Be careful if you ‘like’ the Bible!

“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.”

 

Talking about and quoting the Bible can be perilous. One can lose friends, employment, and even freedom for choosing to read and mention the Bible in public.

 

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ABC news

Gary Ablett Jnr yesterday reminded footy fans why he is one of the best players we have seen play the game in the past 20 years: bursting packs, shrugging tackles, and kicking goals. He was also subjected to loud booing by the crowd, apparently by both Hawthorn and some Geelong supporters. Jeff Kennett has come out this morning condemning the crowd’s reaction to Ablett, believing that the treatment had to do with Ablett ‘liking’ Israel Folau’s recent Instagram post.

I am reminded of a very different scene that I saw last month, footage of Christians in China unpacking, opening, and holding a Bible of their own for the very first time. They were so excited at receiving a Bible that they danced and embraced their Bible and praised God for this precious gift. The beautiful smiles on their faces said it all. These Chinese believers were an embodiment of the Psalmist’s declaration,

“I seek you with all my heart;

    do not let me stray from your commands.

I have hidden your word in my heart

    that I might not sin against you.

Praise be to you, Lord;

    teach me your decrees.

With my lips I recount

    all the laws that come from your mouth.

I rejoice in following your statutes

    as one rejoices in great riches.

I meditate on your precepts

    and consider your ways.

I delight in your decrees;

    I will not neglect your word.”

In China, as in some other countries, owning a Bible can be a risky decision. Reading and believing the Bible is an even greater risk, for there is the possibility that you’ll be arrested and imprisoned.

In contrast to those joyful scenes in China, set in an authoritarian context, in Australia today, quoting the Bible can also lead to public scrutiny and professional expulsion.

Several Australian sportsmen have been targeted by the media and in social media for committing the terrible crime of ‘liking’ Israel Folau’s latest posting. They include 2 of Folau’s Wallaby teammates and 2 AFL stars, Gary Ablett Jnr and Carlton’s Matthew Kennedy.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, posting Bible verses that betray the cultural morality is not the only crime we can commit; liking such posts can also get you into hot water.

This non-news news story apparently required the football clubs intervention and for the AFL to also speak with the players and to offer a public peace offering.

Ablett has issued this public statement,

“I want to make it clear that I love ALL people regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality,” Ablett posted.

“I have always admired how strong Izzy is in his faith, it is not easy to share faith in the public sphere, and this is why I initially ‘liked’ his post.

“I understand that liking this post appeared offensive and this is why I chose to remove my ‘like’ from the post.”

Over the years I have appreciated Ablett’s public faith in Jesus Christ, and remain so. It’s hard to be a Christian in public Australia today. Some Aussies are respectful, many others think you’re an idiot or even worse.

When it comes to supporting statements made by fellow Christians on social media, I don’t have a problem with Christians not clicking the ‘like’ emoji.  When we do, we might like the post for a variety of reasons, including expressing agreement. I’m sure many Christians who didn’t ‘like’ the posts refrained not because they disagreed with the theological statements being made, but rather, Izzy’s manner and tone appeared to lack grace and kindness (at least that’s how it came across).

Of course, no matter what Bible verses we quote on social media, someone is sure to be offended. Doesn’t Jesus assume that this will be the case? On one occasion Jesus even turned and said to his disciples, “Does this offend you?”

Sadly, our culture police have determined that offence equals hatred and it must therefore be squashed and the offending parties need to enter special education programs for reprogramming. Australian culture doesn’t know how to deal with the Bible and with classic Christian belief.

Christians in China are not free to quote the Bible on social media and to talk about the Gospel of Jesus Christ in public places. This kind of social control is becoming normalised in some Australians quarters as well. That’s a disappointing state of affairs, but I trust Aussie believer won’t lose the joy and wonder of being able to own and read the Scriptures for ourselves, and where possible to keep speaking and explaining this Divine word with our fellow Aussies; not because we hate them, but because God has loved us and we love them.

 

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(the article has been updated on April 23rd, in light of yesterday’s Geelong vs Hawthorn game and Jeff Kennett’s radio comments)

A game more fierce than Rugby

The Israel Folau controversy is highlighting a battleground more fierce than any game of rugby.

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Peter FitzSimons is leading the tackle count again Izzy Folau. In his latest burst, Fitzy attempts to make the point that the only issue here is one of Israel Folau breaking his contract.

“If you cock your ear to the west, you can right now hear the thundering of keyboards, as columnist after columnist, shock jock after shock jock form up thundering rants about how this whole thing is a matter of freedom of speech, and religious freedom.

Oh yes. Despite the demonstrable damage done by Folau last year by putting up homophobic posts – and if saying gays are going to burn in hell isn’t homophobic, pray tell, what does it take? – their genuine position is he should be able to do exactly the same, ad infinitum, until the game and its finances are a smoking ruin.

Because it is about freedom of speech, and freedom of religion!

I repeat, it is no such thing.”

There are some flaws in Fitzy’s game plan, as well one strong mode of attack. Let me explain.

First, Fitz is espousing the same illogic that has come to pass as irrefutable truth in modern Australia.

“Folau can believe whatever he damn well pleases, including the illogical and offensive absurdity that the same omnipotent Lord who made some of his creations attracted to their own gender will also have them burn in the pits of hell for all eternity, for their trouble.

Yes, he can believe that. But when he proselytises those views and puts it in the public domain, despite knowing the hurt it engenders, the damage it does to his employers, and the fact that he is specifically breaching commitments he has made not to do any such thing, then he does not have a legal leg to stand on.”

Fitz is saying that Australians like Israel Folau have the right to hold religious views but they must not proselytise (evangelise) or express them in public. The first reason Fitz gives for this is, “it hurts”. Folau’s message isn’t one that embraces the current sexual milieu but is likely to offend people, and therefore it is immoral for him to share his views. Isn’t that precisely what Fitz is doing? Peter FitzSimons is attempting more than outlining an opinion to his readership, he is trying to persuade us of a point of view, one which many Aussies don’t subscribe to. Fitz is proselytising as much any religious preacher, as is Rugby Australia with its current definition of inclusion.

This is part of the complexity and shortcoming with much public discourse in Australia today. There is a dishonest bent that is postured and now often assumed by those wielding influence in the public square. Peter FitzSimons is a classic example of this, but he is by no means alone in playing this game. The public battleground is not neutral and objective Peter FitzSimons and co. over and against the biased religious.  As Jonathan Leeman was argued,

The “public square” isn’t neutral, but a battleground of gods.”

“Secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps even as liberal authoritarianism. it depends on beliefs without conclusive evidence.”

Until those who speak in the public domain admit their own religious and moral presuppositions and agendas, whether they are social commentators, politicians, or sporting associations, it is near impossible to have an honest and constructive conversation.

Second, if Folau has breached his contract, even if his contract is unjust, he is nonetheless answerable for his actions. On this point, I share partial agreement with  FitzSimons.

This question is yet to have a conclusive answer. There is reasonable doubt as to whether Folau has breached his contract. If by breaking his contract, it is alleged that Folau contravened the code of conduct, this is far from certain. The code of conduct language is subjective and depends more on one’s pre-set worldview rather than with objective facts.

Rugby officials allege that Israel Folau shared material on social media that “condemns, vilifies or discriminates against people on the basis of their sexuality.”

Is that the case? If you believe that anything other than a complete affirmation of LGBT rights is bigotry and phobic, then Folau is guilty. If however, you believe that it’s possible to disagree with some sexual lifestyles for good reasons, then the answer is no. Jesus is a famous example of someone who certainly didn’t support every sexual lifestyle in First Century Judea, and yet would we argue that he was a hate-filled preacher (Ironically, that is precisely what the Pharisees thought and we know what their game plan turned out to be)?

Was Israel Folau insensitive and lacking grace in his comments? Probably. Is that vilifying? No, again unless you think that sportsmen must fully embrace every aspect of LGBT identity discourse.

The problem is, many of Australia’s cultural powerbrokers are not prepared to admit that disagreement on sexuality issues is not necessarily hateful. Disagreement does not always equate with bigotry. But admitting this concession opens the door for conversation and persuasion and alternate views and that’s not a road which many our notable and influential secularists wish to travel.

Third, while Fitz is attempting to make the issue solely one of Folau breaking his contract, I remember only two years ago, the same Peter FitzSimons insisting that a part of  Australian Law was immoral and wrong and needed to be amended. Was he (and others) content to say, well, the Australian Marriage Act is what it is, and we need to respect that? Far from it. The Marriage Act didn’t fit with Fitz’s worldview and so he joined with others to decry the ‘code of conduct’ and demand its change.

You see, despite Fitz’s protestations, this issue is about religious freedom. It is about the gods of this age vying for influence. It is about a national sporting code (and its chief sponsor) dictating to its players what religious speech is and isn’t permissible. Whether they understand this or not, their code of conduct is a religious manual; there is written intent to influence and control the type of religious beliefs they want to see proclaimed.

Perhaps Izzy did break his word to Rugby Australia, and if so, he ought to apologise. This remains to be seen. But let’s not fool ourselves into accepting the spin that this story has nothing to do with the toleration and intoleration of Christian beliefs. Underlying the presenting case is the broader and deeper questions of whether it is right for a football code to restrict its associates from expressing their personal religious views.

One thing I do know, and it is this,  neither Rugby Australia or an SMH op-ed writer can silence or break the good news message that is about Jesus Christ. Christians will always find a way to share the most astonishing news that can convert the hardest atheist and the most committed activist for sexual progressivism. Indeed, the paradox of Easter is that it is for the very people who oppose its message.

Tomorrow is Good Friday. It is a day when we remember the One who said he is God and who came into a world that was breaking all his rules; he loved them and he laid down his life for them. Jesus’ code of conduct is more difficult, more beautiful, more imposing and more extravagant,

“at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)

When talking about hell…

When I went to sleep last Thursday I didn’t expect to wake and find that the topic of hell had become a national conversation piece. While we cannot control the public conversation with all its warts, snidery, and well-meaning contributions, we can take responsibility for how we speak about what is a grave issue; the eternal state of people.

With a sense of humour reminiscent of Nero plucking his harp while Rome burned, columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, Greg Growden, wrote,

“Folau’s version of hell, surrounded by drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters, actually sounds like good fun – especially if it excludes narrow-minded sporting identities.”

I don’t know anyone who enjoys talking about hell. It is a truly horrific subject. This doesn’t mean that we avoid or downplay what the Bible teaches, it does, however, necessitate that approach the topic of hell with great care and earnestness.

Unbelievers are poking fun at Israel Folau’s comments on hell with hackneyed jokes and Memes. There are Christians squirming uncomfortably as though a cactus needle were stuck erect in their chair. Hell makes people angry and dismissive, generating a range of negative reactions. So, how should Christians approach the subject of hell?

 

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Here are 4 words of advice for talking about hell

1. Be biblical

Hell is a Christian doctrine. Hell (or Gehenna) is taught and affirmed in the Bible as a real place of eternal judgment. This notion of a final judgment is included in the historical Christian Creeds and Catechisms, as well as in doctrinal statements for Christian churches throughout the ages. Such as …

He will come to judge the living and the dead. (Apostles Creed)

What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell? A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 19)

The resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment of all people by the Lord Jesus Christ. (article 8, Baptist Union of Victoria Doctrinal Basis)

Jesus taught about hell frequently, and as others have observed, the topic was on Jesus’ lips more than anyone else in the Bible. In his own words …

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:38)

“But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 8:12)

 “‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…  “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41,46)

While Bible writers, Jesus in particular, use various metaphors and analogies to convey the awfulness of hell, they do so, not to obscure its reality, but to communicate the finality and dreadful realism of what hell signifies. There is no benefit in Christians downplaying the Bible’s teaching on hell or concentrating on speculations and theories of what hell may or may not be: the Christian’s responsibility is to be biblical. By that I mean, read, understand, and communicate what the Bible teaches about hell. In talking about hell, use the range of words and reasoning that is offered to us in the Scriptures—not ignoring the contexts and arguments in which the concept appears. Such diligence will aid us in speaking of hell accurately and helpfully.

Indeed, it is difficult to explain the Christian Gospel without reference to judgment, given that the Gospel is about redemption from Divine judgment. Whereas we tend to view the Gospel through the lens on anthropological needs and problems, the Bible also views salvation in light of Divine categories (justice and the right satisfaction of God’s righteousness). We obscure God’s glory and we diminish the human condition when we ignore or downplay this doctrine, like a Doctor talking of a patient’s terminal cancer as though it was a bruised knee.

2. Be loving and earnest

Speak about hell with soberness and with tears. Talking about hell isn’t judgmental; it is an act of love. Of course, people can speak about hell in a judgmental and unhelpful way, but people can also explain the Bible’s teaching on hell with sincerity and clarity because they love their friends and neighbours.

 

3. Appeal to notions of ultimate justice

The Bible doesn’t present hell as a Russian gulag; unjust, mean, cruel, and unnecessary. It is, rather, a just outcome and the place where people prefer to be. The natural consequence of life lived for self. While Greg Growden and others might joke about Folau’s list of transgressions and how many they have broken, the reality of such things is far from funny. Marital unfaithfulness destroys lives and families. Lying breaks the bond of friendship. Theft is a betrayal of trust and leaves victims frightened, and at times, financially destitute.

Our nation, for all its blessings, is filled with extraordinary pain and sorrow caused by the greed and hate of its citizens. We are governed by thousands of laws because we don’t trust one another and because we feel the necessity to guard ourselves against each other. Our judicial system, for which we should be thankful, is not beyond making mistakes and many who perpetrate crimes escape justice, and many of the deepest wounds are not the result of criminal activity but moral and personal assault. Where is the justice for such?

Our nation, for all its blessings, is filled with extraordinary pain and sorrow caused by the greed and hate of its citizens. We are governed by thousands of laws because we don’t trust one another and because we feel the necessity to guard ourselves against each other

Do we not long for a justice that is altogether right and comprehensive? Do Australians not hope that no evil will escape the attention of justice? I suspect that there are very few Australians (no matter what their religious beliefs) who do not (at least on some scale) believe or wish they could believe that hell exists for some people. One of the things the Bible does is to show us that the problem is not only external and persistent in society, but it derives from hearts that seek to define life without God: the problem lies within each of us. In other words, we may desire justice when others are guilty, but we long for mercy we realise our own guilt.

The point is, God offers justice, the kind of justice the world is ultimately looking for, and yet paradoxically does not wish to be true.

4. Don’t forget the gospel

Our message isn’t merely hell, our message is the good news of Jesus Christ, which includes salvation from hell, and the forgiveness of sins and the gift of justification, regeneration, adoption, and eternal life. The Gospel is good news because what is deserved is taken from us and what is undeserved is given to us by God as his gracious and loving gift

We will never turn to God and seek his mercy unless we first appreciate our personal culpability and accountability before a holy God. There is no genuine turning to Christ without a manifest awareness of guilt. The gospel tells us both the bad news of our sin and judgment; and the glorious antidote to that judgment in Christ. As the writer of Hebrews summarises things:

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27-28)

Or, as Luther puts it in his earthy and practical way:

When the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!” (Martin Luther)

Was Israel Folau guilt of hate speech, as many are arguing? He may be guilty of breaking his word by continuing to post such comments. But are his comments bigoted? If connecting a list of sins with hell is akin to hate speech, it doesn’t take much imagination to work out how our society would view Jesus Christ. Connecting sex outside of heterosexual marriage with the language of sin and hell is not inherently anti-social and anti-people; it comes from the conviction that not every action and not every attitude is good or right. Australia’s problem is that we’re suffering from Judges syndrome, everyone wants to “do what’s right in their own eyes.” Such attitudes have become mainstream platitudes. And now we want to send Izzy into the eternal Rugby exclusion zone for daring to suggest that it might lead to disaster.

The danger for most Christians today isn’t that we make too much of hell, but that we think too little of the Bible’s teaching on hell. We may not have a conversation about hell every week, but if we never talk about it, our friends would be right to wonder, do these Christians even believe what Jesus says?

Australians turning to the USA to find the ideal baby

Australian couples are turning to the United States to help them find the ideal child.

Among all the questions that Susan and I talked about and thought over as we considered having children, not once did we ask, ‘what coloured eyes would we prefer our children to have?’  Such contemplation would not find entry into the top 1000 questions that we asked ourselves about the children we hoped to have the privilege of raising and loving.

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An article published by the Herald Sun over the weekend revealed that hundreds of Australian couples are paying up to $20,000 for ‘designer babies’.   Australian couples are utilising the services made available at Fertility Clinics across the United States, to siphon out babies who don’t fit with their dream baby. Most common, parents are screening for gender, deciding whether they wish to have a girl or boy. There are also cases where parents are selecting their child’s eye colour; in fact, there is now an 18-month waiting list for this screening test.

Journalist Natasha Bita reported that “Controversially, it claims that Australian medicos are co-operating with the offshore clinic…The NHMRC yesterday warned it would be illegal for Australian doctors to co-­operate with foreign clinics offering selection for gender or eye colour.”

Brisbane geneticist Professor David Coman is right when he said, this is a case of “eugenics” and it is “grossly inappropriate in the Australian culture”.

The Oxford Dictionary defines eugenics as, “the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.”

What these “desirable heritable characteristics” are, will vary depending on the culture and the dominant moral narrative of the day. Eugenics has been advocated and practiced in many cultures, perhaps most infamously in Nazi Germany during the 1930s-40s. One difference today is the greater wealth of scientific knowledge made available to medical experts for identifying all kinds of details pertaining to an individual human being from its earliest moments of life in the womb (or petrie dish as it may be). Technology is a useful servant, and it can create greater destruction than the hammer of Thor. Too often, what is discerned as possible through science, soon afterward becomes a moral commitment; we can therefore let us do.

Thank God that many forms of eugenics are currently banned in Australia, and yet the door has already swung wide open as doctors test for all manner of ailments and give parents permission to keep or to kill, based on whether they wish to have a child with a potential illness. No doubt some parents use this information to help prepare them for parenthood, while others use diagnoses to determine whether they will keep the pregnancy or not.

What happens to those embryos who don’t fit the parents’ requirements, whether it is the ‘right’ gender or even the ‘right’ coloured eyes? Are these little ones given another chance or are they discarded into a rubbish bin, like we would with a piece of fruit that is past is best used by date?

Are children to be loved unconditionally or should they be viewed as a valuable commodity, selected and loved like the family pet. Should a parent’s love for their children be measured by gender or by disability or by how many fingers or toes are counted? Is a child to be more or less valued because of their DNA or potential chromosomal abnormality? Should we really take into account the colour of a baby’s eyes? Australian culture is drifting far from the worldview of Psalm 139.

“For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

15 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.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;

    all the days ordained for me were written in your book

    before one of them came to be.”

Our society has moved a long way from holding fast to these ancient words, words which delight in the life of every image-bearer of God. It is liberating Psalm, for the dignity of each person is not contingent upon the value attributed by another person or social opinion, but by the fact of ontology.

Popular threads on social media and in the news will downplay the wonder of Psalm 139 and instead elevate the freedom of others to choose life or death. The practice is revealing uncomfortable truths that can’t be denied, despite clamorous noises trying to ignore and/or downplay:

  • The majority of babies aborted are girls
  • Babies diagnosed with possible physical abnormalities are many times more likely to be aborted than those without
  • In parts of America, such as New York State, the number of African-American babies being aborted is greater than those who are born.
  • Most late-term abortions are not performed because the baby’s or mother’s life is at risk.

Most of these examples are forms of eugenics. We may avoid the language due to its historical associations, but it is nonetheless the practice of controlling breeding in order to increase desired social outcomes.

Psalm 139  reveals a complex anthropology. For while the Psalmist glorifies God for the wonder of life in the womb, he also calls for God to intervene against those who shed blood. It is as though those who destroy human life are hypocrites, denying their own humanity as they refuse it in others.

“If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!

They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.

Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?

I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.” (verses 19-22)

The Psalmist, however, does not end with this view of retribution but turns to his own situation and asks God to make known to him things that are unacceptable and unbecoming in his own life.

“Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting”. (verses 23-23)

The point is this, we are quick to judge nations around us for their discrimination and violence, but we are slow to acknowledge our own participation in the dehumanisation project. Instead, we have resolved to justifying ourselves in manipulating and even taking life. We allege that “it’s an act of mercy…the cost would be too great…the parents may not cope”.

Even we Christians who speak to the dignity of every human life, ever for us, especially us, we must ask of God, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting”. When this process of Divine examination begins, we remember that our own faults and offences are great, so hideous that they demanded a bloody cross to bring redemption and peace. In other words, the Psalmist’s anger, although justified, leads to personal reflection and repentance; not only damning culture but offering a better paradigm. With this in mind, Christians have something worth offering. Just as Christians once challenged the Roman practice of infanticide by quietly loving and saving the unwanted, let us consider how we can counter the growing and dreadful practice of eugenics.

Be more like Jesus: Responding to Christchurch

I had just finished writing my sermon for Sunday when I saw the news breaking out of New Zealand. Unfolding during the course of the afternoon, gunmen attacked 2 Mosques in Christchurch, killing at yet unknown number of people and injuring many more. News outlets have confirmed what already seemed obvious, that the intent was to kill Muslims while at their Friday prayers.

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The Bible text that I’m preaching this Sunday is Matthew 15:21-28. It retells an occasion when Jesus was traveling through a region outside Galilee and Judea. As he traversed between Tyre and Sidon, two cities that were populated with followers of various religions (views of God that differed greatly from Judaism), a woman identified as a Canaanite pleads with Jesus for help.

The disciples on this occasion react with disdain and bigotry. The Canaanites were traditional enemies of Israel, and even in the First Century AD, cultural differences existed as well as irreconcilable religious differences. The disciples’ response to the woman wasn’t uncommon. Jesus, however, repudiated their hatred and acted contrary to what the disciples were asking. Instead of pushing her away, Jesus engaged with her, affirmed her cries for help and restored her troubled daughter.

“So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”And her daughter was healed at that moment.”

Jesus’ first words might appear harsh at first, even with a tone of disdain, almost as though he is mimicking the disciples; which of course he is. Jesus was repeating the disciples’ attitudes back to them while also drawing out the genuineness of the woman’s faith in him.

The lesson Jesus was teaching the disciples remains one that we cannot afford to lose today in our age of outrage and the at times, appalling acts of evil. There is a time for anger. There is a time for hate – to hate evil and those who perpetrate evil. But how does Jesus respond to difference here? What we see in Jesus is him entering a territory where the God of Israel was not worshiped and where the law of God was not esteemed. He doesn’t respond to the woman with bigotry and exclusion, but with compassion and inclusion. She calls out to Jesus to save her daughter, and he did.

Surely Christians must respond to others as did Jesus. Not because we are playing silly theological games of ‘all religions are the same’, but because we all share the imago dei and because we have come to know the beautiful grace of God and desire others to know this freedom and life.

We can love Muslim neighbours by praying for those injured and for the many who are now mourning incredible losses. Prayer is not wasted breath, but the extraordinary invitation of loving God who is Father.

We can love our Muslim neighbours by showing kindness to them. On the street, offer a smile. Take a few minutes to chat and offer some kinds words of encouragement. If we don’t have any Muslims in our circle of friends, why not? What can we do to change this omission?

We can love not only by renouncing the hateful speech of those who oppose Christianity on the left, but also publicly repudiate those on the extreme right who support, urge, and carry out malicious attacks on Muslims, on Jews, and others.

Too many tears are being shed in Christchurch tonight, and they will flow for many days to come. Let us sit down and weep with them.

Christchurch is a city name that evokes the most righteous and good, loving and kind man who has ever walked the earth; yes even God himself. He rebuked hate and he loved. Let us learn to become more like Jesus.

Further thoughts on Marxism and Christianity. Can I be both?

I’m sitting down at the dining table, listening to Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony as I chew on some feedback that I’ve received from an article I posted this week.

I had critiqued a claim made by Van Badham on last Monday’s episode of QandA. In answering the question, “Do you believe in God”, Van Badham asserted that she is a Marxist and a Christian.

I questioned this synthesis by citing Karl Marx’s himself, who opposed religion and belief in God in the strongest terms. I then set forth a series of propositions which demonstrate a great moral, social, and theological divide separating Marxism and Christianity, one that cannot be easily joined. Some readers have agreed with my conclusions while others have not. One or two readers have made helpful comments which has encouraged me to think further.

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Are Marxism and Christianity consonant with one another, or at the very least, adaptable so that they can be held together? The proof of compatibility does not lay in someone making the claim or in the event of someone attempting to join the two together. People make all kinds of outlandish suggestions: “I am a Christian and a Buddhist” or “I am a Christian and I don’t believe in hell”. The question is, does it work logically and theologically? Can Marxism and Christianity be held together and affirmed?

I didn’t address the question of other political and economic theories, as these were not the issue at hand. It is, of course, true that any political system will need modifying if Christians are to make use of them. The reason is straightforward, Christianity does not sit synonymously with any particular political system, for Christian thinking, practice and vision are set by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a terrible misstep to stamp ‘Christian’ on any of them. All these are creations stemming from the minds of men and women who are shaped by a worldview which ultimately springs from a view of God. Christians will face questions and challenges in any political system, but some are a better fit than others. Not all political theories are equal. Not all forms of Government can be equally celebrated and obliged by Christians. Some political ideologies have found inspiration via Christian thinking, while others have been established without reference to God of the Bible, and others again have been deliberate creations in opposition to religion, and especially to Christianity.

There are several possible ways Christians may respond to a particular political system:

  • Christian can live under a political system that they do not support or affirm. They have no opportunity to speak and question the moral value of the system. Christianity can, of course, exist under any political regime but that does not mean that system is good or in any way compatible with the Christian faith. Take, for example, Christians in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Christians in North Korea and China.
  • Christians can live under an openly oppressive political system without challenging it or by finding ways to challenge without losing the values of God’s Kingdom. It is worth noting that in a totalitarian context (communism being but one example) to challenge comes at a great personal cost, and under more liberal systems there is greater freedom for demonstration and appeal for change
  • Christians may have sympathy with the ambitions raised in particular political ideologies and affirm important questions that are being asked.
  • Christians may often participate in a political system, but there will always be some degree of tension between serving Christ and serving the State, and between holding onto the message of the Gospel and enacting Governmental policy.

The primary trouble with Marxism is not its atheism but that it is a total life program. It is designed to define all aspects of life, from the State to society, culture, family, and yes even religion. Marxism preaches a totalitarian paradigm, materialist and closed in nature. It allows no room for competing worldviews, especially belief in God. In this sense, Marxism is an attempt to blur politics and religion by offering the State in the place of God, and party members as its priests and high priest. Why do we think Muslim minorities and Christian minorities are suppressed in China? Why have Christians especially (and other religious people broadly) been subject to brutal persecution and oppression in communist nations?

Here are two possible reasons for the pushback that I’ve received for writing the previous article, “Can I be a Christian and a Marxist?” One, people are defining Marxism purely in terms of political theory and suggesting that it one among many. The reality is, Marxism is more than an approach to politics and economics, again it is a total system, including its own insistent view of religion 2. Conflating socialism with Marxism. Marxism is a type of socialism, but socialism is broader and existed well before Das Kapital. If it is a case of being passionate about addressing poverty and other injustice in a society, such ambition can find compatibility with Christianity, and one can pursue these things quite easily without identifying with Marxism.

As someone duly noted on a Facebook thread, there have been attempts made by a few Christians to synthesise Christianity with Marxism. The most famous example is that of liberation theology. Their example, however, is telling because it is a case of God disappearing. Liberation theology has found expression in a few places but it was most prominent in Central America among a small circle of  Roman Catholic priests and theologians during the late 1960s. It often resulted in God migrating into the world of tribal deities, or without name altogether. Jonathan Leeman summarises the case of liberation theology’s most famous proponent Gustavo Gutierrez, the assent to God becomes no longer required, “God might say, “You are my people,” but there is no requirement for the people to say, “You are our God.”  Ironically, the movement had all but dissipated by the time the Berlin Wall came down.

Leeman has also noted this telling observation made by theologian John Milbank. Milbank talks about people doing “Christian theology on heretical or Neopagan foundations”. “Case in point: “the main proponents of ‘political theology’ in Germany, and ‘liberation theology’ in Latin America…remain…trapped within the terms of ‘secular reason’ and its unwarranted foundationalist presuppositions.” Specifically, these political and liberation theologies embrace Marxism “as a discourse which supposedly discloses the ‘essence’ of human beings and a ‘fundamental’ level of human historical becoming.”

There are many movements from history that have been demonstrably wrong and evil, and yet leave behind certain progress which impresses and benefits us living today. Soviet Russia gave the world Dmitri Shostakovich. Also important,  I argued in the first article, all manner of ideologies can highlight real and important issues and point to them saying, we need this fixed. This, however, does not mean that the solutions offered are of benefit or can be embraced by those professing the Lordship of Christ.

The question is, can Marxism be uprooted from its anti-theist foundations and become a political tool for Christians to advocate, such that one says, “I am a Marxist and I am a Christian”?

My view is that the answer remains, no. Put it another way, can a Christian in China be a member of the Communist Party? Has any true Marxist State ever encouraged healthy pluralism and religious freedom? Would Marx agree?

A friend suggested to me that an equivalent to Marxism and Christianity is Evolution vs Christianity. I beg to differ, a more suited analogy is,  Scientism vs Christianity.

I am interested to hear how this conversation continues. I certainly appreciate learning from others in the process.

Can I be a Christian and a Marxist? A Qanda

I haven’t watched Q&A for some time. The predicable lineup of guests, questions, and interventions by Tony Jones has made the program rather dull. But given the interest that the ABC was generating with Jordan Peterson’s invitation onto the panel, I thought perhaps it was time for a revisit. Not that I’m a Peterson devotee, but at least he speaks his mind and is not afraid to challenge newly adopted cultural norms.

Did the show live up to the hype? Probably not. I suspect the tone of conversation was more civilised than producers were hoping for—even to a fanciful extent, when Terri Butler MP, insisted that no one in Australia is shut down or squeezed-out for speaking their mind. Had she forgotten what happened when Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie sat down with a Coopers beer and started a friendly conversation about gay marriage? Has no one shared with Ms. Butler how difficult it is for cultural conservatives (especially Christians) to retain faculty teaching positions in Australian universities today? Could someone at least share with her the stories of families who are being forced out of the public school system because of the social engineering programs that are being forced fed on our children?

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Leaving that aside, I was interested in what each of the panelists said when answering one of the final questions for the evening: “do you believe in God?”

What a great question. I listened to each of the responses. With responses ranging from agnosticism to deism, it was a reminder that hardline atheism is not as prevalent as some would make it out to be. Even politicians, psychologists, and transgender women, wrestle the notion of God. This is a question that won’t go away.

I was particularly struck by Catherine McGregor’s comment about being without a spiritual home. Catherine acknowledged the reason for this. Catherine, if you’re reading this, I would love to meet up with you over a coffee next time you’re in Melbourne. In fact, I would be keen to sit down with any of the panelists to listen to their questions and thoughts about God and to open the Bible with them and explore the Gospel together. There is no greater inquiry than this, who is God and can he be known?

Now I’m zooming in on the particular issue that I wish to comment on in this post. Tony Jones brought Van Badham into the conversation by revealing what he must have thought was a revolutionary marriage: Marxism and Christianity.

Van Badham nodded and explained that she is a Christian and a Marxist, “both at the same time … I absolutely believe in God”.

Alex Hawke, retorted, “I’m not sure you can be a Christian and a Marxist … they are mutually exclusive”.

Marxist Christianity?

Who is right? Can we hold Christianity together with Marxism? Hawke would go on to repeat the unhelpful and untrue idea that religion is a private affair, so I’m not suggesting that he is espousing a better view of God.

The question this raises is not as silly as we might think.  For example, socialism is once again finding appeal among young Australians. So when Roz Ward wrote the curriculum for Safe Schools, she announced that its purpose was to expose children to Marxist ideology.

Is Van Badham right to say that we can hold Marxism and Christianity together? I think we are right to be a little suspicious of anyone who juxtaposes Christianity with a set political ideology. It doesn’t matter whether the political views are representative of left or right, progressive or conservative, it is entirely appropriate to tread with caution.

It was Jesus who said, 

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

“My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)

Jesus was not arguing for a complete separation of religion and state and of the temporal and eternal. Jesus elsewhere taught that, “The time has come … The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Also, the Great Commission doesn’t ignore nationhood and systems of Governance, but rather insists that Christ, as Lord, has the right to issue a gospel summons to the nations:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

It is important to see that, while different groups tried to box in Jesus politically and socially, he would not allow it. His political ideology is the Gospel and the Kingdom of God, not liberalism or socialism. It is prudent for Christians to step with care, for if Jesus wouldn’t permit his character and work to be defined in socio-political categories, should we? It may be argued, that aspects of Christ’s teaching can be adopted by political minds. We might find tiny pieces of Jesus’ethics at work across the political spectrum in all kinds of legislative agendas. However, we ought to express great reticence at matchmaking the message of Christianity with any political structure and ambition.

Having said that, what about the example offered by Van Badham? I suspect Karl Marx would disagree with her synthesis.

Karl Marx argued:

“The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

Take for example the following comparisons:

Karl Marx

Christianity

Was an atheist

Jesus believes in God and he claims to be God

Taught that belief in God is the invention of people

God is eternal and we exist because of him and for him

Claimed religion is a drug given to dull peoples senses as well as comfort them in their poverty

The Gospel is real good news of salvation that brings forgiveness and freedom and reconciliation to the living God

Christianity is dangerous

Christianity is good

The religion of revolution, with the masses toppling those in authority.

Christianity grows through preaching and prayer, loving our neighbours as ourselves

The State controls total life: commerce, education, art, sport, religion

Governments have a role to play but they are not God.

Has led to totalitarian regimes who have oppressed and murdered 10,000s million of people

Christianity is largely responsible for the political and religious freedoms exercised in the Western Hemisphere today. The principle of persuasion not coercion is antithetical to Marxism and foundational to the Christian Gospel.

The goal is a classless society, achieved by the masses.

The goal is the exaltation of Jesus Christ, the redemption of sinful men and women, right judgment on the world, and the bringing in of the new creation, accomplished by God alone through Christ.

 

Christ and the Collective Saviour

These differences are hard to reconcile. The subject has added complexity if, as some philosophers suggest, Marxism is its own religion. Raymond Aron is among many who note that communism, (the natural outworking of Marxist thought), is a “secular religion” whereby “Marxist eschatology attributes to the proletariat the role of a collective saviour”. There is no synthesis to be had between Marxism and Christianity.

Marxism, like other ’isms, asks important questions and highlights real issues that face real people. However, whether it we define it according to Marx’s own teaching, or by the embodiment of those original ideas in  130 years of history, it is pretty hard to marry Marxism with Christianity. Marxism is driven by an a-theology, soteriology, and eschatology that rejects almost every single Christian premise. There has not been a single country that has fully embraced Marxism and has also encouraged religious freedom and freedom of thought. The sum total Marxist States that support Christianity is zero. It is true that Christianity often expanded in these contexts, but this was despite Governmental oppression, not because of it.

It was a great question for Q&A, and some interesting answers were offered. I hope it might encourage other Australians to ask and seek and find God. He is better than we imagine. He may counter our expectations and agendas and supplant them with a greater love and meaning and challenge than we can imagine.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6)

 


I’ve posted a follow-up article in light of comments offered by a few readers – Further Thoughts on Marxism and Christianity. Can I be both?