Two Campbells and a Bird sat down to chat

Nathan Campbell has responded to recent articles written by Mike Bird and myself, criticising the tone and contour of what we said.

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First up, I want to say that I’d be happy to play the bagpipes and swap stories about the MacDonalds with my fellow Campbell any day of the week. More than that, I love my brother Nathan’s passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ; his faith in the power of God’s good news is an example for Christians across the country.

I agree with so much of what Nathan has written: Yes, the laws are dumb, yes Christ is triumphant, yes Daniel Andrews’ policies are small fish in comparison with what many believers are suffering in the world. His reminders of the Christian hope are wonderfully important and refreshing in an age where we can get bogged down in some of the daily mud of life.

At the same time, Nathan has profoundly misunderstood our tone, and his critique of our alleged lack of Gospel-centredness is disappointing and off the mark.

First, he conflates voicing concern with fear and panic. I don’t feel afraid or panicked, and neither am I suggesting that we should feel as such. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to express legitimate concerns over legislation that will impact religious freedom in Victoria. 

Second, I sense as though Nathan doesn’t appreciate the role of rhetorical devices when illustrating points for readers. Of course Daniel Andrews is not Henry VIII or Julius Caesar; but his disdain for opposing viewpoints and his desire to squash religious liberties is real enough, and that’s the point.

Third, and this one troubles me the most, Nathan has confused us expressing concern over a current issue with having a myopic view of God’s Kingdom, and of diminishing Christ’s victory over the grave.

I am happy to concede that if my latest blog piece was the only thing people ever read of mine, readers might misconstrue the reality which drives me; as they say, context is everything. But of course, this is only one of many articles dealing with multiple theological, social, and political matters. For the most part, the Gospel is front and centre, and when it is not, the Gospel is nonetheless serving in the background as the framework in which I express my views. Must every article contain an explicit ‘this is the Gospel’ clause?

Indeed, it is our confidence in the Gospel that give us courage to respond to current issues. We are not afraid to speak and even to lose these battles, because we know who has ultimately won.

Nathan wrote, “I capitalise this because we’re worried about a piddling little thing like the Premier of the State of Victoria; not exactly a global superpower”. 

That is easy to say if you’re not one of the 5 million piddling Victorians living in this State. To be honest, I think our friend from Queensland has on this occasion  denuded the situation in Victoria in a way that is a little unhelpful. Evangelicals should never put too much emphasis on our present circumstances, but neither should we make it altogether redundant.

As a way of outlining some Gospel perspective to the matters Nathan has raised, let me reiterate portions of a piece that I wrote for TGCA in June this year,

“We must concede that Churches no longer occupy a position in the middle, but we don’t want to evacuate the public space altogether. I want to argue that it is worth fighting for a voice in public discourse, but we do so with the belief that the Gospel does not depend upon it. So why should we defend notions of ‘freedom of speech’.

First of all, we have something to say. We have good news to speak and show our neighbours, and so why would we walk away from secular principles that give us freedom for speaking and contributing?

Secondly, we should defend the right to speak for the sake of those who speak against us. Is this not a way in which we love our neighbour?  Is it also not a sign of a mature society, one that is big enough to allow a plurality of voices, and to say ‘I disagree with you, but let’s hear you out and then talk it through’.

Thirdly, we are members of a democratic society, which in principle gives permission for Christians and atheists alike to speak and offer their opinion.

Our democratic liberties give Christians a platform and context for doing public ministry, and we are thankful for this, but the Gospel is not curtailed by the limitations or freedoms of liberal democracy. Indeed, history demonstrates that Churches have often flourished where they have been most resented. More importantly, Jesus Christ taught a theology of the world which lives in opposition to God and which hates those who follow Jesus. Why should we assume Australia is any different?

Are, as Greg Sheridan suggests, ‘churches in crisis now on all fronts’? It depends on how one defines the mission and role of the church.

Our aim is to love others, whether our convictions are affirmed by others or not.

Our goal is not relevance, for the Gospel we believe is not defined by a popularist epistemological current, but by the word of the cross, which is foolishness to the wise and powerful of this world. Instead, our purpose is to preach this foolishness for through it God works to redeem and heal.

Our mission is not to set up power structures at the centre of society, but to speak the Gospel and to love others no matter where we find ourselves situated in relation to broader society.

Freedom of speech has become the gordian knot of our day. Politicians, lawyers, and academics will ponder and debate and try to find a way to navigate through the many layers of twisted and knotted rope, and while their answers will have implications for Christian speech and life in public, our hope does not lay with them, but in the Gospel, a word that is sharper than a two edged sword. Our hope rests in the Christ who has promised that he will build his church and not even Hades can stand against it.

Sadly many Christians have sold their soul in order to buy a place at the centre of public life, and they are now being marshalled into following the lead of the social progressives, and others are instead holding tight to their conservative neuroses. There are however exceptions; across the land there are churches growing and people are becoming Christians, and there are Bible colleges in Australian cites who are training more men and women than in the previous generation. There are Christians serving in Parliament, teaching in universities, and working in a thousand different jobs. And to these men and women, keep preaching and living the Gospel, loudly from the centre or whispering it from the edge, and through it God will keep working his grace and growing his Kingdom.”

Labor Party Proposal Deserves Attention

This afternoon news broke that the Federal Labor Party are considering agreeing to the marriage plebiscite, so long as this set of conditions are applied:

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Photo from The Age

  • plebiscite is self executing or binding
  • No public funding for either side
  • Voting is compulsory
  • question is fair and reasonable

In my opinion these are reasonable requests and deserve due consideration from Malcolm Turnbull and the Cabinet. The Age is reporting that ‘Christian groups’ will be angered by list, but I don’t see any reason for objecting.

Of course, the big question is, what will the question be, and it is understandable that people will wait for this announcement before making a final call on support for the plebiscite; I don’t envy those who are responsible for framing the question.

My only qualification to Labor’s suggestion is that it is unreasonable to expect MPs to vote against their conscience, that is, should the Australian public vote to change the law. If the majority of Australians vote to change the Marriage Act, I don’t think MPs should vote otherwise, but should their conscience not permit them to support same sex marriage they should have freedom to abstain from voting. Therefore, a self executing  plebiscite is preferable (I’m not a lawyer, and so I don’t know whether this is possible and how this would work).

There is one vital  matter that has not arisen, either today or in most public discussions on the issue, and that is how redefining marriage will impact many other aspects of Australian law and life. Changing the Marriage Act is not so simple,  as though all we are doing is removing a couple of words. Rather there will be a significant ripple effect throughout  many areas of law, including discrimination laws, family law, and property and finance laws. For example, when the U.K introduced same-sex marriage, they produced a 62 page document outlining many of the laws that would require reworking in light of the change. The point is a simple one, we mustn’t think that should we vote to change marriage, the discussions are over. It is only fair that in the lead up to the plebiscite, the Government outline to Australians, details of the many implications that will arise from altering marriage.

Safe Schools unravelling

The Safe Schools program has always had more than a few lose threads, and more than a few people have pointed them out and suggested we start again. We are not against an anti-bullying program in our schools, after all, programs already exist and are doing an excellent job. But there is always room for improvement.

One of the main issues with Safe Schools is that it is less about bullying and more about educating children to adhere to a very set paradigm of human sexuality, a perspective that is not held by millions of Australians.  In addition, there is growing consensus in the medical and scientific community that some of the theories presented in Safe Schools (as fact) are in fact wrong and dangerous to children’s health (cf. sexual orientation and gender identity).

While it shouldn’t need to be said again, but because certain politicians have chosen to ignore it, the chief architect of Safe Schools, Roz Ward, has explained the agenda behind the program,

“Programs like the Safe Schools Coalition are making some difference but we’re still a long way from liberation…Marxism offers the hope and the strategy needed to create a world where human sexuality, gender and how we relate to our bodies can blossom in extraordin­arily new and amazing ways that we can only try to imagine today.”

Up until now it has been easy to pretend Roz Ward misspoke, and even easier to dismiss community concerns, especially from those who acknowledge a Christian faith: just call them bigots and homophobes, and it’s game over. Why would the public consider the views of a bigot? I certainly wouldn’t be inclined to do so.

However, the game isn’t over. The Safe Schools agenda has this week been further exposed. A petition of more than 17,000 signatures from the NSW Chinese community has been tabled in the News South Wales Parliament, asking for the program to be removed from schools. And today, The Australian newspaper is reporting that the Indian community in Melbourne share these concerns.

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letter from the Australian Chinese community of NSW

How will the Victorian Government and certain lobby groups respond to these ethnic groups? I sincerely hope they don’t resort to  the kinds of ad hominem attacks that they haven been relying on for quietening  other groups.

Let’s be honest, in the name of religion there are some crazies out there, and there are bigots and homophobic individuals. But for the most part, the concerns we have heard articulated are reasoned and genuine, expressing concerns for children who have questions over their sexual identity. No body wants to see any children being bullied for any reason, and it is good for our schools to provide tools to assist students in understanding and caring for one another.

It is time for Governments across Australia to give ear to the concerns of the public over Safe Schools. We can do better for our children.

Dangerous Suggestion: Plebiscite will incite suicide

I was deeply concerned to read The Age publishing this article today, Marriage equality plebiscite proposal fulfilling expectations of frustration’, written by Rodney Croome.

There is a serious question as to whether it is ethical for a major newspaper to publish an article that uses suicide as ammunition to stop public debate.

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Photo from SMH. Louie Davis

Croome said,

“If a plebiscite occurs, and when the first young gay person dies at their own hand, I have to be able to look myself in the mirror and know I did everything I could to stop it.”

“I also urge them to consider how they will feel when the first gay teen dies because of the hate they voted to unleash.”

Where do such comments leave us?

Using suicide is the trump card, whether the allegation is true or not. It leaves everyone speechless, because even to question Croome’s rhetoric will be interpreted as heartless and bigoted.

I am no stranger to the issue of suicide, having conducted funerals, counselled grieving families, and listened to people considering ending their life. In my view it is dangerous and irresponsible to ‘prophesy’ that a person will kill themselves should a plebiscite proceed. Suicide is not an issue to be treated lightly; not that I think Croome is doing so. Rather he is using the language as a storm cloud to overwhelm any possibility of civil conversation on this issue of marriage.

Before accepting Croome’s argument, it is fair to ask which studies he is depending on for his assertion? In Ireland, USA, UK, can he please point to those studies which substantiate a formal link between discussing marriage and the suicide of LGBTI youth?  Studies conducted in Canada and Denmark suggest that the suicide rate among gay men has, at best, only marginally shifted since SSM was made legal, although in some Canadian Provinces it has increased. I am not dismissing the reality of mental health issues and suicide among LBGTI people, for which we must strive to provide love and care, but Croome is claiming that a plebiscite on marriage will lead to young gay person killing themselves.

No matter where people stand on marriage, we do not want anyone being harmed. And I will repeat what I have now oft-said, I will gladly stand alongside LGBTI people against voices who would wish them ill. I don’t have to agree with someone in order to want their good and see them flourishing.

Would it not be more constructive for everyone if Rodney Croome followed the example of other public voices and encourage Australians to speak with both conviction and civility, with reason and respect? For example, Tim Wilson, who supports same sex marriage, recently spoke at a Symposium where he argued we “need a lived culture of open discussion.”

The debate in Ireland was cordial, as has been the case in many of the countries who have gone down this path. But for some reason, here in Australia, one of the most stable democracies in the world, we are being told that we cannot trust the people to even talk about issue, let alone vote in a plebiscite.

It may well be the case that marriage is what it has been for millennia, between a man and a woman. And it may well be that arguments for change don’t stack up, despite the emotive language being attached. It may well be that the gay and lesbian people who only believe in heterosexual marriage, are in fact right. The problem is, some, not all, but some advocates for change are trying every avenue to silence due debate.

A question for Mr Croome, are there any terms on which opposition to SSM can be put in a civil way? Or is opposition to SSM itself hate speech?

I agree with some of what Rodney Croome has written. For example, I understand his dissatisfaction with the process. When a Prime Minister says he will act, I don’t think we are expecting too much that he keep his word. At the same time, could it be that Malcolm Turnbull fully intended to hold the plebiscite this year, and only recently the AEC informed him that logistically it’s not possible. Could fault lay with them?

I feel some of Croome’s frustration, and I don’t take issue with Croome arguing for a free vote in Parliament. My preference is for the plebiscite, but I appreciate there are good reasons for and against both avenues. His question about how a marriage plebiscite might set a precedence for future issues is also worth asking.

This being said, publishers, as well as social commentators, have responsibility to set the tone of public conversation. In my opinion, The Age, has acted irresponsibly by publishing Croome’s piece, for sadly such comments can become self fulfilling prophecies; and that is the last thing we want.

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Baptist Courage of the 17th Century

 

17th Century England was not a promising environment for serious discourse on theological matters. Indeed, discussing theology in public could lead to loss of employment, imprisonment, exile, and on rare occasions, death.

Pressure to conform to the prevailing winds was enormous, with both governmental and ecclesial bodies (the two often working in tandem) interpreting difference as hostility and something to be silenced.

And yet this period of English history also witnessed tremendous Gospel growth, and playing a significant role in the missio Angliae were the early Baptists.

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Perhaps no group in England made more use of public disputations than did Baptists. Between 1641 and 1700 at least 109 such public debars involving Baptists were held in England, with 79 of these between 1641 and 1660. These debates pitted one or more Baptist champions against opponents from Anglican, Quaker, Independent, or sometimes, Roman Catholic groups. Baptists welcomed these occasions, for they gave opportunity for declaring the gospel to large crowds, helped defend Baptists against unjust slanders, and often led to numerous conversions and the planting of new Baptist Churches. Many leading Baptists of that time were converted at public disputations.” (Leon McBeth, ‘The Baptist Heritage’, p64)

The Scriptures encourage Christians to live quiet, peaceful and productive lives. We are to pray for all, including those who Govern over us, and to submit to their authority with humility and obedience. At the same time, we are to live courageous lives, choosing godliness and faithfulness over compromise and indifference.

Of course, we do not need to choose between 1 Timothy 4:1-2 and 2 Timothy 4:2-5, or between Ephesians 4:1-6 and Galatians 1:6-9. All are applicable to our circumstances and they are driven by the desire to see God saving people and bringing them to a knowledge of the truth.

Challenging the norms of society is no easy task; it requires grace and wisdom the size of the outback.

A century of ecumenical murkiness makes the Rio Olympic pool smell and look like pure H2O. Indeed, one might forgiven for thinking the only heterodoxy left is the view that still believes that there is a line separating orthodoxy and other.

As we look at the enormous social and spiritual challenges before us, both in terms of engaging in the public square and in the ecclesial circle, there is encouragement to be found from among our Baptist grandparents. They didn’t permit a culture of fear to win the day. Instead, taking their confidence in the power, truth, and beauty of the Gospel, they sought to persuade all. Not all were convinced, but many were and thus begun one of the great church planting movements in Western history. 

I wonder what might happen if we in Melbourne (and Australia) adopted this kind of Gospel determination?

Daniel Andrews’ plebiscite letter to Malcolm Turnbull

I’m beginning to suspect that our Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, needs a new media advisor, someone who can help him tone down the rhetoric he is continually spraying at millions of fellow Australians.

In an open letter address to Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Andrews has called for Government to drop the plebiscite on marriage, and instead present a bi-partisan Bill to Parliament within the next 100 days.

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In the letter, he writes,

“It will legitimise a hateful debate which will subject LGBTI Australians to publicly-funded slurs and denigration.”

“In Victoria equality is not negotiable. On behalf of my state, I urge you to accept there is no need for a costly and divisive plebiscite and agree to produce a bipartisan Bill to amend the Marriage Act within the next 100 days.”

And apparently members of Parliament who don’t share Mr Andrews’ views, “do not represent a fair and modern country.”

Clearly, the Victorian Premier doesn’t trust the Australian people to conduct a civilised discussion on marriage, and he is also fearful of the possibility that Australians will not support change to the Marriage Act.

I believe there are arguments for and against this plebiscite, and it is undoubtedly an unusual course of action, but it is a valid democratic pathway, and one that was determined months ago.

Given this fact, would it not be wise for our political leaders to encourage Australians to discuss this issue with grace and respect, rather than the unhelpful name-calling Mr Andrews’ seems unable to avoid? This letter is certainly not as offensive as many of his comments which usually include the words, bigot and homophobe, but it still derogatory.  

Let us not pretend otherwise, changing the definition of marriage is no small thing. Australians are not choosing whether to adopt a new tax or funding more schools or creating the NBN, as important as such things may be; we are deciding how Australia will view what is the most essential and basic unit of every society on earth, marriage. Does not the significance of this issue deserve the voice of the Australian people?

As someone who has a voice in the community, albeit a small one, I will gladly stand alongside Mr Andrews’ and affirm that hateful speech and actions against LGBTI people is unacceptable. A marriage plebiscite does not justify spite or slander toward those who wish to change the Marriage Act, nor toward those who believe the Act should remain unaltered.

As important as this plebiscite is, there is something of greater consequence, and that is the good of others. I have no desire to sacrifice people for the sake of a vote. I do not wish harm on any homosexual and lesbian Aussies. But please do not erroneously fuse disagreement with hate as though there is an inextricable link between the two, for this is not the case. To disagree civilly is not to hate, and by thinking as such Mr Andrews’ risks undermining the foundation of democracy.

It is possible, indeed desirable, to show kindness in disagreement. I realise that kindness like marriage is a disappearing norm in Australia today, but showing gentleness and respect toward those with whom there is a different view ought to be basic to our humanity. Is this not one of the reasons why Donald Trump leaves us shuddering?

Mr Andrews’, I appreciate your concerns about the plebiscite, but rather than demeaning those Australians who have a different opinion, will you stand with us in modelling and encouraging a constructive conversation about marriage?

Looking to the Russian Winter

News of the Russian Olympic drug scandal has reached the ears of the media and is being rightly exposed, but flying under the radar is another Russian story, one of tragic Dostoevskian proportions.

Two weeks ago President Vladimir Putin signed into law measures outlawing evangelistic activities of religious groups in Russia. Under the guise of ‘anti-terrorism’, the Russian Government has banned churches from communicating their beliefs outside of sites officially designated by the state.

Charges can now be made against individuals for inviting people to church, for distributing literature in the community, and for presenting in peaceful ways, a persuasive case for one’s religious convictions.

Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Thomas J. Reese, has said,

“These deeply flawed anti-terrorism measures will buttress the Russian government’s war against human rights and religious freedom…They will make it easier for Russian authorities to repress religious communities, stifle peaceful dissent, and detain and imprison people. Neither these measures nor the currently existing anti-extremism law meet international human rights and religious freedom standards.”

Thousands of Churches across Russia are holding prayer vigils, but with little hope of seeing the Government return to any sense of reasonableness.

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Most Australians will recognise these measures as alarming, draconian, and unbefitting of any nation claiming to be a pluralist society and a liberal democracy. Whether Russia would consider itself to be these things is disputable, but surely we would never witness such restrictions here in Australia?

Before we ask Dale to tell the world of the hole we haven’t dug, we must recognise that Putin-like voices can also be found in Australia, on both poles of politics. The ideology is different, but the desire to control and limit religion is similar.  In the media, politics, and education there is a growing murmuring, arguing that religion is tolerable in private, but has no place in public discourse, and certainly not in politics and in our schools. For example, both the Greens and the Sex Party are famed for policies that will reduce religious freedoms, and the current Victorian Government has done more to legislate against Christian freedoms than any other Australian Government in living memory.

Then there is the now infamous example of Section 17 of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act, and how it was used to attack the Catholic Archbishop, Julian Porteous. What was so intolerable that the weight of law was required to come down on him? Well, Porteous published a pamphlet for Catholics, explaining a view of marriage that is congruent not only with Catholic beliefs, but which also reflects the legal definition of marriage in Australia.

It is possible to prohibit religious speech through law, and it possible to achieve the same goal by bullying and slandering those who hold religious convictions. In the lead up to the Federal election there were notable voices telling the Australian people that public dialogue about the Marriage Act was impossible. Ironically, the very same people proved their point as they employed insults and derogatory words against those who dared suggest a plebiscite might be a good idea.

Secularists wants us to believe that the public space is a purist place free from ideologue, which of course they define as atheistic humanism.This could not be further from the truth, for there is no public vacuum free from assumptions and beliefs informed by world views.  The Australian public space is pluralist, and invites people to contribute, not by leaving their convictions and consciences at home, but by bringing them to the conversation. The epistemic and moral superiority of secular humanism is as mythical as the pokemon, and yet we are chasing after it.

There is a distinction established in Australia’s Constitution between the secular state and religious institutions, but it does not denude the role of religion in public, but simply protects the State from either being controlled by or instituting any single Christian denomination.

“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.” (Ch5. Section 116)

This Australian dichotomy between government and religion is easily sustained for Christians, given that the distinction exists because of the Christian world view. For the Christian, Jesus is Lord over all of life but the church is not the state and the state is not the church. There is an entity called the  ‘Church of England’, which is the unfortunate outcome of various historical quirks, rather than theological necessity, but it is not the situation we have here in Australia. To what extent other religions can manage this distinction, is a topic worth exploring.

During the recent Symposium on ‘Freedom of Speech’, hosted by Mentone Baptist Church, the new member of Goldstein, Tim Wilson, remarked,

“we need a lived culture of open discussion”.

It was as though someone had finally solved the congestion issues on Melbourne’s roads, such was the freshness.  Mr Wilson gave example to this value by addressing the marriage debate, saying, “I don’t think we can have a constructive conversation around the marriage of same-sex couples until both sides can say what they truly think.”

I couldn’t agree with him more.

A darkness is descending on Russia. For so much of her history the Russian people have been oppressed by one totalitarian rule or another. The light of democracy that dawned late last century is now disappearing over this vast steppe. Australians can assume the naive posture of ‘never us’, but the seeds of religious intolerance are already planted, and without due care it will grow and choke free speech. 

Not imposition but persuasion; that is the mark of a true liberal democracy. Progress cannot be achieved when the State bullies its own citizens and stifles disagreement; it only further polarises people. We would do well to heed Tim Wilson’s exhortation. More than that, perhaps we should return to the words of the Christian Scriptures’ that many Australians now deem as irrelevant, ‘speak truth in love’. Imagine, grounding a society upon that ethic?