Hey, uni students

Here’s some advice from an old man about this summer holidays.

Back when I used to play football (the round-ball kind) for a local club, the tournament would often pause for a couple of weeks in the middle of winter.

It was an all-age competition. That’s code, of course, for “fat and sly.” We couldn’t keep up with the youngsters any more; but we had a few tricks of our own. A bit of niggle; a generous use of the shoulder. Our defenders’ studs would somehow keep catching in the opposing striker’s laces. That sort of thing.

It almost made up for the fact that some of our jerseys couldn’t meet our shorts in the middle. I remember one midfielder who always knocked back a tinnie and a ciggie at half time, and cheerfully chucked in the far corner when the final whistle blew.

Anyway, did I mention ‘all-age’? Some of us had kids. That meant school holidays, a lengthy break, and always – always – a significant slump in form.

We’d start the season like the sad, sclerotic sacks we’d become, but through sheer horror at our condition, would drag ourselves into some kind of shape. We’d bully and cajole each other into laps around the outfield, push-ups in the in-goal and sprints between those little orange cones. Left to ourselves we’d never have the discipline; but as team, we could muster just enough esprit de corps that our desire to turn up and give a decent account of ourselves each game would get us over the line.

Then the school holidays arrived. We’d go our separate ways, to cheap campgrounds and borrowed beach houses and the sudden collapse of structure that is simultaneously so refreshing and enervating. The fastest we would walk for two weeks, or maybe three, was the pace of the toddler holding our hand. And when we came back? It hardly seems possible but, if anything, we’d be slower than when the season started.

That’s my experience of university students over summer, too.

Most of you are now facing an almost intolerable burden of holidays. I say ‘intolerable’, because we human beings aren’t made for the sheer intensity of aimlessness embodied in the Australian uni break. The potential of these holidays for tawdry self-indulgence is breath-taking. More than that: the risk is that, having grown and deepened throughout this year, you might return from holidays in poorer form than you left.

Remember, these weeks off uni were never intended as a recognition of the heroic sacrifices that you’ve made for study in 2019. They were always intended to allow academics a break from teaching to pursue their research. They aren’t designed to be good for you. And they’re not.

But, like all things, under Christ, burden can be turned to blessing. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Read your bibles and pray, a little every day.
    Don’t strive for perfection, because your failure will crush your good intentions. Grab a Tyndale NIV bible-in-a-year and read the scheduled passages. Or the first sentence of them. I don’t really care. The key isn’t to have your socks knocked off every morning; the key is immersion – to insist, against the insistent drown of the cicadas, that God is king, and this world is heading somewhere. Bible reading is like jogging. It’s rare for anything substantial to happen in any one act of discipline; over a year, though, the change is electrifying.
  • Go to church. Every, single week.
    I don’t care where you are, how small the church, so long as God’s people meet, the Bible is faithfully taught, and the sacraments rightly administered. Don’t compartmentalise your life. God isn’t a ‘part’ of your city experience, and nor are his people. ‘Do not give up the habit of meeting together,’ writes the author of Hebrews. There is nothing better for your soul than to regularly gather with a group of ageing saints one step from the grave and glory, with a heart full of love for fellow sinners saved by grace.
  • Stretch, don’t shrink.
    Think you’ve finished your study for the year? What a waste of life! Use your summer to invest in some serious theological development. Set aside an hour a day, a morning a week and a day a month to grow your vision of God. Read Sarah Ruden’s translation of Augustine’s Confessions, J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, C.S. Lewis’ God in the Dock, Meredith Lake’s The Bible in Australia, Elizabeth Elliot’s biography of Amy Carmichael, A Chance to Die, or Kevin DeYoung’s Why We Still Love the Church.
  • Rule your time, don’t be ruled.
    Write a plan for your holidays. Get a diary. Plan your time. Go to the beach without your phone. Never carry it in your pocket. Charge it in the family room. Buy a cheap alarm clock for beside your bed. Get a trusted friend to enter the passcode for your screen time, put a hard limit on socials and only allow phone calls at all times. Go to bed early and ask friends and family to help (the latest sleep medicine indicates both length of sleep and going to bed early have benefits equal to the most powerful anti-depressants). Go for a run. Yes, you!: your mind and soul are dependent on your body.

While it’s true that our lives can collapse in a chaotic heap over a lengthy holidays, this need not be the rule. You can return from a break both refreshed and with a new spiritual muscle memory that will carry you through the year. You can come back both rested, and without regrets, knowing that you have numbered your days and used your time well. You can land back at university with more wisdom, more delight in God, more peace and of more use to our King and Saviour.

Please leave, or please stay?

by Mike Paget and Erica Hamence

We open with these words we love from Kanishka Raffel, the Dean of St Andrews Cathedral:

Matthew 11 records perhaps some of the best known and best loved words of Jesus: Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

We hear the words of Jesus and our whole being moves towards him, we sit forward in our chairs and want to hear more of what he has or say. We know the weariness of tears and the weariness of sin, the weariness of frustration and disappointment and regret and we long for rest, for peace, for light and hope. We long for rest for ourselves and for those we love. We long for rest for the world that groans with weariness.

What is the rest that Jesus offers?

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:29)

Jesus promises rest to those who will accept his yoke and learn from him. As we learn from him – as we accept his yoke – so he offers rest to us now. Jesus’ invitation is not only for final rest in the next life but for the experience of rest in the tumult and tears of this life as well. The image of the yoke is of the contraption that keeps oxen in the path. It was an image often used of rabbis and their disciples. It isn’t an invitation to be yoked alongside Jesus, but under Jesus. He is not our fellow ox but the farmer driving the plough – that is why Jesus says, learn from me. He is the one who gives instruction, direction, guidance.

As the gospel unfolds we learn that much of Jesus’ instruction is about himself. He is himself, the source of rest. His death for sin cleanses us from guilt and shame and fear and death. As we come to him in repentance and faith we are welcomed, forgiven, restored in relationship, adopted into his family and indwelt by his own Spirit. The Spirit lives in us to bring forth a new life in which we find that our truest self is the self conformed to Christ.

To whom does Jesus make this invitation? ‘All you who are weary and burdened’. The invitation is generous and broad. Indeed, it is universal. Jesus knows the heart of people. To welcome the ‘weary and burdened’ is to welcome all who experience the fallenness of the world that wearies, and the failure of our own efforts to live well, that leaves us burdened. Jesus’ invitation to one and all is, ‘Come’!

In the very same accounts where Jesus opens his arms wide in welcome, he also calls all who come to him to be changed. ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ He calls the rich and powerful to give their wealth away, the proud to be humble, the self-righteous to look to their own hearts.

Jesus also, we are convinced, calls every one of us to chastity: to pursuing deep friendships in celibate singleness, or to pursuing faithfulness in lifelong, heterosexual, exclusive marriage. We don’t claim that those who disagree with this view have come to that position lightly or without integrity. However, the consensus of most scholars is that this best represents the unified message of the biblical texts, and it is noteworthy that the bulk of those who reject this ethical position do so by openly and honestly setting aside some or all of the them. We too have laboured hard, and have found the historic Christian understanding of Jesus’ teaching unavoidable.

Because Jesus calls us to learn from him, we must keep teaching what we are convinced is Jesus’ message.

We feel the weight of the claim from many voices in our society that the teaching of the church is causing real harm to our LGBTI neighbours. There is no question that some conservative commentators and clergy have openly made statements that range from clumsy to cruel. And if we become persuaded that we have misunderstood Jesus’ teaching on sexuality and marriage, then we ought to repent immediately and publicly and, I suspect, those of us who have taught falsely should resign. The possibility of being wrong on this in terms of human cost fills me with anguish.

But if we have not misheard Jesus, and his words are the bread of life, then a necessary distinction between hurtful and harmful emerges. When Jesus, a male, Jewish rabbi, encountered the Samaritan woman beside the well, he named her sin to her face and called her to find life-giving water by leaving her old way of life behind. We diminish her personhood if we do not acknowledge that this experience of Jesus must have been simultaneously hurtful and healing. We fail the test of compassion if we do not empathize with the pain that often arises from a confrontation with Jesus’ good news; we fail the test of conviction if we refuse to allow that his challenge to her way of life was the only way for her to begin a new one.

In Jesus, we see a coming together of both compassion and conviction. John Dickson recently observed that, ‘ever since then, the Christian ‘tribes’ have been insisting on one or another. A church that refuses (in the name of ‘compassion’) to discipline or expel its disobedient own is the mirror-image of the church that refuses (in the name of ‘conviction’) to welcome the sinful. The former might get more applause from a fallen world, but neither wins the applause of the Lord.’

There are gay and lesbian Christians who wish to marry. But there are also gay and lesbian Christians who are convinced by the more classical understanding of marriage and sexuality. Celibate singleness is an incredibly difficult conviction to live out in our modern world. But knowing that this same Jesus willingly laid down his life for them, and having tasted and seen that God is good, they believe it is worth following Jesus anywhere he calls us.

And so they seek out churches which will hold onto not only compassion but conviction, too. Churches where they will be walked with and wept with as they strive for the Spirit-filled holy lives to which they believe God has called them. Churches where sex and marriage are kept in their appropriate, marginal places. Churches where the ministers will keep their promises to hand on the teaching of Jesus with gentleness and integrity. Churches who will not abandon their commitment to the historic faith and, in so doing, abandon them.

And yet, we know that this is what has occurred.

When ministers are ordained in the Anglican Church, they are universally required to promise to uphold the doctrines of the church, which seek to express Jesus’ teaching on this matter, both in their lives and in their teaching.

But we know that there are Anglican clergy around the country who have broken these promises, living semi-openly with same-sex partners for years. It is unsurprising, then, that in some dioceses, priests and bishops in council have worked – again, despite their ordination vows – to introduce blessings and services which are in contravention of our Anglican doctrines.

Wherever you stand on same sex marriage, this should raise disturbing questions of personal integrity.

It is one thing to be a church member. What we see in the early church is that living for God involved many false starts, stumbling, arguing and questioning, of living in the gulf between knowing God’s will and doing it. We recognise that this will likely be a pattern after which we will we follow. Each of us has things that we are learning and unlearning. Each of us needs grace for that.

But a leader in the church – and especially a bishop – is to be a guardian of the faith. The apostle James reminds us that those who presume to teach will be held to a stricter standard. Paul rebuked his fellow apostle, Peter, for his racially motivated exclusion of Gentiles on the grounds of the gospel.

What we see in Jesus’ life and ministry is that Jesus knew how to discern the difference between doubting that needed rebuke, and doubt that needed gentleness. He could discern between power differences and positions of privilege. He knew what to do with those who were hurting, and it never compromised on his capacity to tell the truth. He knew how to speak to those in power.

If an Anglican rector became persuaded of purgatory, we would reasonably expect him to find another platform for his ministry, perhaps in the Roman Catholic Church, rather than try to smuggle it into the pulpit; if a minister became an atheist, we trust that they would have the decency to step down entirely and find a different vocation, hopefully with the support of their church.

Of course, we want ministers of all denominations to be free to change their minds and live authentic expressions of their faith. We all know how our consciences can compel us to a new way of seeing the world; but to value our consciences rightly is also to insist that they call us to live out changes in new worldview with integrity.

And if they refused, we would want them to be held to account.

This week, Dr. Glenn Davies, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, made some public comments that many have found extremely hurtful, and some media and commentators have represented as a callous ejection of thousands of gay and straight, confused and convicted Christians on the basis of disagreements around sexuality.

What has not been clear – either in the reporting or in the Archbishop’s own words – is that these comments were about other Anglican dioceses and leaders who wish to leave the historic Anglican understanding of biblical teaching behind. The Archbishop has subsequently and specifically clarified that he was addressing bishops.

I’m no apologist for the Archbishop and have been publicly critical of his comments in the past. I wish that Glenn that chosen different words. I wish that he’d been more alert to the way in which his words would understandably be misunderstood, and would hurt people. I wish that he’d thought to be clear about what he was not saying – in particular, that he had made crystal clear that gay and lesbian Christians were not the intended target of his speech are and always will be welcome in Anglican churches.

I am disappointed that we need to clarify and explain his intentions. But I will, because I think those intentions are to perform precisely the task the Jesus calls him to as a leader in the church, which is to call other leaders, his peers, to remain faithful to the promises that they made and, if they will not, plead with them to seek a platform elsewhere.

What does this mean?

What this means in practice is that there will be people in pews who aren’t sure, are wavering, or who flat out disagree – all to varying levels of conviction and all with their own sense of the stakes. We think they should be there. We hope they will be there.

For many of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters (and those who walk alongside them) this means that there may be times when they doubt or question (what we consider to be) the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, when they research and become confused about previous convictions, or convinced of new ones. These things are dynamic.

We believe that these sorts of struggles and questions are best asked amongst people who know and love the people asking them. If we have failed to know and love you, please say so. And please stay and let us try to do better.

If you come to the decision that you cannot be loved here, that is very different to the church telling you to leave. We won’t reject you as a sister or brother because you disagree with us on this matter.

We will keep seeking to be one thing in all of that: faithful to Jesus’ teaching which compels us to truth and love.

What else am I wrong about?

Last Sunday at Barneys, in lieu of a more traditional sermon, I had a public conversation with my colleague, Erica Hamence. Erica is a passionate evangelist, a gifted bible teacher, a rigorous student of the Scriptures, and an enormous blessing to our church. I shouldn’t need to say this, but because Erica also believes that women can and should preach, teach and be elders, I expect that some will presume she is also a theological liberal.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

You can find the full (more than an hour long) video of the conversation here on the Barneys website, and I encourage you to check it out. In general, my understanding is that the (for some, novel) experience of a respectful conversation across differences was exciting and helpful.

However, a question has made its way back to me that I think needs to be addressed here. The question is: ‘If we have misinterpreted this’ – this being the role of women in the church – ‘what else might we have misinterpreted?’ And, in particular: ‘Maybe God is okay with people being professing Christians and in practising LGBTI relationships?’

Here are a few thoughts in response.

  1. All Christians are wrong on all sorts of things, all the time. Sin doesn’t merely compromise our hearts and our actions. Sin radically impacts our minds – what is called the ‘noetic effect’ of sin. Only a fool believes that their rational faculties offer a clear and unbiased assessment of the world. Ashley Null, the great Reformation theologian, summarised the insight of the period in this way: what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. Our minds pursue truth, but they also function to offer post-hoc rationalisations of commitments that exist at a far deeper and more fundamental level of our personhood.
  2. Therefore, as a basic act of integrity, we should be open to a constant reassessment of our worldview. Rather than waiting for doubts to creep up on us, Christians should be critiquing our views against Scripture, testing our beliefs for coherence, discarding attitudes that arise merely from our culture and replacing them with an architecture of thought that arises from the gospel. ‘What else might we have misinterpreted?’ is an essential question for the Christian life.
  3. Disagreement is no basis for disbelief. Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean you should doubt your own commitments. An absence of unanimity does not entail an absence of confidence.
  4. This is because, although almost every truth claim is contested with another truth claim, not all truth claims are equal. In the age of fake news, this seems to have been lost in the wash. Some people claim that anthropocentric climate change is a conspiracy, or that NASA never landed astronauts on the moon. The basic contribution of a liberal education is to train the mind to be able to recognise different kinds of truth claims, though this critical function of education has largely been replaced by an ideological function.
  5. We need to have an agreed basis for comparing the credibility of truth claims, and rejecting comparisons that muddy the waters. What might that basis be in the Christian life? How do we compare the claim that women ought to be elders with the claim that God affirms homosexual practice? I’m going to jump ahead and say that I am convinced that these are substantively different claims, which elevate the credibility of the latter at the cost of diminishing the credibility of the former.
  6. Any theological claim should be tested, objectively, against both a rigorous and detailed analysis of key Scriptures, with attention to text critical, linguistic, syntactical and lexical issues, to prevent their misuse, and against the broader witness of the whole of the Scriptures. But because our truth commitments are not arrived at by pure rationality, we also need to address the moral and spiritual qualifications of those making claims. This is why the primary requirement of elders and deacons in the church is that they be of good character and hold to the faith.
  7. It is on this basis that I think any comparison between the argument for women to be elders, and the argument in favour of homosexual practice, must fail. I do not believe a coherent version of the latter may be mounted without requiring us to jettison Jesus’ teaching of the authority of the Scriptures, or affirmation of the biblical vision of sexuality.
  8. Biblical egalitarians are the most visibly affected by this. When their arguments are equated with arguments for complete affirmation of alternative sexual expression, the rigorously biblical grounds for their claims are tainted by association. But I want to make the point that the whole church of Christ is affected: a failure to distinguish between good arguments and bad, between authentically faithful thinking and wholesale revisionism, between a call to humbly revisit the Scriptures and a call to set them aside in view of what we think we ‘know’ from the world, is a failure which compromises the whole church.
  9. What this means is that I do not believe that any kind of compelling case can (or should) be made by those who are opposed to female elders, that biblical egalitarianism is a slippery slope to liberalism and the affirmation of homosexual practice in the church. Certainly, the Salvation Army has had female church leaders and sexual orthodoxy for generations. But, equally, I want to pour cold water on the expectation that the argument for female elders might open a door for those who seek to bring a full affirmation of homosexual practice to the church. Unless those arguing the latter can do so within the historic orthodoxy of the Christian church, the teachings of Scripture and the example of Jesus, then it cannot be done, and I, for one, am not persuaded such an argument can be made.

I think I will give G.K. Chesterton the final word:

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn… At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.

Why Christians should be ambitious

If I can be blunt, the Australian middle class (and therefore Anglicans), who are often shaped more by our class origins than the bible, tend to be suspicious about ambition. It’s a documented reality that we are much more likely to be professionals in the security of large organizations than entrepreneurs and small business people.

There is a story behind this.

One of the often-forgotten features of the Protestant Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries was the massive contribution it made to the rehabilitation of work. In the third century AD, the bishop Cyprian attempted to unite the church by claiming a unique status for bishops. This is where we get the distinction between ‘clergy’ (from the word kleros, which alludes to the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament) and ‘laity’ (from the word laikos, which means ‘people’ but with overtones of ‘the common folk).

By the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas was arguing that the highest goal of the human life was to imitate God in the vita contemplativa (the ‘contemplative life’, by which he meant clergy and monks) while the less holy lived the vita activa (the ‘active life’ – labouring, selling and buying, raising children and so on).

In contrast, Martin Luther, one of the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation, protested against this de-valuing of work, writing:

What you do in your house is worth as much as if you did it in heaven for our lord God. We should accustom ourselves to thinking of our position and work as sacred and well-pleasing to God, not on the account of the work and position, but the faith from which they flow.

In this, Luther echoed the apostle Paul, who exhorted the church: ‘Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory’ (1 Cor 10:31). For Luther, the gospel called people in different stations in life, and they were free to serve God by staying within such stations, serving their God-given neighbors instead of seeking so-called sacred lives in the monastic orders.

There was, however, a downside to putting things this way. By emphasising that no station in life was better than any other, and using the language of ‘calling’, Martin Luther discouraged Christians from pursuing social mobility. Scholars still debate whether this was deliberate or accidental – certainly, Calvin and later Reformers were much clearer in their emphasis on changing social station through hard work (from which comes the notion of the ‘Protestant work ethic’).

In contrast with Luther’s theology of vocation, the Bible actively celebrates professional growth and advancement:

Prov 31:16 She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
Prov 10:4 Lazy hands make for poverty,
but diligent hands bring wealth.
Prov 22:29 Do you see someone skilled in their work?
They will serve before kings;
they will not serve before officials of low rank.

The authors of Proverbs delight in the reality that those who develop their capacity will often rise and their rising will grant them greater opportunities and influence.

From time to time I meet people who seem to take pride in their low status in the organizations in which they serve on the basis that somehow it shows an integrity in not playing politics or sucking up to the boss. It may be true that their advancement has been limited by a failure to ‘play the game’. However, I suspect that it is also sometimes true that they have failed to be ambitious in their work.

The biblical authors have no time for such bitterness. In their view, great work deserves great praise:

Prov 31:31 Honour her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

But one thing that we have not yet touched upon is the purpose of ambition. Christians ought to be clear that ambition is not to be oriented towards personal enrichment. The Scriptures are full of warnings against those who would labour to set aside great wealth for themselves or their families. Proverbs again teaches us to pray, ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread’ (Prov 30:8) and Jesus warns us against taking comfort in material gain in a vivid parable (Luke 12:14-26).

Rather, we ought to be ambitious for the increased opportunity to do good. This may mean by taking responsibility for a larger piece of God’s creation. It may mean being able to effective greater change in culture, politics or society. It may mean being able to give more to the poor, or to benevolent and philanthropic projects.

This reminds me of the story of John Wesley, the British revivalist who was born into grinding poverty but attained a substantial income. The following excerpt comes from an article in Christianity Today:

While at Oxford, an incident changed [Wesley’s] perspective on money. He had just finished paying for some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day, and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. He reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat but found he had too little left. Immediately the thought struck him that the Lord was not pleased with the way he had spent his money. He asked himself, Will thy Master say, “Well done, good and faithful steward”? Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?

Perhaps as a result of this incident, in 1731 Wesley began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give to the poor. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds. Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were 28 pounds, so his giving rose to 92 pounds.

Wesley felt that the Christian should not merely tithe but give away all extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but the standard of giving.

This practice, begun at Oxford, continued throughout his life. Even when his income rose into the thousands of pounds sterling, he lived simply, and he quickly gave away his surplus money. One year his income was a little over 1400 pounds. He lived on 30 pounds and gave away nearly 1400 pounds. Because he had no family to care for, he had no need for savings. He was afraid of laying up treasures on earth, so the money went out in charity as quickly as it came in. He reports that he never had 100 pounds at any one time.

Wesley limited his expenditures by not purchasing the kinds of things thought essential for a man in his station of life. In 1776 the English tax commissioners inspected his return and wrote him the following: “[We] cannot doubt but you have plate for which you have hitherto neglected to make an entry.” They were saying a man of his prominence certainly must have some silver plate in his house and were accusing him of failing to pay excise tax on it. Wesley wrote back: “I have two silver spoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate I have at present, and I shall not buy any more while so many round me want bread.”

You should read the rest of the article. It’s an absolute cracker. It may change your world.

So, friends, be ambitious. Strive to succeed in your work, be it paid or voluntary. And do what is right with all your might, to the glory of God, and for the common good.

Stand with Paris?

Today in Sydney the Daily Telegraph reported that the ‘merciless’ response promised by President Francois Hollande of France had begun with revenge bombings of cities in Syria. There should be no doubt that non-combatants will suffer in these attacks.

I write this with a profound sense of anxiety and personal misgiving. But I feel like I cannot not write when, as I’ll explain below, it looks to some observers as if the church I love has publicly merged its identity with that of Western capitalist democracy. Almost overnight, we have shucked off the theological practice of over a 1000 years.* At its best, the church has kept a clear distinction between itself and the state; suddenly, we have begun using words like solidarity and phrases ‘standing with Paris’. And I think that somewhere in our Spirit-led rush to the kind of compassion that has marked the church through the ages, we have forgotten that to be pastoral is also always to be theological. 

‘Stand with Paris’

Let me explain by asking this question: what is the problem with the language of ‘stand with Paris’?

Well, firstly, we should ask what this slogan means.

Some Christians say that ‘standing with Paris’ means “compassion… fellow frailty and in-need-of-Jesus-ness” or “blowing up innocent people as an act of terror is wrong and if we can help you we will,” or even, “a promise to pray.”

It seems to me that Christians seem to be the only people in the world who are in any doubt as to the meaning of ‘stand by Paris.’ The Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, had no such confusion: ‘your fight is our fight,’ he declared.

To ‘stand with’ someone is not to empathise with them, walk alongside them, pray with them or simply love them. To ‘stand with’ someone is to join them in their particular struggle and fight. It means to take their side. Ed Stetzer recently wrote, in Christianity Today, a US-based, globally distributed magazine for evangelical Christians: “We are, it is hard to disagree, in what will be a decades-long struggle with radical Islamists.” And when Christians declare that they are on the side of Paris, whilst having offered no similar identification with Beirut or Mosul, we have an enormous problem.

People like us

Now, I know that there will be counter-arguments. Some will say that ‘stand by Paris’ simply means to identify with the individual innocent non-combatants and their families against the horrific and senseless violence of Daesh. If this were true, however, then Facebook would have been decorated with flags of all the world (especially African flags) long before this past weekend, and would now be festooned with the colours of Lebanon (or Syria, as we mourn the innocent lives senselessly lost to French bombing).

No, this is about standing with people like us. As Ruby Hadad wrote,

To see the colours of the French flag on the Opera House and other landmarks across the world, while the green of Lebanon’s cedar tree is conspicuously missing, to hear world leaders condemn what happened in Paris as a crime on “all of humanity” while sweeping Lebanon’s grief under the carpet, is to be told over and over again: You are not one of us.

It isn’t that we cannot grieve in solidarity with a friend without naming all other griefs; to grieve well means to enter into the specificity of this particular sadness. However, taking someone’s side, as any counsellor knows, has nothing to do with grief.

Democracy vs terrorism

Some might argue that ‘standing with Paris’ is to take the side of peaceful secular democracy against the undemocratic horror of terrorism. But Christian support of the modern Western nation-state should be, at best, highly equivocal.

Every freedom and privilege the residents of the developed world enjoy is won through the oppression, enslavement and exploitation of the vast global population excluded from our pleasures. Unsurprisingly, present-day terrorism has its origins in the prisons of the imperial powers; Daesh itself, I understand, was born in a US prison in Iraq.

I understand that it is in the interest of Westerners to seek to maintain this status quo; it is the only thing that shores up their standards of living in the face of increasing global uncertainty. But Christians ought to have no interest in preserving such inequalities, or of acting as as apologists for the historical dispositions of wealth and poverty:

2 Cor 8:13    Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15 as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”

Christian residents of Australia, who have inherited the wealth of one of the world’s great empires, should be especially circumspect about affirming France’s current policies of military intervention and violent retaliation that seek to preserve a citadel of security in a sea of human suffering.

Christians – even Christians in Sydney – are not Westerners. For Christians to take the side of Paris (or, for that matter, New York, or Stuttgart) is to misplace our identity entirely. Show compassion, love, care; offer help, certainly. We could even ‘stand with Parisians‘ in mercy, common grief and empathy. But we have words for all these things. Words which mean what they say, and everyone knows what they mean.

But ‘standing with Paris’ is much more than these things. Paris is the capital of an imperial state. You will not find a single exhortation to ‘stand with Rome’ in the Scriptures, and Rome is just down the road. Mike Baird, Premier of NSW, made a terrible mistake on Facebook when he juxtaposed the Tricolore (projected onto the Opera House) with these words from John’s gospel, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ The flag is symbolic of the nation, not of its people; and the state is not the Word. The state is emphatically not the light.

Western or Christian?

Already, Christians in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are speaking into these present circumstances to express their anxiety that the church in the West is more Western than Christian; that our citizenship and loyalties are firmly grounded where our wealth and comfort and safety is found, rather than in the Kingdom of God. They are concerned that taking the side of Paris will make us blind to the Western oppression that both props up our pleasures and creates the fertile soil for terrorism.  They are fearful that we will be unable to empathise with the downtrodden and therefore unable to engage the justified resentment and bitterness that feeds the unjustified and violent acts we have seen.

I suspect, too, that by collapsing compassion into solidarity, we will lose the ability to love those that we ought to simultaneously oppose. And by this, I mean not only Islamic fundamentalism, but also aggressively secular democratic capitalism, as in France, the UK and Australia.

This may seem like cold-hearted theological precision in the face of grave tragedy. On the contrary, because gospel hope is essential in crises such is this, it is also essential that we take care that our language is able to be the vehicle for this gospel. Theologians from our local Phillip Jensen to Stanley Hauerwas in the United States have rightly argued that because all theology is pastoral, language matters.

Being the church for the world

The world needs the church to be the church right now – bearers of the gospel in word and life. But the church cannot live Christianly or think Christianly unless, as Hauerwas puts it, we first learn to ‘speak Christian.’ And to ‘speak Christian’ is not the same as to ‘speak world’. It should greatly concern us if the response of Christians to the attacks in Paris by-and-large mirrors the response of our neighbours. It should lead us to ask: “are we really being salt and light?”

The answer may be ‘yes’; but it is also possible that the answer is ‘no’, and that the church has sunk beneath the surface of society, or camouflaged itself with the colours of its surroundings, and is nowhere to be seen.

Instead, in a time such as this, the church ought to be highly visible, and not only visible hand-in-hand with Paris (or the West, in general). This is particularly the case since theology (and political discourse is a form of theology) is often formed in crisis. Extreme circumstances tend to ‘bake into us’ the convictions we held at the time. How the church speaks will shape who the church is; and who the church is today will influence who the church is for a very long time. It will be hard to undo.

What might this look like? How could we ‘speak Christian’ in the present circumstances?

  • Remember that all people are made in the image of God. Speak even of terrorists this way; they, too, are in the image of God, and they, too, are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, neighbours and friends. Don’t dehumanise. Empathise, even if you do not sympathise. No one is all bad; no one is all good, save God alone. Talk to your Muslim friends; if you don’t have any, make some; and not just ‘moderate’ Muslims. Listen uncritically at least once, that you might learn to see just a little how the world looks like through their eyes. Whatever you do, don’t buy into the lie that Islamic fundamentalism is a form of insanity. Recognising that the media tell us what will sell rather than what is important, take the time to read the ‘world’ sections of newspapers and websites from a range of political viewpoints. This will help you pray with empathy.
  • Remember that all people are sinful. Read history. We are where we come from and, chances are, most people reading this are from highly privileged backgrounds and have no comprehension of the power asymmetries in the world today. Islam, without doubt, has shaped the expression of the underlying anger behind these attacks; the anger itself, however, has far more prosaic origins. Nehemiah repented for the sins of his ancestors; even as we call radical Islam to repentance, perhaps there is room for us to do the same.
  • Remember that Jesus died for people, not states. States have no real theological substance (and not much of a social identity). So pray for individuals and communities, even if you don’t know their names. Pray:
    • for the families and friends of those killed;
    • for those being treated for massive physical and mental trauma;
    • for the heavy metal community and young adults affected by the events at the Bataclan concert hall;
    • for public gatherings everywhere weathering the shock of the bombing at the Stade de France;
    • for Muslim women in the streets of Paris in their hijabs, niqabs and burkas, and Muslim children in local schools; and,
    • for the government, police and security services.
  • Remember that Jesus gave you a greater identity than ‘left’ or ‘right.’ If you are a Christian, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to support the full range of policies of any particular political party or movement. That’s OK – politics is compromise. But being Christian isn’t. You can still vote for one party even while you speak publicly in support of a policy of their opponents. Honour our political leaders, even if you are totally against their policies.
  • Remember that God promises an inheritance, and so know what belongs to you. This isn’t a call to just be stewards, holding lightly to the things of this world. This is a call to know yourself as an heir of creation. All things in Christ are yours – why would you try to seize hold of this little corner today? The whole world belongs to God’s people; why worry about keeping that house to yourself, when you could share it with others? That piddly little income you receive is nothing to the treasures of heaven. Think what it could do, though, in foreign aid!
  • Remember that you are a citizen of heaven, and think hard about what you mean by the word ‘we’. I quoted Ed Stetzer earlier: “We are, it is hard to disagree, in what will be a decades-long struggle with radical Islamists.” Who is this ‘we’? Are ‘we’ really at war? In what ways am ‘I’ part of the ‘we’ that is Australia, and in what ways am ‘I’ a citizen of another country?
  • Remember that the New Testament speaks into a paradigm that has both continuity and discontinuity with the present. We still live in the last days, when the church is a city within the city for the good of the city. However, it’s not clear that Paul or Peter ever imagined that the church might find itself wanting to identify with the rich and powerful against the poor and dispossessed. In relation to the attacks in Paris, someone posted: ‘The LORD is a God who avenges. O God who avenges, shine forth’ (Ps 94:1). But, of course, the Psalmist anticipated a world where the people of God were in solidarity with the weak: ‘They slay the widow and the foreigner; they murder the fatherless’ (Ps 94:6). What this means is that we need to take care how we use Scripture; or rather, take care that we allow Scripture to use us.
  • Remember that it is the gospel that saves, even if the gospel is sometimes hard to hear. Speak graciously and truthfully. Empty words help and heal no one. No one in Paris deserved what happened to them in any human sense (or, perhaps as Jesus put it in Luke 13, all of us deserve it and it’s simply a miracle that we don’t get what we deserve). But Paris, like Sydney, is both an extraordinary and wonderful centre of creativity and culture, and also a corrupted and corrupting community. Celebrate the former; don’t lose hold of the latter. Most Parisians, like most Australians, are deeply opposed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and therefore the only message that can bring hope in the midst of terror; most Parisians, like most Australians, are deeply implicated in an economy of oppression. Give generously, not only to those missionaries who take the gospel to the ‘East’, but also those who seek to replant it in the post-Christian ‘West’. For, be assured, there are no security operations that can secure us from the threat of death. The ideology that is Daesh looks to a timeframe of centuries, not months. And vote wisely, not just for knee-jerk militarism, but for policies that may actually address terrorism where it is born, even at great financial cost to our lifestyles; not out of fear, but for justice.
  • Remember that the church is the sign of the kingdom. The church is called to be a visible, alternative, prophetic community. Is your church an Anglo-Saxon ghetto in an increasingly international suburb? Is it an enclave of middle-class comfort adjacent to single mothers and the unemployed? If so, it’s time for your church to change, and to change whatever is necessary – save the gospel itself. Set yourselves the goal of having the same demographics as your mission area within 5 years. And if your church is rich, donate a substantial, costly percentage to a church in a poor, ethnically different area, and arrange for regular exchanges and shared events.

 

* My friend Byron Smith points out that the trend to identify the church with the state has been present as a continuous thread since the time of Eusebius, so my description of church practice over 1000 years may be a little hyperbolic.

On having enemies

In May last year, the police in Massachusetts had a problem. They had the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers, but nowhere to bury it. Cemeteries in three states had refused to provide a plot for his remains. The chief of police even went on national television to ask for help. He said, ‘There is a need to do the right thing. We are not barbarians. We bury the dead.’

In the end, help came from a 48-year-old woman called Martha Mullen, who said, ‘Jesus says [to] love our enemies.’

Last week was a terrible week.

It began with a siege that ended in despair and the deaths of three people, including two hostages. Then 145, including 132 children, were killed at a school in Peshawar in Pakistan. Finally, in altogether different circumstances, 8 children were murdered in Cairns.

Last week was a terrible week.

I’m not suggesting that worse things haven’t happened elsewhere at other times, or that there aren’t things happening all the time in which we are complicit. But to everyone I’ve spoken to, the events of this week have felt particularly present and palpable. Whether it is meetings cancelled, offices locked down, walking past a sea of flowers in Martin Place or just waking up to a tragic weight of inevitability on Tuesday morning, many of us have become more caught up than ever before.

As a result, many Christians with whom I have spoken have struggled with how to respond or what to feel.

Jesus taught (see Luke 6:20-36) those who call him Master to ‘Love your enemies.’

Now, it’s pretty unusual to reject Jesus’ teaching on love outright. Even secular Sydneysiders accord Jesus a degree of moral authority as a good teacher.

But I want to suggest that there are two ways in which we can effectively dodge Jesus’ teaching on this one. The most obvious way is by setting bounds on love. That’s probably a subject for another post.

But there is another way we can avoid Jesus’ teaching on love, and this is by pretending that we don’t have enemies. This is the great liberal middle class conceit: that we don’t have enemies, and we don’t deserve them. We have evolved past this primitive idea of enmity.

Sure, we have people who cause us grief and hurt, but we just shut them out. We choose not to be dragged down by them. We put their negativity on ice. But call what we have enmity – that’s just giving them a dignity that they don’t deserve.

And it’s a great solution, because without enemies, there is no one difficult to love.

This is how it has played out with Man Haron Monis. Already it has been suggested that he was simply mentally ill. Apart from the fact that this diminishes those who battle to do good in and through their mental illness, it also pathologises the issue and puts it in a box. Haron wasn’t our enemy. He was just a very sick man.

But let’s dump the veneer and acknowledge that Man Haron Monis was our enemy: any one of us might have been in that café, and there’s no reason to think he would have cared. Anyone who chooses people indiscriminately for violence is the enemy of all people.

John Dickson rightly wrote: ‘I have no doubt that almost all the Muslims we’re likely to meet in Sydney wish us no harm. They want what we want – health, safety, education, and a future for their kids. Those that are religiously observant – remember, many Muslims are nominal – are of course keen to see Islam spread throughout Australia. They naturally think sharia law is wiser than secular democracy (and this is an argument we may increasingly need to have). But they do not want to hurt us to achieve their ends.’

Haron was not representative of Islam as a whole. He was not even representative of Islamists. But he was fairly representative of militant Wahabist Islamists with a jihadist mentality. And they are our enemies.

For the last 6 months I have been engaged in a running dialogue via email and text with two Muslim teachers in Saudi Arabia who contacted me out of the blue. I cannot read to you the text one of them sent me in response to the murders of the 8 children in Cairns, because it is just too distressing. However, the teacher rejoiced that, from his perspective, 8 ‘Christian’ children had been killed in Australia.

We have enemies.

But not just we, in a national or community sense. The horror and violence of this kind of enmity catches our attention, but the truth is that most of us experience a much lower temperature of banal and ordinary enmity in our everyday lives.

Many of you work in environments where your employers or colleagues have sought to use and mistreat you. They’d happily climb over you on their way to the top, or just in pursuit of their agendas.

I’ve spoken to some of you who dread Christmas gatherings because of the family members who will go out of their way to hurt you out of simple spite.

Many of you have experienced malicious gossip, where stories and misrepresentations of you are gleefully traded behind your back.

This kind of enmity lacks drama. It doesn’t make the evening news. The nation doesn’t hold its collective breath as it waits for the outcome. But it is a corrosive assault on your humanity, destructive and dispiriting. I know it seems can seem like overkill putting it up against the horror of these other things, but they are of the same basic quality.

So let’s start by being honest: whatever the scale or the mode, we have enemies. And therefore, no excuse not to love.

Christmas, violence & Sainsbury’s

‘Is this the greatest Christmas ad ever?’

A month ago, the British supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, released an ad commemorating the famous Christmas Day football match between British and German forces in 1914.

In this ad, the celebration of Christmas becomes a universally shared circuit-breaker in the constancy of violence. This connection of Christmas Day and the temporary ceasefire or hiatus in conflict is well established in the Western cultural memory.

So it is no surprise that many have commented on the shocking juxtaposition in the image we have been seeing again and again over the last 24 hours. There is a red and gold Lindt chocolate sign on a glass window, wishing ‘Merry Christmas’; and there are the faces of two frightened hostages, holding up a black and white flag under threat of harm.

Our prayers go out on behalf of everyone affected by this terrible action: for the families, friends & colleagues of those killed; for those who have survived the ordeal, both hostages & police; for protection against similar, isolated incidents; for our Muslim neighbours – both for the vast majority who do not see non-Muslims as their enemy, and equally for those who do.

Many good and helpful things have already been written about these events. I want to add just one more thing.

Christmas is about peace; but it has always been surrounded by violence.

This morning I spoke at the Anglicare Christmas Service on the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem, in Matthew 2:1-18. It is a beautiful & moving story, with a shattering close:

‘When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.’

Herod, named King of the Jews in 40BC by the Roman Senate, grew increasingly paranoid about his position between 8 & 4BC. When he heard that another King of the Jews – the true King – had been born, he acted as swiftly as he could. Since the events of Matthew 2 happened over more than a year, Herod couldn’t be sure exactly when Jesus Christ was born. So, to be safe, he had every child born in Bethlehem within a window of 2 years executed.

Christmas has been associated with violence from the beginning. And this is unsurprising, though tragic, since Christmas is the story of the true King coming to bring peace by claiming the throne that is his. And that throne is contested – by our own idolatrous hearts, by states and institutions and corporations, by the spirit of our age.

The very violence that we have just witnessed is the overflow of this contest. It is the manifestation of the brokenness of a world that has rebelled against its Creator to seek prosperity elsewhere, but has found only fear & suffering. And it is to this violence that Jesus Christ comes, the King who will bring peace precisely because he will bring his glorious, universal & eternal rule.

Phil 2:5       In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6    Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7     rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8     And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9     Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10     that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11     and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.