the world looks at the West, they see moral decay and social disruption and division; no wonder they might conclude that they can act with impunity. The insurmountable disaster of the withdrawal from Afghanistan won’t cause nations to tremble at the United States and her allies. Far from fear mongering or throwing around hubris, this is about understanding human nature: Belief + power + opportunity can be a very dangerous mix.
The West has become the polar bear who with each new season finds it harder to uncover firm ground to stand on, and instead relies on jumping across tiny and shrinking blocks of floating ice. As we consciously and deliberately remove the very foundations upon which our societies formed and which a civil and healthy society requires, we create a future that is less certain and less safe. While other nations are perhaps economically and militarily weaker, they have greater conviction and resolve.
“This is the sort of war the West does not know how to fight. It is not just about territory, or borders, or resources, or power. It is existential — it is about identity.”
As far as I can see, the United States gives all the appearances of being supine. The United Nations is weak. NATO cuts their own hamstring. Russia is emboldened, and so will China and Iran. This war in Ukraine is only beginning and it is unlikely to end at her borders. Indeed, ominous days ahead.
As we watch the war unfold on the news, what should we do?
First of all, humble ourselves before Almighty God and pray.
We should follow the example of many Ukrainian Christians and pray. Prayer is not the helpless pleading of people to a blank sky, but the cries of people to God who remain Sovereign and good today, even in Ukraine. Naturally, many Westerners with their sense of intellectual smugness will laugh at such a notion. I dare them to voice their condescension toward the many Ukrainians who are praying in public space at the moment or the pastors who have led their families to safety and then returned to care for the people.
Few of us have the influence to make foreign policy, introduce sanctions or to speak to global leaders, but we can pray to the God to whom all authorities will be held to account.
Second, it is right to feel anger. Most often our anger is wrong and sinful, but there are times when anger is not only justified but even required. When innocent blood is shed, when a human life is abused, and when a nation is invaded by another for the sake of greed and control, it is appropriate to sense and express indignation. President Putin is a despot with millions of Russian people living in fear and under his autocratic rule, and he has just invaded a Sovereign State and put at risk the lives of millions of people.
Third, remember, God will judge the wicked.
As Christians, we know and believe God is love. God is a merciful Father who pours out grace upon human beings who pursue the most arrogant of ways. Christians affirm alongside the Apostle Paul, “ Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst”.
We also believe that God will judge the nations by his Son. Neither the small nor the great are exempt. Ukraine’s UN representative, Sergiy Kyslytsya gave an astonishing speech yesterday, one that I suspect will enter the annals of history. Addressing the United Nations Security Council, Ambassador Kyslytsya spoke directly to the Chair, the Russian Ambassador,
“There is no purgatory for war criminals, they go straight to hell.”
Purgatory does not exist, but hell certainly does. The world needs a judge who will put right the wrongs committed. As a result of human limitations and at times ignorance and even complicity, much evil escapes justice in the moment. One thing Jesus Christ promises is that the wicked will not escape his justice.
Fourth, we need a biblical anthropology.
It is our failure to understand and believe human nature, that causes our disbelief in events such as the one unfolding in Ukraine. On this point allow me to give an extended quote from ‘Symphony From the Great War’, a little book that I wrote a couple of years ago, as it sums up the point at hand:
“The paradox of the human condition bewilders: such inexplicable worth and wonder and yet constant and repeated reproach. The height of creative prodigy with the ability to love and to show kindness, and yet in our DNA are also traits that stick like the mud of Flanders, and which no degree of education or scientific treatment can excise. At the best of times, we contain and suppress such things, and at the worst, we can explode into a public and violent confrontation. The First World War wasn’t human madness; it was calculated depravity. It was genius used in the employment of destruction. This was a betrayal of Divine duty. I am not suggesting that this war was fought without any degree of moral integrity, for should we not defend the vulnerable? When an emerging global war sends signals of an aggressor’s intent to its neighbours, to what point must we remain on the sideline and permit bullying and harassment? At what juncture do allies speak up as a buttress for justice but not support words with deeds? How much politicising is mere virtue signalling?
“War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” (C.S. Lewis)
The temptation is to conclude that lessons have been learned and today we move forward with inevitable evolution. While the superficial has progressed enormously, that is, with scientific, medical, and technological breakthroughs, and with cultures building bridges and better understanding differences. And yet, we mustn’t make the error in thinking that today we are somehow better suited to the task of humanity. This is an anthropological fallacy of cosmic repercussions. The bloodletting has not subsided; it’s just that we exercise our barbarity with clinical precision or behind closed doors. We continue to postulate and protect all manner of ignominious attitudes and actions, but these are often sanctioned by popular demand and therefore excused.
The world sees the doctrine of total depravity but cannot accept the veracity of this diagnosis of disease because doing so would seem to be leaving our children destitute, without hope for a better tomorrow. And yet surely wisdom causes us to look outside ourselves and beyond our institutions and authorities to find a cure for the disease that ails every past and future generation?
It does not take a prophet to understand that the world will once again serve as the canvas for a gigantic bloodstain. There will be wars and rumours of wars. There will be small localised conflicts and globalisation will inevitably produce further large-scale violence, perhaps outweighing the experiences of the first two world wars. We may see and even learn from the past, but we project a fools’ paradise when we envision the human capacity to finally overcome evil. Religion is often no better a repose than the honest diatribes of Nietzsche and his philosophical descendants. Religion, ‘in the name of God’, is often complicit with death making and at times it is missing from the task of peacemaking, while other efforts are much like stacking sandbags against a flash flood: that is, hardly effective
Theologian Oliver O’ Donovan refers to the “nascent warrior culture” in the days of ancient Israel, some fourteen centuries before the coming of the Christ. This culture is perhaps no longer emerging in our world, but it is now long tried and tested among the nations. Does war intrude upon peace? Perhaps it is more accurate to say that war is interrupted by periods of relative peace and at times by ugly appeasement. Soon enough another ideologue and another authority tests the socio-political temperature and attempts to scale the ethereal stairs of Babel.
The human predicament is perhaps a grotesque complement to the rising philosophical concerns of the late 19th Century. Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche began dismantling the imago Dei with a new and devastating honesty. Far from discovering superior freedoms, they justified authoritarian systems of government and the mass sterilisation of ‘lesser’ human beings. To strip humanity of its origins is to leave us destitute and blind, but admitting this truth demands an epistemic and moral humility that few are willing to accept. Nietzsche was right, at least as far as his logic is concerned, that “the masses blink and say, ‘We are all equal – Man is but man, before God – we are equal.’ Before God! But now this God has died.” A contemporary of Nietsche, Anatole France retorted without regret,
“It is almost impossible systematically to constitute a natural moral law. Nature has no principles. She furnishes us with no reason to believe that human life is to be respected. Nature, in her indifference, makes no distinction between good and evil.”
If optimism seems out of place and if pessimism is a crushing and untenable alternative, where does the future lie? The lush green cemeteries of the Western Front with their gleaming white headstones convey a respectful and yet somewhat misleading definition of war. This halcyon scene covers over a land that was torn open and exposed the capacity of man to destroy. Perhaps, as a concession, the dead have received a quiet bed until the end of time, but the serenity of this sight mustn’t be misconstrued in any way to deify war or to minimise the sheer horror that befell so many. In part, we want to learn and so avoid repeating history, and yet history shouts to us a message that we don’t wish to accept.
There is ancient wisdom that stands tall in the midst of time. There are words which demand closer inspection by those who are seeking to exegete the past and to consider an alternate tomorrow. Every step removed from this wisdom signals further hubris that we can ill afford, but epistemic humility and confession may well reorient the compass toward he who offers peace instead of war, life instead of death, and love instead of hate:
“Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
I’ll be honest, when it comes to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games I feel torn. In light of recent human abuses in China and the growing tensions over her intentions with Taiwan, and the wellbeing of tennis star Peng Shuai, several nations including Australia refused to send Government representatives to the games. I also have friends who have decided not to watch the Games as a form of protest.
Politics has never been far from the Olympic Games. In 1968, two American sprinters took a stand against racism on the dais. The 1972 Games was marred by a terrorist attack against Jewish athletes. Nations boycotted the 1980 and 1984 Games due to the Cold War. Games in the 21st Century have been increasingly influenced by cultural movements. And of course, there is the infamous 1936 Berlin Games.
I saw a few ‘highlights’ from the Opening Ceremony and was floored by the reuse of John Lennon’s insipid song, Imagine. Leaving aside the fact that one must have very little imagination for trotting out this dribble again, but did others notice the palpable hypocrisy of having those words resound around the Bird’s Nest?
“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world”
One might ask, but what of the Uyghur people? What of the treatment of Christians? What of the military threats facing Taiwan? Hong Kong? Perhaps the CCP read ‘join us’ and ‘the world will be as one,’ and assumed Lennon was talking about the Communist utopian dream!
After all, Imagine is a fitting anthem for the Chinese Communist Party. The song is explicitly anti-religion, anti-pluralism, anti-God, and near nihilist in its agenda.
Leaving aside the bizarrely befitting opening ceremony song, I’ve been trying to figure out whether I watch the games or not. To be honest, I’ve been feeling pretty blah about a number of the recent Olympic Games. Indeed, what is one to do about the Soccer World Cup hosted by Qatar later in the year?
I understand why a lot of people aren’t turning on the television to watch the Games. Why do we want to encourage in any way, a regime that stands in opposition to the values of liberal democracy? Why we would we wish to promote in any way, a Government that is actively stifling social and religious freedoms. No doubt, some in the CCP might turn and ask, well what about your own backyard Australia? Yes, indeed.
While part of me wants to protest the Games by not watching, another part of me enjoys sport and I like watching the Olympic Games, both Summer of Winter. After all, some of these winter sports are pretty specular, from downhill skiing to bobsledding and aerial snowboarding. And don’t I want to support the Aussies competing? I suspect I’m not the only one facing the dilemma, do I do what I enjoy doing or do I hold to my principles? Do I stand by the belief that the CCP is a dangerous Government who should not be given support and praise (as these Winter Olympics are most assuredly doing) or do I cave in and submit to the Aussie primal urge for sport?
Maybe can I do both? I can voice my objections with a swift statement on Twitter and then quietly turn on the tv in the background! Who would ever know?
In the case of the Winter Olympics, as with many sporting events, the answer isn’t always straightforward; there is some grey. For example, the Olympics isn’t solely about China: we want to see our fellow Australians compete and succeed, there is something noble in admiring human athletic brilliance. Again, in this conversation we may reflect and ask, is our own Aussie backyard pure as snow?
The dilemma isn’t new. This Beijing impasse reminds me of that most ancient of battles, where we acknowledge God who is right and yet we decide to go our own way. Even today, we look at the life of Jesus and read his words, and yet the power of doing our own thing most often wins the day. We may be convinced by the moral norms presented in the Bible, but then the pull to satisfy personal desires and preferences leads us to explain away such Christian principles. We are proficient compromisers; revising, excusing, and justifying all manner of behaviours despite what we might ascend to formally.
Such paradoxes, tensions and even hypocrisies are noted in the Bible. For example, in the book of Roans the Apostle Paul notes this spiritual and moral disjunction that we all suffer. The assessment is fair as it is bleak. For him, it is autobiographical.
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? 4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?“
The prospects of surviving this hypocritical life are zero. The way to resolve the problem isn’t today’s ‘gospel’: just be true to ourselves. After all, is not the Chinese leadership being true to their own values and desires? Is Putin not being faithful to an old Russian dream?
In the same letter, Paul furthers the discord that many of us are subconsciously aware of.
“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.“
“So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? “
The story could end like this, in a spectacular fall that makes downhill skiing look like a novice’s act. But it doesn’t. Paul, who authored these words, was both a legal and religious expert. He was a fervent advocate for his national identity and he openly opposed a new minority group that had appeared on the scene; Christians. This same man later admitted that the greater conflict wasn’t the one taking place externally in the geopolitical scene, but the one facing his own heart. The sun may be out, but what can warm this heart of ice? I suspect that as readers soak in his reflection, we may well recognise the anx and conflict that we also experience inside our own consciences.
Then comes this life giving, relieving and redeeming word,
“Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
If you happen to be like me and feel conflicted over watching the Olympic Games, why not dig a little deeper. Sitting behind the world stage of ideological clashes are human lives whose hearts are in conflict with someone far greater than ourselves. Why do we do what we ought not do?
One of the greatest movements in the last 50 years took place in China. I don’t mean Communism and I’m not referring to China’s massive economic growth. I am speaking of 10s of millions of Chinese men and women who, despite the CCP’s active opposition, have found the answer to the conflict human heart. The solution is God’s gift of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Maybe Australia does need to take a look at China, a deeper look behind geopolitics and into the way in which a people who lost all freedoms have in fact found the greatest freedom, namely Christ.
I’ve written about The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act numerous times given the extraordinary nature of this Government intrusion into the lives of religious Victorians. In this post, I want to inform people of one further way these laws will encroach on religious and civil freedoms and commonsense.
The laws will come into effect in February 2022. Churches are supportive of some measures contained in these laws, but the Act goes well beyond what is reasonable or right.
Among the more extraordinary measures found in the Act is banning people from having conversations with individuals about sexuality and gender, and prohibiting praying with them in line with a Christian view of sexuality (even with their express consent).
The new laws may well extend even beyond consensual prayer. In a letter sent to church leaders from my own denomination we read,
“There is some uncertainty about the application of the Act to praying for or with people regarding their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Act specifically includes “a prayer based practice, a deliverance practice or an exorcism” in the unlawful practices, even if the person seeks or consents to such prayer. However, the VEOHRC has advised that it is a “grey area” if the person is not present when they are being prayed for. It may be unlawful if the person is aware of such prayer, in that this would be understood to be directed at them with the intention of change or suppression.”
Private prayers are considered a ‘grey area’ by the VEOHRC (Victoria Equal Opportunity Human Rights Commission). If that doesn’t make your eyes pop out of your head and roll down the hallway, what will?
For example, a believer prays for a friend, it’s just them and God. Or perhaps 2 or 3 friends pray together, as Christians do all the time, and they bring a request to God about another friend for whom they are concerned. This prayer, even if the person never knows about it, is potentially a breaking of the law. And depending on how police treat the crime, it could potentially lead to a term of imprisonment. More likely, the guilty prayers will be investigated by a civil tribunal and have their lives turned upside down and be forced to attend a reeducation camp where they must learn how to pray and believe in line with the religious views acceptable to the government.
Part of the problem with the VEOHRC coming out with what they call a ‘grey area’ is that it likely means a test case. Some poor woman or man will have their life dragged through the mud, legal system and courts, to see if a vexatious complaint can push the limits of the law.
What business is it of the Government to interfere with my prayers to God, or the prayers offered by anyone?
For those who are not already convinced, can we not see the massive overreach and the insanity that a Christian’s personal prayers are treated as a violation of State law?
What is it about prayer that the Government is so concerned about? Are they worried that God might answer prayer? As a Christian, I follow the Bible’s exhortation to regularly pray for our Governments, regardless of who is in power. I pray they might have wisdom and discernment, to act rightly, fairly, and mercifully.
What is it about prayer that is so egregious? The answer is, activists are not content to ban what were a few rare and abhorrent practices. The intention is to delete any belief and practice that does not fully embrace their own worldview.
One group behind the laws explained,
“A similarly insidious development in conservative religious communities is the ‘welcoming but not affirming’ pastoral posture.”
Ro Allen (the VEOHRC Commissioner) said in an interview,
“The proposed law is quite clear in countering any teaching that says that homosexual sex is wrong, so this may well be part of their education”
I thank God that Jesus welcomes us while not affirming every attitude and behaviour I might have. The very crux of Christianity is that God mercifully welcomes those who contravene his good design in many different ways. I will say again, for those who haven’t read before, the Gospel aim isn’t to change a person’s orientation but it is that they might live a godly life (the distinction is important). There are many same sex attracted Christians who uphold and want to live in light of the Bible’s sexual ethic. The very nature of Christianity is that it welcomes and includes everyone who doesn’t belong by nature and choice. That’s good news worth thinking about.
But understanding the very notion of sin and conversion, transgression and forgiveness cuts against what some groups will tolerate in our society. They are not prepared to live in a civil society where a plurality of thought is encouraged or permissible. Banning certain behaviours isn’t sufficient; the aim is to change and control what we believe and even think. Yes, even our prayers.
Orwell’s 1984 has been done to death in recent years. The next latest 1984 analogy is getting rather tiresome and predictable, but sometimes Mr Orwell had a knack of looking into the hearts of men and seeing something disturbing,
The aim of the Party in 1984 was power and they would orchestrate mind games in order to gain control over even the thoughts of the citizens,
“The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed–would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper–the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.”
There is one who understands the mind and who hears our prayers, and it is beyond the purview of any Government.
“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.” (Psalm 139:23)
“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.”(Hebrews 4:12)
Let God judge our prayers and our minds. And perhaps with time, reasonable minds will appreciate the misstep taken by the Victorian Government and seek to amend this set of laws.
For those interested, here is a copy of a letter that I have sent to several Victorian MPs in the last few weeks. Note, the actual letter varies slightly depending on the recipient. I’ve also made one change here in light of Victoria reaching the target of 90% fully vaccinated today.
I am writing to express concern about the rules governing who can attend religious worship services in Victoria.
Throughout the pandemic, almost all churches have closely followed the health directives and we continue to do so. Like other religious leaders, I am persuaded by medical professionals that the vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and efficacious, and I have encouraged others to follow this advice. This public stance has come at some cost to me personally.
I am grateful for the availability of the vaccines. My entire family is fully vaccinated, including our 3 children. In my church, we anticipate that the overwhelming majority of members will be vaccinated, indeed at a higher percentage than the Victorian population. I am also heartened by the fact that over 93% of Victorians have already received at least the first dose of a vaccine.
While our State needed to increase vaccination rates, certain restrictions on Churches were understandable. However, in light of the new targets, it is no longer reasonable for unvaccinated Victorians to be separated in Church.
On September 19th, Premier Daniel Andrews announced Victoria’s Roadmap. This document stated that once Victoria reaches 80% of 12+ fully vaccinated, all settings will “align with National Plan to transition Australia’s National COVID-19 Response”. It was expected that when Victoria reached this target, any Victorians who remained unvaccinated would return to normal worship services alongside those who are fully vaccinated. We are now in a much better position than was anticipated. This is encouraging news. It, therefore, makes no sense to further exclude from worship services those who remain unvaccinated. Fully vaccinated people have no need to fear those who are unvaccinated.
I acknowledge that the Government has made provision for churches to hold services for people with unknown vaccination status. For a few short weeks, this is possible, but it is not a long term solution. First, a church is one community and it is wrong and harmful to divide it, especially after almost 2 years of lockdowns and hard restrictions. Second, Churches have a responsibility to welcome and minister to all kinds of people including the vulnerable. And it is among this demographic that we find many who are unvaccinated. Third, churches are largely run by volunteers. Forcing churches to organise additional services is not sustainable for an already exhausted community.
For almost two years Churches have chosen to comply with Victoria’s health directives because we have believed that they were reasonable, fair, and temporary. However, to separate church attendees further is neither, reasonable, fair or temporary.
I note that Churches in NSW have returned to normal worship services (as of October 24th) and so there is no division between those vaccinated and those with unknown vaccination status. If NSW can implement this positive step safely and equitably, surely Victoria can do so as well.
Apart from the health issues, this pandemic has created significant social tensions and has brought harm to the mental and spiritual well-being of countless Victorians. It is now time for our State to heal and move on. I am therefore requesting that the vaccination status mandate be removed from churches now that we have reached the target of 90%.
Your advocacy for local religious communities will be much appreciated.
I look forward to hearing from you shortly,
Unfortunately, during the course of the year, some letters have been sent to MPs by some religious quarters containing misinformation, negative messaging toward vaccinations, and a tone lacking any semblance of grace. In contrast, the approach that has proven constructive (ie leading to favourable arrangements for NSW Churches, and even the Victorian Government giving some special consideration to Church) is one where church leaders have advocated responsibly and positively with consideration of society’s overall wellbeing.
Premier Daniel Andrews’ Pandemic Management Bill, is one hot potato. The Bill is currently being debated in the Victorian Parliament and it is drawing much attention in the media and also among the legal fraternity
The President of the Victorian Bar, Christopher Blanden, QC, says of these new powers,
“Stasi police would have been more than happy with the range of powers if they were given it…It’s extraordinary.”
Such authoritarian tendencies have been the hallmark of this Premiership. I’m not here to speak about this contentious Bill. And please note, what I have to say in this article should not be read as a politically partisan presentation, for that is not my agenda. When a Government accomplishes good, I am thankful, no matter who is in power. Without taking away from any good that this Government has achieved in recent years, it is evident that it is drawn by draconian impulses. No Government in Australia in contemporary history has introduced as many policies targeting religious freedom as has this Victorian Government. I say this as someone who lives in Victoria and is watching religious liberties slowly eroding through a combination of policy and power.
Most recently, in February this year, the Government introduced and adopted the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020. While Churches agreed with aspects of the Bill, the Government took the unnecessary approach (breaking with jurisdictions around the world) to define conversion practices as broad as possible, such that normal Christian activities are now prohibited. The Act makes it illegal for Christians (and others) to pray with or speak with another person about sexuality and gender with the aim of persuading them according to Christian beliefs. The Government believes that these activities are so heinous that they have attached a prison sentence of up to 10 years for some offences (this law comes into effect February 2022).
While almost all attention this week is on the new powers being given to the Premier through the Pandemic Management Bill, another Bill has been tabled this week and it deserves attention, The Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. It will be debated in Parliament in 2 weeks time.
The proposed amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act are directly aimed at further reducing religious freedoms in Victoria,
“Religious organisations and schools will only be able to make employment decisions based on an employee’s religious beliefs where these are inherent to the job. Religious bodies and schools will still be able to practice their faith, teach their beliefs and set the religious ethos within their organisation.”
The Premier’s second statement is denuded by the first. By introducing an inherent requirement test for jobs in religious organisations, the Government is self-determining the nature of religious work and removing from these organisations their freedom to make employment decisions for the benefit of their school, church, or charity.
The Bill not only impacts the ability of religious organisations (and faith-based schools) to employ persons according to their established religious convictions. Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, explains,
“The Victorian bill would also mean no faith-based organisations could discriminate when delivering government-funded services such as counselling or homelessness support, or hiring out community facilities”.
Should the State dictate to religious organisations what constitutes religious work and what is not? Do we really want the State defining the theological beliefs and requirements of faith-based organisations? Is a gardener or an office administrator not doing specifically Christian work because they are not teaching Scripture? The Government is creating a false dichotomy that does not exist in the Christian faith, nor in many other religions. Every role is an expression of commitment to God and is a valuable part of the whole that serves a common purpose.
The Government is also mistaken in assuming that because a role does not have a direct theological or spiritual teaching component, it is therefore irrelevant whether the employee agrees with the organisation’s ethos, beliefs, and vision. This is purely illogical. Why would any organisation or company employ someone who does not support the basic values and vision of that association?
One month prior to the Bill being tabled in Parliament, the Attorney-General indicated that the new parameters maybe even further expanded,
“We could be convinced to extend it, we just haven’t consulted on that particular element of reform. I certainly wouldn’t have a closed mind to revisiting that down the track”.
A similar comment was made about the Conversion or Suppression Practices Act by the then Attorney-General, Jill Hennessy. Hennessy told Parliament that conduct “such as sermons…may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.”
In other words, as extraordinary as these amendments are, the Government is already indicating that further religious restrictions may be introduced in the future.
In 2016, a similar amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act was narrowly defeated, however, this latest attempt is likely to pass.
Today not only marks the release of this Bill in Victoria’s Parliament, it also coincides with another day from history. On October 28th 312AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine won a famous victory. This pagan ruler attributed his triumph to what had been up until that moment an illegal religion: Christianity. Soon after, Christianity was legalised and the formal oppression of Christians came to an end in the Roman Empire.
Christianity and the State have not always had an easy relationship, whether it was Ancient Rome, Tudor England or China’s Sinicization. In Australia, for more than a century our society achieved a healthy dynamic between Church and State. The Church does not control the State and the State doesn’t dictate religious beliefs and practices. This division doesn’t mean that religious ideas can never influence public policy. After all, politics is never free from worldview, ideology, and theology. Indeed, our appreciation of the secular state has its roots in the teaching of Jesus Christ.
One day when Jesus was confronted by a group of political and religious pundits, he responded with what has become a vital principle for a healthy society,
“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Jesus wasn’t arguing for the exclusion of religious ideas from the political sphere and neither was he fusing them together. Similarly, the Australian Constitution doesn’t advocate for secularism without religious ideas and contributions, but rather Government is protected from the control of any single religious organisation.
It is important to realise that the social pluralism we enjoy in Australia is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Indeed, Australia’s political and social pluralism is one of the byproducts of Christian theism. If, as some hardline secularists want, that we rid our culture of all public vestiges of Judeo-Christianity, we will in fact destroy the underpinnings for a healthy pluralistic society and instead create one that is far more authoritarian and far less tolerant. Do we want to take that road?
It took almost 300 years for Christianity to be no longer deemed dangerous and criminal. In the space of 5 years, basic Christian ideas have been maligned and even made illegal in my State of Victoria. It’s one thing to disagree with Christian teaching, but such Governmental interference is wrong and needless. Without diminishing this overreach, I don’t want to overstate the case either. It’s not as though the future of Christianity depends upon Governmental permission. Far from it! Christianity often grows where the State opposes Churches. The opposition forces Christians to consider who we truly worship, love and follow. When Christians attribute too much to Government, we can weaken the Gospel and lose sight of the centrality of the Church. We are not theocrats! Government intrusion does however make following Jesus Christ more difficult and costly.
At a time where many nations are turning the screw on religious freedoms, from China to Iran and to Russia, why would we want to join this number? The Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 achieves less for inclusion and instead gives the State greater control over what religious organisations can do in line with their religion. This legislation contradicts healthy pluralism, and it denies the very foundations upon which our secular society is built.
This article is an update on comments I made about the proposed Equal Opportunity Amendments last month