Over the course of the next three years (and perhaps beyond) Australia will be governed by the Liberal-National Coalition led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. I suspect it will prove to be the most socially conservative government of the last fifty years. Will this mean the end of substantial progress on issues such as climate change, treatment of asylum seekers, the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the aid budget, and social and affordable housing? I hope not.
Politics is not for the feint-hearted or thin-skinned. Election campaigns see arguments spun, opponents portrayed in the worst possible light, and appeals to fear. Once elected, politicians can rarely deliver the outcomes advocates seek. When forming policy politicians are constrained by the expectations of their constituency; the position of their party; their own perspectives and ambitions; the way the policies play politically, and the need to compromise to get legislation passed.
These messy processes of politics lead many Australians to regard politicians with contempt and cynicism, as untrustworthy people who pay lip service to the public good but cannot mask their compulsive obsession with their self-interest. I think this is unfair and inaccurate. Almost every politician I’ve met over a decade of advocacy entered politics out of a desire to serve the common good and make the world a better place. If you doubt this, read their maiden speeches. The purity of this desire may have diluted over time, but it remains a powerful driver for many. Indeed, the vast majority of politicians I engage with believe there are good and defensible reasons for the policies they support. Away from the cameras and the 24 hour news cycle, large numbers of politicians take up the interests of their constituents with decency, compassion, generosity and a willingness to serve.
Recognising these things leaves me hopeful that careful and constructive dialogue with the Morrison Government might reveal common ground upon which we can build. Dialogue of course means talking with each other, not simply at each other.
As I see it, progressive and conservative politics are marked by fundamentally different assumptions about power. Progressives tend to see our social, cultural, economic and political systems and institutions as serving the interests of the powerful and exploiting or marginalising those less powerful. At the heart of progressive politics is a quest for awareness of who is marginalised, exploited or oppressed and the effort to shape our social, cultural, economic and political systems so that they work in the interests of everyone.
Social Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to have a more benign view of power and our social, cultural, economic and political systems. While recognising that they are flawed, they nonetheless see these systems as serving the common good, and believe that the interests of those on the margins are best served through opportunities to participate in existing social, cultural, political and economic systems.
These are very broad brushstrokes. A comprehensive analysis would explore the nuances and acknowledge the diverse approaches within the wider conservative and progressive frames. But for my purposes broad brushstrokes are sufficient. Recognising the differing frames that social progressives and social conservatives employ helps me listen to those who differ from me. Social progressives do not have a monopoly on concern for the environment, refugees, asylum seekers, people living in poverty, LGBTIQ freedoms, etc. Conservatives have good grounds for concern over these areas too. But their approach will be different. For example, social conservatives are likely to favour approaches that offer incremental change, where Progressives often seek large-scale and rapid change. Social Conservatives will tend to place a high value on existing systems and institutions, where Social Progressives will often be prepared to undo them; Social Conservatives will frequently value voluntary action where Progressives are more willing to engineer change through mandated targets.
As I see it Social Progressives have two ways they might serve progressive causes over the next 3-6 years. Some will focus on articulating a Progressive case for change and seek to shape public opinion to elect a Progressive government in 2022. Others will enter into dialogue with the Morrison Government to find areas of common concern and ways forward that work on a conservative narrative. Maybe we need both approaches.
In a recent post I shared the unexpected and stunning turnaround in my health that I experienced in February. The last 6 months of 2018 had seen a severe decline in my mobility to the point that on any given day I had no idea how long my body would be in a state of tremoring and muscle rigidity before flipping into severe dyskensia and somewhere inbetween those states giving me broken periods of mobility. Some days were good and others were bad.
As awful as this was, it was also a period in which I discovered a new layer of spirituality. My faith has long been framed around the imperative to participate in God’s work of redeeming creation. In the faith of my childhood this meant seeking to share a gospel of salvation of sinners from the wrath of God. As I got older it meant greater appreciation for recognising God’s grace, joy, love and generosity in all creation along with the human capacity to surrender these to greed, violence, injustice and fear. It meant participating in God’s work of helping us recover our humanity, our communities and our world through the revelation, grace, healing, forgiveness, and hope opened up by the crucified and risen Christ. It meant giving myself to the life of my church and to working with others across our nation in advocacy for justice.
Yet as my body grew increasingly recalcitrant my activist oriented faith became increasingly remote. My spirit was willing but my flesh was weak! Somehow, in the midst of this God met me in a new way, in a spirituality that found its meaning in the simple knowledge that God was with me, and that my days were lived in the presence of a God whose grace, love, generosity, joy and hope were trained upon me. It was a season to simply be in the presence of God.
This did not mean I entered a contemplative life of silent meditation. Apart from the fact that it is difficult to calm your spirit when your muscles are tremoring at breakneck speed or you’re swaying madly like someone completely inebriated, I am by nature extroverted and 30 minutes of silent contemplation still sounds like a form of torture to me. No, it was in the soaring wail of Clapton’s guitar, the resonant lyric of a Dylan classic, the contagious rhythms of Aussie pub rock that I found points of joy, grief, celebration, hope and grace. It was in the sheer joy of a schmalzy romance, the unrestrained laughter gifted by a good comic, the laying bare of injustice in a well researched doco, the emotional engagement with the characters of a well scripted and acted drama, or the outrageous hope of sci-fi that I connected with love, hope, pain, grief. It was in the prayers of my friends, the expressions of care of my church, the grief and hope that were shared with others, and the tender compassion and generosity of Sandy, Ash, Jess and Lachy that I found myself moved time and again to tears and astonishment at the presence and power of grace.
These have long been part of my encounter with the Divine, but they had now become the centre of it. All these and more connected me to the overarching narrative of my faith and the story of Jesus and were means by which I found myself simply resting in Grace, Joy, Love, Hope, and Grief. Nothing else to do. No deadline to meet. No project to complete. Just being. Resting. Receiving.
Reflecting on this I wrote a song echoing what I believe God was saying to Sandy and I during this period. The lyrics are repeated below. And now that my health has turned around, I hope that I will retain this capacity to rest in God’s grace, draw ever deeper into God’s love and get myself lost in God’s embrace.
Come rest yourself in my grace Fall ever deeper into my love Get yourself lost in my embrace I am yours You are mine You are my child. My child you thrill me
I have set my heart on you My love for you will never fade I will see you through it all Through the fire, Through the storm Til you reach safe shore My child I’ve got you
If you find yourself grown weary. And your heart is overwhelmed I will carry you in my arms And hold you until all is new
Lord, I put my trust in you It’s all that I can do As I fade away. I’ll seek for you my friend In that place we’ve always met, In the haze of grace.
The day of the 2010 Federal Election I cast my vote then took my eight year old son to his soccer match. Lachlan’s team was made up of kids from the Christian school he attended, which meant the majority of the parents at his game that day were evangelical Christians. When conversation turned to the election I commented that I had voted for the Greens.
The response shocked me. Mouths dropped open and with exasperated voice a number of the parents asked how I could possibly have voted for the Greens. After all, they were in favour of same-sex marriage! I pointed out that they were also in favour of a strong international aid program at a time the major parties were reducing aid; that they were in favour of considerate treatment of refugees at a time when both major parties were playing some pretty ugly politics with refugees; and that on balance these things swung my vote. It didn’t help. In the eyes of some of these parents it was as though I had voted against God.
So, how should we vote? I see four patterns.
First, some vote purely out of tradition. Their parents voted Liberal and they vote Liberal. Always have, always will.
Second, some vote out of self-interest. Their vote will go to the party that they believe will put money in their pocket and public services at their disposal.
Third, some vote for their moral vision. Their vote will go to the party that they see representing their values.
Fourth, some vote for justice. Their vote will go to the party they believe will do most to promote a just society.
No prizes for guessing that I sit in category 4 and my critics that Saturday belonged in category 3.
I’m not here to spruik for the Greens, the ALP, the Coalition, Family First, or any other party. What I do want to do is open up a simple question: what should influence the way a Christian votes? I’d like to suggest that we need to bring together two things: a Christ-shaped vision for what our communities can be and a clear understanding of the role of government.
First, the gospel gives us a vision for what our societies can be. The message of the gospel is not that our soul can go to heaven when we die but that God is at work to redeem and renew the entire creation. That means renewing and redeeming individuals, communities, economic, social, cultural and political systems, and the planet itself.
Second, government has an important but very limited role to play in moving society toward this vision.
For most of western history we got this horribly wrong. From the conversion of the emperor Constantine until the peace of Westphalia we saw the church and state working in tandem to try and command a Christian society into being. It was an unmitigated disaster.
Cromwell’s England was painted like this
Pointless enjoyment was frowned upon. Cromwell shut many inns and the theatres were all closed down. Most sports were banned. Boys caught playing football on a Sunday could be whipped as a punishment. Swearing was punished by a fine, though those who kept swearing could be sent to prison.
On Sunday most forms of work were banned. Women caught doing unnecessary work on the Holy Day could be put in the stocks. Simply going for a Sunday walk (unless it was to church) could lead to a hefty fine.
During his time as head of government, he made it his task to ‘tame’ the Irish. He sent an army there and despite promising to treat well those who surrendered to him, he slaughtered the people of Wexford and Drogheda who did surrender to his forces. He used terror to ‘tame’ the Irish.
And so the very first call for freedom of religion recorded in the English language came from the founder of the Baptist Church, Tomas Helwys, when he wrote a tract calling on the king to protect the religious freedom of Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists.
Christendom gave way to pluralist liberal democracy. This severely limits what the government can and can’t do. To say a society is liberal means there are fundamental freedoms and rights that must always be respected. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience to name a few. To say it’s pluralist means we accept that we will not all think the same, believe the same or live the same way. In a society such as this the role of government is to ensure every individual and every group is able to share in he benefits of society while pursuing the lifestyle and the values they choose.
In other words, the role of government is to facilitate the common good, ensure public goods such as education, infrastructure and health systems are accessible to all, and to make sure every citizen and every group of citizens is treated justly.
So what does this mean for voting? For me it means I ask two questions
Which party will ensure public goods for all citizens?
Who is excluded, vulnerable or oppressed in our national/globalcommunity? Which party will secure justice and inclusion for them?
The question I won’t ask is which party will legislate my personal vision of morality. It is not the role of the government to force people to live by Christian ethics. It is the responsibility of Jesus followers and the church to live in such a way that people see the merits of following Christ and living his way. I will endeavour as best I can to live virtuously and I will vote for justice.
Last week rugby star Israel Folau posted an image on social media that said “Warning: Drunks. Homosexuals. Adulterers. Liars. Fornicators. Thieves. Atheists. Idolaters. Hell awaits you.” Folau then offered a comment to the effect that God loves all people and wants them to repent of their sin and be forgiven. His employers, New South Wales rugby and the Australian Rugby Union, have signalled their intent to sack him.
The whole episode is rather ugly.
First, in the rush to condemn Folau, few people seem to have listened to what he said.
Public communication is fraught at the best of times, even more so when it takes place within the constraints of social media platforms. Israel’s post was confrontational and ill-advised (more on that later), but it did not single out members of the LGBTI community. Rather, he placed homosexuals on the same level as drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters. And if we pressed further into Israel’s faith we would likely discover that he places his own sinfulness on the same level. At the heart of the type of Christianity Israel Folau espouses is the idea that every human being is so offensive in the sight of God that they deserve to be sent to hell. Far from isolating gay and lesbian people as the most heinous sinners, Israel’s faith declares we are all heinous sinners.
If, instead of the rush to condemnation and outrage, people had sought to pause and tease out what Israel was saying, they would have discovered a theology that is (theoretically at least) humble, sees judgement as the prerogative of God not us, and believes that our responsibility is to love and care for every broken sinner.
Second, in their rush to defend “the truth” many Christians have failed to hear the pain of LGBTI Christians.
Having said that, the social dislocation of LGBTI community over the past 2000 years, means that “homosexuals” are likely to hear what was said in a way that adulterers, drunks, fornicators and atheists do not. For the greatest irony of this whole episode is that the only group who genuinely embrace Folau’s theology are LGBTI members of conservative churches. Israel’s theology is grounded in the idea that human beings are so thoroughly corrupt at the very core of their being and God’s holiness is so offended by our corruption that justice demands we be afflicted with the most indescribable torments not merely for a moment but for age upon age upon age. Or as Jonathan Edwards put it in his famous sermon,
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire … you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.”
Anyone who genuinely believes this, who holds this not simply as an article of faith but feels it deep in their soul, is headed for depression and breakdown. Now while most of us who belong to churches own the fact that we are sinners, I don’t know too many of us who genuinely feel the weight of the mediaeval and Reformation formulation of it in our hearts or are driven to the point of despair and mental breakdown that afflicted Martin Luther. A culture that is affirming of our strengths and personhood and a doctrine of God’s love that sits clunkilly and uneasily alongside our doctrine of sin, prevent us from truly believing we are abominable in the eyes of God. So while we may all repeat words declaring we are unworthy of God’s love, the only group I know for whom this theology of abomination has sunk deep into their souls to the point that is not simply an article of faith but an article of self conviction, are LGBTI Christians raised in evangelical churches. And it drives large numbers of them to mental breakdown, depression and suicide.
This is why Israel’s post was hurtful. Statements like his may rhetorically treat all people in the same way, but to many LGBTI people they represent the cold hand of the mediaeval God pulling them or people they know back down into the mire of self-hatred.
And this is why a bare statement of “the truth” can be so damaging. I know many Christians feel that in the face of our society’s acceptance of diverse forms of sexuality it is necessary to hold fast to what they understand to be God’s truth. But communicating truth is never simply a matter of speaking propositions into the ether. Propositions are spoken into a context, and in our context Folau’s way of speaking is unlikely to succeed in communicating the holiness, compassion, grace and love of God to members of the LGBTI community. If a traditional view of sexuality is to be defended, this is certainly not the way to go about it.
Third, now is a time for introspection & reflection.
As I have argued previously, the challenge to the church’s tradition on sexuality has come under fire not only from without but from within. There are growing numbers of conservative bible scholars and leaders who argue that the church has got sexuality fundamentally wrong and are calling for us to reflect critically on our understanding of sex, sexuality and gender. They may well be wrong, but so might the majority position. It may well be that repentance needs to begin with the household of God. But in our rush to defend ourselves we are simply not taking the time to seriously weigh this up.
Fourth, in the rush to protect the recent gains of the LGBTI community, a lot of Australians seem to be laying aside foundational social freedoms
Having said all of this, it nonetheless seems to me outrageous that Israel Folau is to be sacked for stating his religious perspectives. At the core of a free society is the idea that every person is free to choose what he or she does and doesn’t believe about life, God and reality, and is free to say what they believe. Even when what they say is hurtful and offensive to others. Certainly those who are hurt and offended are also free to speak their mind, to express their anger and pain. But the day we penalise people for their beliefs by stripping away their employment or seek to force their silence through contractual agreements is the day we abandon the principles that allowed feminists to speak up at the time their speech was deemed hurtful and offensive, members of the civil rights movement to speak up at a time their speech was deemed hurtful and offensive, and members of the gay community to speak up at the time their speech was deemed hurtful and offensive.
It’s the first day of campaigning for the Federal election and the Coalition has signalled the tone of its campaign. Given the internal division that has made it near impossible for the PM to set policy directions (and no this is not lefty over-reach. John Howard and Andrew Bolt have said much the same) it’s perhaps not surprising that they are announcing little in the way of policy, and a lot in the way of fear-mongering,. Just one day in and they have declared Bill Shorten and the ALP the enemy of our economy and of the tradies ute.
Surprisingly, the ALP is also following an unorthodox route, eschewing the classic “small target” approach and making significant policy announcements. On early indications then we’re in for a battle between fear and promise.
The Coalition may just pull it off, particularly if they can gain traction with their claim to be superior economic managers…except that this too is spin. Take a look at the charts below. These show the historical record on tax, spending and economic growth.
The first chart shows the average amount of tax collected by each government since Whitlam, with Coalition governments coloured blue and ALP governments red. The biggest taxers are the two most recent Coalition governments.
The second chart shows average annual Commonwealth Government spending per government as a proportion of GDP. Top of the pops was the Hawke-Keating government, followed by the current Coalition government.
The third chart shows average annual real GDP growth for each of the last four governments. Our strongest growth occurred under the Coalition government of John Howard and our weakest growth under the current Coalition government.
There’s not really enough in these charts to argue which government was the best manager of the economy, for each faced differing global economic circumstances. Hawke-Keating took Australia through very substantial economic reforms; the Howard government had the good fortune of being in power when global demand for our commodities went through the roof; the Rudd government had to deal with the global financial crisis.
What the charts do suggest is that there is not that much difference between the ALP and the Coalition when it comes to overall “economic management”. Australia has done very well under all governments in the last 30 years.
Where politics does matter is in how the benefits of growth are distributed and how we position ourselves in a world facing some serious challenges. On these matters it looks like a great chasm is opening up between the parties.