Operation Soteria

The Victorian Government gave the infamous hotel quarantine program the code name, Operation Soteria. In light of the disastrous outcomes from the program, ‘goddess of rescue’ is hardly a suitable name; Eris seems far more appropriate. 

The city of Melbourne is slowly emerging from the worst disaster in her 185 year history. The past six months has revealed Melbourne’s heart and the diagnosis is not altogether positive. Good has been uncovered and also much that should concern anyone who knows that a malfunctioning heart is likely to cause future grief. 

The Covid 19 pandemic in Victoria has thus far resulted in over 20,000 cases and 781 deaths. In terms of global statistics these numbers are relatively small, but of course in June the State was approaching almost zero cases, following a small first wave. Something like 90% of all Victoria’s COVID-19 cases and almost all the deaths have occurred in the second wave. Since July 100,000s of VICtorians have lost their jobs, 1000s of businesses may never reopen, the economy is bleeding a $1 billion every week. The impact on individual lives can scarcely be measured. The pandemic has compounded mental health issues, children’s education impacted, churches closed.

Victoria, especially Melbourne, is living with the greatest restrictions imposed on personal liberty and social freedom that has ever been witnessed in Australian history. A strict curfew has been enforced for months and Melbournians cannot leave a 5km radius from their homes. Schools are shut and most of the workforce must work from home. Churches have not met since March and may not for some considerable time. Families and friends are not permitted to mingle, either indoors or outdoors. 

The pandemic and how it has been handled in Melbourne reveals human nature in ways that we may find uncomfortable. Once the second wave has left our shores, I imagine millions of Melbournians wanting to move on and to leave behind 2020 as we would an awful nightmare. Relief is a powerful medicine, albeit a placebo. I want to offer three observations about how the pandemic is revealed our societal health.

1. Self Preservation or Self Sacrifice?

The pandemic began with hoards of people rushing to supermarkets and emptying shelves of essential goods. The situation deteriorated to the point that supermarkets set aside the first hour of each day for our senior citizens, so that they would not go without because of the surge of people fighting over toilet paper and grabbing the final bag of rice or pasta.

We became a state of dobbers. In May alone, Victorian police received 80,000 calls from Victorians who were reporting on their fellow citizens for allegedly breaking restrictions in one way or another. I am not excusing those who foolishly think they can live in disregard for the law. Yes, there are cases of people being ignorant of the rules, but more often this exposed a selfish impulse. However, the fact we have accumulated 100,000s of complaints over the course, and that the Government urged us to betray our neighbours, is quite telling. Personally, while I am irritated by people who think they can live above law, I find it sad that we were so quick to dob on our neighbours to the police.

In the meantime, many other Victorians worked tirelessly to fight the virus and keep people alive. Working long hours and putting themselves at risk in order to care for the sick and for those who are most vulnerable. 

There is a telling disparity between those who preference self preservation and those who choose self-sacrifice.

2. Fear or Love?

Whether we like it or not, the base motivator that has been used to control peoples behaviour during the pandemic is fear.  Government press conferences and newspaper articles have been primed with scaring people into submission. 

Let it said, it is foolish to think that COVID-19 isn’t a serious and deadly disease. It is no Spanish flu or Bubonic Plague, but the virus is nonetheless highly contagious. The Corona Virus is a life threatening disease for the elderly and for people with certain preexisting medical conditions. Without diminishing these facts, it has been interesting to watch the narrative used to force compliance. There is little talk about loving our neighbour, instead many threats have been made and cataclysmic proclamations given to funnel the population into ‘doing the right thing’. 

Fear can be a useful tool. We should not discount it altogether. Even the Bible speaks of fear as being the correct response to particular scenarios. However, what does this prevalent public narrative say about our society? What kind of city are we living in and raising our children in where the threat of punishment rather than compassion has become the normal modus operandi?

3. Suspicion or Trust?

This leads to a third observation, who do we trust. On the one hand, reactions to the Government’s position on COVID-19 soon fell into political partisanship and conspiracy theorists were not going to let this opportunity slide either. Yet overall, Victorians have followed the restrictions. This may be a sign that we trust the Government or that we’re afraid of fines and even longer lockdown (I suspect the truth is a mix of both). 

The speed at which Victorians gave up basics freedoms was interesting to watch. The willingness in which the people have filed away the State’s Human Rights Charter probably speaks to a combination of self sacrifice and fear. Once upon a time we would look at the world’s most authoritarian regimes, perplexed at how people give up freedoms to the State. A question for Victorians is now, for what other reasons are we prepared to accept rigid limitations on personal liberty? Are there other scenarios in which we would lay down our freedoms to associate, work, play, and live? My underlying observation is that while we have built our nation on certain myths, these are more fiction than fact, and among them is our belief in independence and self making. 

While there is certainly an air of trust in Government directives and following public health warnings, the COVID-19 response was not be built on the premise of trust, but of suspicion. The Government anticipated that people won’t follow best medical advice and that people won’t follow reasonable measures (ie social distancing). Their suspicions have some warrant. 

Suspicion can be a powerful delusion and for others it is a source for angry repose. In some circumstances it can also serve as a wise friend. Unfortunately, our suspicious minds have led to an ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy. This absolutism has controlled much of the rhetoric causing needless divisions  in the community and had the effect of pushing aside reasonable and respected voices from the medical fraternity and from the Melbourne world of law, business, and economics.

Take for example this new Bill that the Government is brining before the Parliament, ’COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020’. If it passes any citizen can be appointed and given the authority to detain any fellow citizen who is suspected of having COVID-19 and whom authorities believe may not fully comply with quarantine.  In theory, as an untrained citizen who is not a police officer, I can be employed to report, check on, and even detain fellow citizens in a manner reminiscent of the Stasi. 

A significant number of QCs and SCs have written a letter outlining concerns about this Bill, including Retired High Court judge Michael McHugh and former Federal Court judges Peter Heerey and Neil Young. They explain,

Authorising citizens to detain their fellow citizens on the basis of a belief that the detained person is unlikely to comply with emergency directions by the ‘authorised’ citizens is unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse”.

“The bill would also allow any person the secretary considered appropriate to be authorised to exercise emergency powers”.

“There would be no requirement that persons authorised be police officers, or even public servants.”

As astonishing and dangerous as this Bill is to a free and democratic society, the Government not only has the gall to argue for it, but many Melbournians I suspect will be okay with it.  I suspect this doesn’t bode well for the future.

Choosing suspicion over trust works both ways. I’ve noted voices making unrealistic expectations and unsympathetic calls, condemning any and all mistakes. This fails to appreciate the nature of this pandemic; it is new and scientists are still trying to understand how the virus works and what is the best public approach. We may not know for another year which nation stumbled into the most advantageous roadmap. There is also a difference between mistake and incompetence. In the swamp of news conferences, tweets, and inquiries, discerning the truth is not always easy. 

The Victorian people deserve to know the truth of what happened in the Melbourne hotels which has crippled our State, and yet it seems increasingly likely that we will remain in the dark. 

Just today, Health Minister Jenny Mikakos fell on her sword, the morning after her boss stabbed her in the back. Sure, there have been apologies for “Operation Soteria” and even admissions of mistakes made, and yet when it came to the Inquiry no one it seems knew the answers to key questions. Instead, there was lots of blame shifting. It is quite extraordinary (and sadly predictable) that in the case of the worst disaster in our State’s history no one is taking responsibility. How can the State expect its people to behave with integrity when its leaders play blame games in order to save their own political skin? 

This has been a difficult year for everyone. For those who have lost loved ones the pain is excruciating. For those who face financial ruin, the road ahead is long and uncertain. If anything, 2020 is a rehearsal for times that are yet ahead, and challenges that will shake our city to the very foundations. 

We need a better rescue plan

“Operation Soteria” has proven to be an ironic an even sardonic name. The rescue turned out to be a sinking ship. 

To be fair, what COVID-19 is revealing about Melbourne  did not begin with the pandemic, rather it shone a light on our preexisting condition. To build relationships on trust, to do right out of love, and to self sacrifice: these are noble virtues and they are far too rare and absent in our city.

During the inquiry into the hotel quarantine the Bible was held aloft, and yet sadly its message is all too often ignored. Instead of making promises on the Bible perhaps we should open its pages, then read and follow what it says. On the sacred page is a story of the original and best, Operation Soteria. It’s not another Greek myth or Melbourne fiction, but the account of the Son of God whose trust triumphed over worldly suspicion, whose love conquers all fear, and who laid down his life for the sake of his enemies. 

Melbourne has long turned its gaze away from the person of Jesus Christ. As we seek to recover surely it’s time to revisit him and to discover the One who truly rescues. As our city has faced the pandemic our foundations have been proven frail. I suspect that as Summer arrives, in our desperation for normalcy we’ll try to forget the year that has been. I understand the sentiment, but there are harder and deeper lessons to learn, ones which require us to look beyond even health and economic issues and into the very soul of our city. 

Billy Graham and Melbourne’s record

The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is one of the great sporting stadiums of the world. First built in 1853, it is the home of Australian Rules Football. For 6 months of the year, 10,000s of football fans descend onto the G each weekend, to watch their teams play. The MCG has also been the scene of many memorable Cricket Tests, where on Boxing Day, 90,000 Melbournians take their seats to watch 590 balls bowled to terrified or dumbfounded batsmen.

During the Second World War, thousands of American Marines and GIs camped under the stands. In 1956, Ron Clarke lit the Olympic cauldron at the top of MCG, during opening ceremony of the Melbourne Olympics Games.

Every Australian knows the MCG, and almost every Melbourne family has taken a seat to watch the cricket or footy. It has become a family tradition of ours, to enjoy Carlton beating Essendon on a winters day, and in the summer heat, to cheer on the Aussie cricket team. We still talk about the times when our eldest son was given the opportunity to train at the G (and ran out on the pitch when no one was looking!)

The Melbourne Cricket Ground is symbolic of Australians favourite past-time, sport. We idolise anything that involves running, and kicking or hitting a ball. It’s how we spend our weekends, playing and watching sport.

 

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This temple of Melbourne once bore witness to a very different stage. There were no footballs or cricket bats present, no athletes running around, and no one paying for admission. Instead, 140,000 men and women crammed the stands and spilled onto that famous turf, to hear Billy Graham preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The 1959, the Billy Graham crusade had already run several meetings at another stunning venue, the Myer Music Bowl. But because of the large crowds, it was decided to move the final crusade to the MCG. Even then, no one would have predicted how many people would come, and the mark it would leave on Melbourne’s history.

I love this surprising fact about my city: Melbourne who is so proud of its prosperity, Melbourne who worships sport, Melbourne who is clambering to make herself one of the world’s most progressive and secular cities. In our most loved place, the record highest attendance is for an evangelistic sermon.

Our MCG has witnessed many celebrated moments, but the one which has left a mark for eternity was that day in 1959, when  Billy Graham came and opened the Bible, and preached the good news of Jesus Christ. In the kindness of God, and perhaps with a degree of irony, God replaced the idols of Melbourne with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, and lives were transformed.

Melbourne in the 1950s could be described as conservative, and having a strong Christian culture. It was not however Christian. For hundreds of people that day though, Christian influenced habits became a living faith. Today, our society may still hold onto many strands of Christianity but it has long forgotten their significance, and with moral certainty we are one by one cutting these ties. Perhaps in His mercy and love, God might again reveal his grace and power in Melbourne. Not that we are looking for a repeat of a Billy Graham crusade, but rather we look to the one whom Billy Graham preached and lived.

 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:16-18)

Regeneration Church, a Church in and for Monash

It was a great joy to visit Regeneration Church last night for their first ever public service. It was exciting to see a packed building, and encouraging to see the Regeneration team in action for the first time.

If you live in/around Clayton, why not visit one Sunday?

 

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I was invited to offer a word of exhortation to the new church. Below is a copy of my remarks:

“200,000 people live in the City of Monash. They are made in the image of God, important to God, and needing Jesus.

The Great Commission is Jesus sending his disciples to the nations in order to preach the Gospel and to make disciples. In line with this mission, Mentone Baptist Church has sent the Regeneration team to area of Monash, a place where the nations have come.

Understand that being part of a new church may be the hardest venture, the most joyful venture, and the more important venture, of your lives. Indeed, today marks the beginning of a new Gospel work that, we pray, will bear fruit lasting into eternity.

Most residents in this area won’t know of Regeneration Church and many won’t care, and some people will become interested and join. Understand, whatever the reception, God loves his church, Jesus will build his Church, and she is marvellous in his eyes.

While we at Mentone Baptist we will miss all of you, we are not so much saddened to see you go, as we are excited to partner with you in this new work. Indeed, Melbourne needs hundreds more Gospel-centred Churches. New Churches have begun in Box Hill, Northcote, Officer, Footscray, and elsewhere. And yet we are yet to penetrate the first layer of skin in Melbourne.

As Paul reminded the Corinthians, may I impress on you,

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”

Understand our role, it is to plant and water. Regeneration Church: Do the work of evangelism, preaching, teaching, loving and caring, serving. And trust God to grow his church. Trust him, depend on him, ask him.

Mentone will keep you in our prayers, and we are keen to continually support you in other ways. I’m  also looking forward to preaching here a couple of times this year.

May God richly bless this work, to grow a Church glorifying his Son.”

Terrorism, Christmas, and Boxing Day in Melbourne

Melbourne is my city. I love its people, culture, food, sport, parks, city and suburbs. It is a wonderful place to live. But over the past few days Melbourne has witnessed two significant threats to the human soul, terrorism and materialism.

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Last week’s threat of a terrorist attack in Melbourne City was not enough to keep people away from celebrating that most holy night. A large crowd converged on St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the alleged targets of the plot, to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Terrorism is not an unknown experience for Churches, more often referred to as persecution. Persecution is common place for many of the hundreds of millions of people who profess Jesus Christ is Lord. It is also true that people of other faiths are also terrorised, and that there are also examples of people wielding the sword in the name of ‘Christ.’ There is no justification for any such heinous acts, but as Greg Sheridan of The Australian reported this year, Christians are ‘more persecuted than any other in the world, persecuted more frequently, more widely and with more intensity.’

Civilisations have not always survived the onslaught of horrid regimes. Carthage was put to the sword by Rome, and Rome destroyed by tribal groups from Northern and Eastern Europe, and the Mongols wiped out the Jin Dynasty, and the Conquistadors over the Aztecs. In all cases, reasons for subjugating another culture were multifarious, and it would be intellectually unsound to disconnect religious motivations from imperialism, trade, and at times racial provocations.

One idea has always outlasted persecution, and that is, Christianity. As Tertullian (2nd C) said, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’. This is evident in history, for example, through sporadic seasons of persecution Christianity flourished in the Roman Empire, and when China closed its doors to missionaries under Communism, 10s of millions of Chinese were converted to Christ.

Terrorism is not new, and while separating modern ‘Jihadism’ from ‘faith’ is understandable, it is ultimately irresponsible. Islamic terrorism is targeting Christianity, as well as other religious groups, and Western Civilisation. Many Muslims are appalled by news that a group of Australian muslims planned mass murder, and so it is only right that politicians are careful with their language. At the same time, as long as the social ‘left’ play games with political correctness, they will only add weight to the extreme ‘right’, as the world is seeing in the United States at the moment. In my opinion both spectrums are dangerous to a healthy pluralist society, as both insist on a flawed moral absolutism.

Undoubtedly, people congregated at St Paul’s Cathedral yesterday for different reasons: as an act of defiance, to show solidarity, as well as for marking the birth of the world’s Saviour. All these reasons have a place, but there is something true and symbolic about the message of Jesus Christ breaking through threats of violence.

The message that resonated around the Gothic walls of St Paul’s and in hundreds of churches across Melbourne this Christmas is one of the incarnation, how God broke through a world of human hostility, even amidst State attempts to kill the new born child. At Mentone Baptist with a congregation overflowing into the hall, we sang of this most extraordinary wonder,

‘True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,

lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb;

Son of the Father, begotten not created’

Today in Melbourne, the same city we love and that yesterday celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, is once again teaming with people, somewhat sluggish from overeating but eager to fill shopping bags with deals. It’s the Boxing Day sale day!  While not denigrating the pursuit of a great sales price, to fill again Santa’s sack that was emptied only one day earlier, suggests a certain proclivity toward toys and clothes and other stuff.

There is a certain irony in that the Jesus whom we sang about with such gusto on Christmas, spoke more often about the danger of materialism than he did of persecution.

‘What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.’ (Luke 12:3-5)

“When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.  Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!  Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:22-25)

We may have resolved to resist physical violence, but eating away at the soul of Melbournians is an excessive love for things. We are the world’s most liveable city and we’re intent of maxing it out.

Christmas may be the happiest day of the year for many Australians, and it is also the loneliest for many of the poor and sick. What makes news of God incarnate, good, is not that we get to dress up in suit and tie, and visit Church for one day, feast on too much food and open presents. The incarnation says God understands human poverty and suffering, and he went further than any of us can go, he died on a cross for our sins and rose from the dead for our justification.

Terrorism can’t destroy this Christian hope, neither can materialism. But while terrorism may drive Aussies back to Church, materialism deadens the soul. I get it, such a suggestion is amount to heresy in this city that I love, but what if Jesus is right? What if these ancient words remain true for us today?

And what about the Boxing Day cricket test? Leave cricket alone!