A sling, an arrow, and the Gospel

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And, by opposing, end them?”

Cleisthenes

From the Delphic hamlet that is The Australian, Greg Sheridan has given Australian Churches an oracle.

According to Sheridan,

Australia’s Christian churches are in crisis, on the brink of complete strategic irrelevance. It’s not clear they recognise the mortal depth of their problems.

The churches need a new approach to their interaction with politics and the public debate, and to keeping themselves relevant in a post-Christian Australian society.

The churches cannot recognise and come to grips with their strategic circumstances. They behave as though they still represent a living social consensus.

The Christian churches now need to reconceive of themselves as representing a distinct and not all that big minority (of practising Christians). They should conduct themselves as a self-confident minority, seeking to win conversion through example and persuasion and not to defend endlessly legal protections and enforcements that are increasingly untenable or meaningless.

In my opinion Greg Sheridan offers a lucid critique of many Churches who are failing to grapple with the rise of secularism, although I wonder if he adequately understands the nature of the Church’s mission and therefore how success and relevance are defined.

Sheridan is right to point out the gross sins of abuse within the Catholic Church (and other denominations as well), and the way this has greatly damaged community perceptions of Churches.

There is urgent need for Churches to practice repentance. Dressed in clerical collars and reciting liturgy, great evil has been perpetrated, especially in the area of sexual abuse. Joe Smith and Lisa Jones can see it, but there remain clergy in some institutions that still don’t get it. The fact that their deeds expose them to be frauds of faith does not diminish the impact on the community. Real, transparent, and deep repentance is required.

Sheridan is also spot on in observing the naivety of some Christians who believe they still belong to the centre of Australian life. We defer to census figures that prove the majority of Aussies believe in God and who identify as Christian, but surely we know better. The reality is, Churches have never belonged comfortably at the centre of Australian society; they have played a significant role in shaping culture, alongside many other voices, but it is more a case of Churches being tolerated rather than celebrated and embraced.

This tolerance is eroding, rapidly so. This year alone we have seen various groups slamming the foot on the accelerator, such that we are fast approaching an intersection called ‘free speech’, and the direction Australians will take remains unclear.

Several political groups have declared their hand:

The Greens have decided their way forward by calling for religious organisations to lose their exemptions for discrimination laws.

Federal Labor have made clear: “Labor believes that no faith, no religion, no set of beliefs should ever be used as an instrument of division or exclusion, and 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. Accordingly, Labor will review national anti-discrimination laws to ensure that exemptions do not place Australians in a position where they cannot access essential social services.”

Bill Shorten has since stepped back from this position, but there are no guarantees he won’t step forward again.

And the Victorian Government, singing from their autocratic hymnal, has determined to insult and silence anyone who challenges their hermeneutic of life.

Should churches fight to keep a voice in the public arena?

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’.

A great example of this happened last week when Christians came to the support of Roz Ward, a professing Marxist and co-founder of the controversial curriculum, Safe Schools. Ward was forced to resign from a Government role and was suspended from La Trobe University after a comment she made in regard to the Australian flag. While her views may be disagreeable to many, she has the right to express them, and to find herself being ousted from an academic institution on account them was extreme. Subsequently, a number of Christian leaders noted this hypocrisy and sided with those who called for her reinstatement.

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

As a liberal democracy, Australia is governed by these 4 principles:

“A belief in the individual: since the individual is believed to be both moral and rational;

A belief in reason and progress: based on the belief that growth and development is the natural condition of mankind and politics the art of compromise;

A belief in a society that is consensual: based on a desire for order and co-operation not disorder and conflict;

A belief in shared power: based on a suspicion of concentrated power (whether by individuals, groups or governments).”

If we accept these principles, surely Christians have freedom to articulate their views in public discourse? This doesn’t mean people have to like or affirm these beliefs (nor those of any worldview), but it does mean there is freedom to speak. Unfortunately though, it seems as though these values are becoming museum pieces, relics from a golden age of democracy when the Cleisthenes’ of Australia stood tall. After all, no fair democracy has ever endured the ages. And yet, while Australia formally holds to these democratic convictions, there is a place for Christians to speak without fear of law or litigation.

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?

How should Churches view ‘success’?

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.

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

 

What price should we attach to marriage?

The media has been abuzz with the announcement made by accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC), that the proposed marriage plebiscite will cost Australians $525 million.

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The cost attached to the plebiscite itself is $158 million. Another $30 million has been estimated to deal with mental health issues that may arise for LGBTI people from potential hate-speech and acts, $66 million set aside for the yes/no campaigns, and it is estimated that while we duck off to the polling venue on a Saturday afternoon to vote, there will be productivity loss around the nation to the sum of $280 million.

It needs to be said that despite how some media outlets are reporting the PwC modelling, this figure is not factual, but is an educated opinion, and one which is already being disputed. It is also important to note PwC is not acting as an impartial third party, but they are a strong supporter of same-sex marriage and of the group Australian Marriage Equality.

Despite these qualifications, let’s assume the sum is accurate. Given all those factors I would call myself a reluctant supporter of the plebiscite.

Bill Shorten has said of the plebiscite, “what a waste”. I sympathise with this view, for I can see how the money could be used to assist any number of important social concerns: mental health, housing for indigenous Australians, addressing domestic violence, and refugee assistance are just a few of a hundred issues requiring attention and support. Having said that, the notion of changing the definition of marriage is no small thing, and it is naive for anyone to suggest so.

The proposal is not a tiny amendment to the law, but the radical and complete alteration of society’s most basic building block: from marriage comes the family unit, and from family communities are formed, and with communities a society and nation is shaped. Marriage is not everything, but it is an important thing and it is one which has held an almost universally accepted definition since history began. Until recently very few societies would even consider the question, and today the vast majority of nations remain opposed to same-sex marriage. Let us understand that no one is quibbling over a few words, at stake is rebooting the very notion of marriage. There are already community voices arguing that this rewrite is simply a steppingstone to further changes and even the eradication of marriage altogether:

Last year, Simon Copland, a columnist with the Sydney Star Observer, argued that equal marriage might unfortunately limit expressions of sexuality, saying that ‘while monogamous marriage still works for many, our society is increasingly questioning whether it should remain as the only option’.

At the 2012 Sydney Writers’ festival, Dennis Altman, was among a number of speakers who declared their hope that the Marriage Act would be eventually repealed altogether.

The point is, it is not hyperbole to suggest that should marriage redefinition take place, it will be considered a watershed event in Australia’s history, one which will have inevitable and enormous repercussions for society.

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.

Yes, $525 million is a lot of money, but when one breaks down the cost per capita, it comes to $21.88 for each Australian. For the cost of little more than a movie ticket, I can have a say in deciding the direction Australia will take on the most fundamental social unit

A separate concern surrounding the plebiscite has been raised by various advocates for marriage change, including Rodney Croome who said,

“The damage an ugly and divisive campaign will do to vulnerable members of the LGBTI community, their families, and youth will have far-reaching consequences that cannot be quantified,”

As someone who has a voice in the community, albeit a small one, should the plebiscite be presented to the nation, I want to state publicly that hateful speech and actions against LGBTI people are unacceptable. A marriage plebiscite does not justify spite or slander toward those who wish to change the Marriage Act. Throwing bile at another human being is detestable, whether it is done in person or on twitter.

“A marriage plebiscite does not justify spite or slander toward those who wish to change the Marriage Act”

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, and will gladly speak against such behaviour. 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 to think that it is risks undermining the foundation of democracy.

The logical terminus of Croome’s argument is a prohibition on disagreement; that is not healthy for democracy and would set a bind on the conscience of those who disagree with the change to the marriage law. A society that forbids the public articulation of civilly expressed views that come out of a long, thoughtful and widespread tradition is on the road to becoming the very thing it claims to stand against.

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?

Indeed, the essence of Christianity is Jesus Christ showing kindness to a world that had no room for his beliefs,

“You see, 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.”

While bullish and malicious behaviour toward same-sex marriage advocates is rightly called out, I wonder whether those leading the charge for marriage change insist that their supporters don’t resort to hate speech toward those who believe marriage can only be between a man and a woman?

Will they pledge to publicly denounce individuals who disparage the millions of Australians who do not support same sex marriage?

Will they call out public figures who time and time again call people homophobes and bigots for believing only in heterosexual marriage?

Australians are increasingly recognising that this decision is of major consequence, not only for the way we build society, but this may have enormous implications for ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of religion’. We only have to look at Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom to see how same-sex marriage introduces a wave of intellectual and moral oppression on those who cannot for reason of conscience affirm it.

The Labor Party have made it abundantly clear that they will not allow their members to vote against same-sex marriage. This is hardly the stuff of a dynamic democracy. Only two weeks ago, Labor Senator Joe Bullock was forced to retire because of his Party’s unwillingness to allow a conscience vote on this issue. Such political censorship has given cause for the public to doubt that a fair vote can take place in Parliament.

I share concerns over the cost of a plebiscite, but given what is at stake the Australian public ought to have their voice. If John Howard believed in taking the GST to an election, how much more should the question of marriage, which is insurmountably more important, be given a say by the people.

Do we have religious freedom anymore?

Dr Michael Bird breathes some common sense into what is fast becoming a ludicrous situation in Tasmania.

This is an important read for every Australian who believes in freedom of speech.

http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=17832