Hell just won’t go away

Once again, Australians are talking about hell. It was only last week that I wrote an article suggesting that the Israel Folau case might set a course for the future. Little did I realise that it would only take a few days before Australia would be hit with another example, and this time it’s one that might influence the outcome of a Federal election.

The week started with a schoolyard journalist believing they’d discovered the great gotcha moment. They asked Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “Do you believe gay people are going to hell?”

Mr Morrison gave a roundabout answer, which sounded like, “I do believe that, but my personal beliefs about hell don’t have anything to do with public policy and governing the country.”

There is some truth in this kind of response. Even a non-response would have been okay—after all, don’t answer a fool according to their folly is proverbial wisdom (Prov 26:4). But of course, as soon as the Prime Minister flustered his answer, everyone from Broome to Ballarat everyone knew that hell had now become an election issue.

Mr Shorten jumped on the Prime Minister’s response saying,

“I cannot believe in this election that there is a discussion even under way that gay people will go to hell,”

“I cannot believe that the Prime Minister has not immediately said that gay people will not go to hell.”

“No, I don’t believe gay people, because they’re gay, will go to hell. I don’t need a law to tell me that. I don’t believe it.”

“I think if you want to be prime minister of Australia you are going to be prime minister for all people. And I just don’t believe it. The nation’s got to stop eating itself in this sort of madness of division and toxicity”.

Finally, Mr Morrison issued a statement saying that he didn’t believe gays would go to hell.

In one sense, it’s not the answers that are the issue here (I’ll qualify this remark later on), but the fact that the question is being asked at all of our political leaders.

 

1024px-Flag_of_Australia.svg.png

I am fascinated by, and glad to see, Australians discussing eternal matters. These questions are of great significance. They bring God onto the nation’s radar and help us to ask existential questions about what we believe and how we live our lives. I am less encouraged, however, by some of the assertions being made by journalists and politicians alike. As a Christian, while I firmly believe that what we think of heaven and hell matters enormously, these things should not become tests for public office. Indeed, the Australian Constitution S116 offers protection and states that there is to be no religious test for office.

I understand why religious institutions, churches, and organisations would require agreement on the doctrine of hell. For example, how can someone teach the Bible at a theological college if they do not subscribe to the basic doctrinal position of the said institution? It’s not that hell is extraneous and inconsequential to the wider societal discourse, but have we entered the place where outside the church, a person’s theological convictions are to be judged?  Are we to define a person’ suitability for public office based on their personal views about eternal matters? Is the public square to be a place fitted with theological gates to keep out bits of the Bible that don’t applaud current cultural obsessions and attitudes? The answer seems to be, yes.

Once upon a time, if an employer asked you what you thought about hell, it wasn’t in order to find grounds to have you sacked. How quickly has our culture shifted!

I don’t think we should be getting our doctrine of hell from any given political party, and I don’t think we should be voting for or against candidates because of their particular understanding of hell. I can honestly say that as a Christian this issue has never been one of the top 50 questions that I’ve ever thought of asking candidates.

But truly secular society can never be a religion-free zone. That is a fictitious position that can only exist in the theoretical world and is posited by persons who are themselves reacting against set religious thinking (usually Christian theism).  Classic secularism (of which Australia is an example) is designed to provide a civil public life which encourages the discussion of life’s big questions without control by any single ideologue. Secularism, in contrast to the ravings of some, is not meant to establish atheism or soft and bland religion as the official state religion. Secularism is meant to be pluralistic; to make our society an Areopagus where people bring ideas to the table and where people argue and seek to persuade each other. No one is excluded because they are Christian or Jewish or Hindu or atheist.

Unfortunately, many of today’s secularists have shifted the goalposts. They don’t want secularism in the classic sense, they want to pit people against each other. They trade in outrage and scare campaigns—the intention of which are to punish and banish any heresy that doesn’t fit with their dogma. Hence, Rugby is no longer about playing football but is about subscribing to the narrow sexuality agenda being forced by corporate sponsors. University learning is less about the free exchange of ideas and discovery, but about forcing progressive theory into young minds. And now, Christian politicians are apparently required to affirm that they are theological liberals when it comes sexual matters.

My point is this, Christians who think they can hold onto their beliefs in private and keep them tucked away from public gaze, probably need to wake up and think again. While a generation of educators and public narrators told us that religion is a private affair and that our views about God are not welcome out loud, the very same parrots are now demanding that we open our mouths. Of course, they are not interested in listening and engaging with ideas. Far from it, they want us to speak because they are convinced that Christianity, like two atoms hurtling toward each other at extraordinary speed, will implode. Many of our cultural scriptwriters are keen to write out Biblical Christianity from the Australian storyline altogether, either by forcing Christians to admit that they believe the Bible or by denying it publicly.

It is time for Christians to think about what they really believe and why, and to formulate answers to these hot topics, explanations that are grace seasoned with salt. If colleagues at work or fellow students uni are aware that we follow Jesus, are they not already asking us these kinds of questions? Surely it is prudent for us to be thinking biblically, lovingly, clearly, and winsomely. As Peter writes,

“be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

I would also suggest that  Christians reopen Augustine and Calvin, as aids to helps us think through the complexities of religion and public life. Jonathan Leeman’s, How the Nations Rage, is a new volume that deserves careful treatment (while written for an American context, there is a wealth of theological insight to gain from this book).

As it happens, I don’t believe anyone goes to hell because of their sexual orientation. I also don’t believe anyone goes to heaven because of their sexual orientation. Will gays go to hell? Will heterosexuals go to hell? The answer to both questions is yes, but not because of sexual orientation but because in a thousand expressions we all dismiss and denude God’s ways. Both self-realisation and self-righteousness are a sure path to hell, because both deny that there is God and that he is altogether good and holy and love. There will be plenty of happily married couples who never enter heaven and many same-sex attracted men and women who are welcomed by God. This isn’t because sex is malleable and or because the Bible’s teaching on marriage isn’t clear and good. Jesus insisted that any sexual activity outside the marriage between a man and a woman is to be considered immoral. And yet we also see his compassion on those who had digressed and lived in ways contrary to God’s design.

Heaven and hell isn’t a left or right issue, it is a human issue. The self-righteousness that is condemned in the Bible isn’t owned by any single political party, but it must not be a characteristic of those who profess to follow Jesus Christ as Lord. Rather, Christians can remind each other that we’ve come to understand the rightness of God who judges; the wonder of God who shows mercy; and that we desire nothing more than to see straight Australians, gay, lesbian and transgender Australians also finding this God who loves.

So to the question that is making headlines across the nation this week, when we are next asked, “do you believe gays will go to hell”, how will you answer?

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.

IMG_8049

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?

Freedom of Speech

The topic of ‘Freedom of Speech’ grabbed national attention in last week’s Federal election.

Newly elected member of Goldstein, Tim Wilson, and Dr Michael Bird (of Ridley College) will be speaking at the public event.

Just one week to go.  Reserve you tickets here

freedom of speech

The grass is not always greener on the other side

“Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”

    For it is not wise to ask such questions.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In my view, Christians should not be so entrenched in a political ideology that they cannot in principle move to another party and viewpoint;  after all, Gospel values can not be boxed into particular  political ideologies, and the current political landscape in Australia is an example of this. Many Christians are rightly dismayed by the Coalition’s policies on asylum seekers and cuts to foreign aid. Similarly, there is significant concern with Labor’s position on asylum seekers, as well as positions on marriage, sexuality, and freedom of religion that is being platformed by both Labor and the Greens.

Of course, there are a thousand economic issues which should not neglected either, for economics contribute impacts societal good and order, and vice versa.

It feels as though our politicians are digging tunnels in the mud, in a race to the bottom of the quagmire.

I don’t disdain politics, nor those who are prepared to serve the public in what is often a much maligned profession. As Christians, we believe we should honour those in authority and to pray for them. This we do, and without denuding these things, in our democratic society we also have opportunity and responsibility to articulate our concerns.

As a Pastor, I have never suggested to others how they should vote, nor do I disclose my own vote. I do however believe it is important for voters to be aware of  agendas their vote will be supporting.

In any Government there is the good and bad, but the bad in our political parties right now is so appalling, it is leaving many voters (not only Christians) despondent and with little enthusiasm for tomorrow. Not only so, the gravity of the issues at stake have provoked more Christian commentary than I have seen in any previous election.

Chief among the issues is religious freedom, which most popularly framed in terms of the debate on marriage, however there are other related issues. For example,

Earlier in the election campaign, opposition legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus referenced one of his own party’s policies, saying, “Labor believes that no faith, no religion, no set of beliefs should ever be used as an instrument of division or exclusion… Condemning anyone, discriminating against anyone, vilifying anyone is a violation of the values we all share, a violation which can never be justified by anyone’s faith or belief.”

Thankfully, Bill Shorten backed away from these comments, albeit in a somewhat imprecise and noncommittal manner.

One of the more bizarre moves I have seen is of some Christians giving weight to the Greens Party whose platform includes taking freedoms from Christians.

On this, I have gently chuckled at the irony of some of my Baptist colleagues, who on the one hand are the most ferocious defenders of church and state separation, are sometimes the most keen to talk politics and in a few instances, happen to be vocal supporters of the Greens.

Perhaps if the Greens stuck to policies on asylum seekers and the environment there may be good reason to offer support. These are issues of grave significance. However, it would be simply naive to vote for these policies without considering the fact that a vote for the Greens is a vote against religious liberty.

Firstly, the Greens’ intention is to limit religious freedoms in Australia; that is without dispute. They themselves have said so:

“Our anti-discrimination laws offer good protections to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities, but they come with a gigantic exemption for religious organisations. Successive Labor and Coalition governments have maintained these exemptions, which mean that a religious hospital can refuse to employ a gay doctor, and a faith-based homelessness shelter can refuse to accept a transgender resident.

The Greens have fought against these exemptions at every opportunity, and we believe they should be eliminated. Anti discrimination laws should apply to everyone”

Nick McKim, Greens Senator, has said “The fundamental principle here is that Australians should be treated the same, whether or not they’re of one particular religion or another or whether in fact they’re not religious at all’.

I don’t disagree with the words as such, but the question is, what meaning and agenda is imported into these words? Let’s not be fooled by the rhetoric, this is not about treating all Australians the same, this is about forcing a narrow secular humanity worldview onto all Australians. The existing exemptions are not designed to give special privileges to certain groups, but to protect freedom of conscience.  In that light, this issue concerns not only Christians, but any Australian who believes in freedom of conscience.

Second, the Greens have not (to my knowledge) defined the extent to which they will remove religious exemptions from the anti-discrimination laws; this is most concerning. Their platform doesn’t site any exemptions, although the examples provided refer to religious based hospitals and schools, and not churches. I suspect though, these examples are carefully chosen, ones that very few people would take issue with. But that’s all they are, examples. They do not stipulate with any precision how far they intend to take these redactions.

Even if they promise not to intrude on Churches and para-church organisations, there remain serious questions relating to religious based hospitals and schools, including:

Will religious based schools be forced to employ persons who do not affirm the values of their schools?

Will religious affiliated hospitals be coerced into providing procedures, such as abortions, against good conscience?

As Andrew Katay has rightly pointed out,

“a basic principle of political theology is the commitment to a pluralist state, where conscience is not coerced.”  The Greens platform betrays this essential democratic ideal, trouncing conscience and forcing people to betray the deepest convictions, and with that bringing “the punitive power of the state to bear against those who seek to follow their conscience.”

Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are not the only serious issues deserving our consideration tomorrow, but we are blindsiding society’s health and freedom should we ignore these matters

While I am grateful for the privilege of casting a vote at the ballot, tomorrow’s task will have little joy in it. Like so many people my heart and mind is scrambling together a retrieval ethic in order to find the least objectionable of choices. And yet even this moral dilemma, we should give thanks that we still have such freedom to choose.

Whatever the outcome, the reality that does gives Christians great joy is that our faith and hope does not lie in the electoral process nor its outcome, but in the Lord of life.  The Australian landscape may well be changing;  the Greens, and any party for that matter, can do their damned best to subvert and silence the Christian hope, but history’s story cannot escape God and the power of his amazing Gospel. 

I do not hate you

7518580-3x2-700x467

ABC photo of commemoration at Federation Square

Following the terrible mass murder in Orlando, Jason Ball, Greens candidate for the seat of Higgins, has criticised those who offered prayers for the victims and their families,

“This week, media commentators who have previously vilified us, leapt on the unspeakable atrocities in Orlando and used our grief as a battering ram to prosecute their own agenda against another minority.

Then they wring their hands and offer us their ‘prayers and sympathy’ whilst conveniently ignoring the fact that acts of hate and violence are the logical conclusion to a public ‘debate’ that maintains we are abnormal and not worthy of the same rights and respect as our fellow citizens.”

Like many people I gloss over most words that I read online, but Mr Ball’s comments stood out and made me put on the brakes. As a reflected on his words, I found several different threads of thought running through my mind, some conflicting:

Does genuine grief depend upon agreement? The thing is, I do feel great sadness for those who have been personally affected by the Orlando massacre. It was a display of evil for which there is no justification. Am I being hypocritical for thinking this?

On the one hand, the Muslim community has been criticised for their lack of public outrage over the attack, and yet Christians offering prayers for those affected are being told to keep quiet? It feels as though we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Is it true that the logical outcome of not supporting same-sex marriage is hate and violence?

Is it right to pray for a group of people if they ask us to desist?

Should we only pray for those with whom we have congruity of thought? Is our common humanity not enough?

What can Christians do to overcome the view that not supporting SSM does not equal hating LGBTI people?

The same article reported how Mr Ball has had campaign material smeared with hateful words, ‘fag’, and so understandably he is skeptical of certain peoples’ words of support for the victims in Orlando. More so, it takes a callous person to dismiss the fears and grief many LGBTI people are experiencing in the wake of Orlando.

A question I am wrestling with is this, as a Christian, how should I respond? Should I remain quiet? Do I ‘repent’ of my understanding of marriage, as one commentator has argued Christians must do? Are our only options, conformity to or exile from the public sphere?

The fact that you are reading these words probably gives away my answer, although I have taken several days to ponder the question before writing. The reason for writing this piece is to try and communicate, albeit somewhat clumsily, that Christians do care and are concerned for the LGBTI community. It is not hate that drives us to speak and pray.

Jason Ball may be right, there are people using Orlando, ‘as a battering ram to prosecute their own agenda against another minority’. In fact, I’m pretty sure he is right. This horrendous event is being utilitarianised by several public figures to silence all manner of minority voices. There are haters in our community, including individuals who detest LGBTI people, and we stand with you against them.

Hate and violence derives from commitment to a worldview that cannot tolerate difference. This worldview may be of a religious orchestration; its shape may be that of secular humanism.

Jesus once said that it’s relatively easy to love those whom you like; it takes grace to love those with whom you disagree. We all fall short of this ideal, which would well leave us hopeless, except there is one who lived the ideal without ever misstepping.

“After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.

Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:27-31)

Jesus calls those who would follow him, to be like him.

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36)

A Christian cannot hate because we have been on the other side, we have belonged to the crowd who have hurt others and thrown stones of hate, pride, and greed. Christians, if they are Christian, confess their spiritual and moral destitution, and yet we have come to experience the undeserving and loving grace of God who forgives our trespasses through Jesus. Once the human heart has experienced Divine forgiveness, we can not walk back into old attitudes of disdain for other people, nor hold onto some cold and languid acquiescence toward popular moral thought. When God replaces hate with love, it is a commitment to affirm what is good as defined by God. Can not love lead us to disagree with fellow human beings? Can a desire to see people flourish not include aspects of nonconcurrence, as we find in the life of Jesus Christ?

I do not hate you. I would willingly stand alongside you against those who have insulted you and graffitied your campaign posters. Clearly though, we have much work to do. I don’t know if Jason Ball will read this piece, and if he does, what his response would be. But I hope and pray he and others hear, and not only hear, but come to experience that Christians do not hate them. We must do more to love others as Christ has loved us.

I’ll finish with two examples that I have come across of where a Christian voice is trying to speak into the awfulness of what took place just over a week ago.

The American chain restaurant, Chick-Fil-A, is known for its conservative values and for not opening on Sundays out of observance for the Sabbath. Following the shooting, they broke their rules and opened on the Sunday to serve their community. They gave food to firefighters, police and volunteers, and they handed out sandwiches to those donating blood.

Last week, a service was held at the Anglican Cathedral in Sydney, and in his address Archbishop Glenn Davies said,

“As Australians, we abhor violence in all its forms—domestic violence, street violence, xenophobic violence, religiously motivated violence, and especially violence against members of the LGBTI community. As the leader of the Anglican Church in Sydney I want to affirm my stance against all such outbreaks of violence, and if any members of our churches have participated in such acts of violence against women, against young people, against ethnic minorities, against religious minorities or against those from the LGBTI community I offer my heartfelt apology.” 

“Yet we must all search own hearts, as evil resides in each one of us. We have all fallen short of the glory of God. None of us are without fault. Words of derision, mockery and exclusion so frequently fall from our lips when directed against persons who are different from us. This is especially the case for members of the LGBTI community, who have suffered the verbal abuse that so deeply cuts into a person’s soul. Where we have been guilty of such words, I also offer my apology on behalf of the Anglican Church in Sydney.”

“God’s love knows no bounds. He extends his love to all without distinction and without prejudice. Therefore when one, let alone 49, bearers of the image of God are murdered, God grieves. When a further 53 are injured and hospitalised, God grieves. For our God is a God of compassion and grace, and in the depth of our sorrow and pain, he offers to carry us ‘through the valley of the shadow of death.’”

Freedom of Speech in Australia: A Symposium

freedom of speech

‘Freedom of Speech’ is a significant social and political issue in Australia. The topic is being debated by the major parties in the current Federal election, and is an important issue for all Australians.

Mr Tim Wilson is the Liberal candidate for the Division of Goldstein. He was a public policy analyst and a commentator who was the Australian Human Rights Commissioner from 2014 until his resignation in 2016.

Dr Michael Bird is a lecturer of theology at Ridley College. He is one of Australia’s most distinguished theologians, having written over 20 books and speaking at conferences across Australia, the UK, and USA. 

Both speakers have offered important contributions to this topic of ‘Freedom of Speech’, and it is a privilege to have them share the platform for this symposium.

The evening will consist of an address by each speaker, an opportunity for them to reply to the other’s presentation, and there will be a time for question and answer from the floor.

Refreshments will be served at the conclusion of the evening

Click on the graphic or here to book seats