political theology

A Thorn In Our Collective Flesh?

A Disappointing Choice

Maybe it’s unnecessarily dark and dramatic. But I’m starting to think of tomorrow’s federal election a bit like this:

“So that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself.” (2 Corinthians 12:7 HCSB)

You may have seen the Cathy Wilcox political cartoon doing the rounds of social media — the one with voters marking their ballot papers from ‘least disappointing’ through to ‘most disappointing’.

It captures how many of my friends are feeling about tomorrow’s federal election.

Tomorrow Australia chooses.

But by almost any measure, it’s a pretty disappointing choice.

A Thorn In The Flesh?

Which brings me to Paul’s thorn — and how this election and its aftermath might be the thorn in our collective flesh.

Whether it was a physical illness or a ‘spiritual’ condition (a besetting sin Paul was struggling with perhaps), it’s clear that Paul regarded this thorn as an unpleasant imposition. He calls it “a messenger of Satan”. And pleads for God to remove it. Repeatedly.

In short, it doesn’t exactly make Paul’s list of Awesome Stuff I Hoped Would Happen To Me.

And yet Paul could also see that God was using his thorn.

He could see God’s hand in it. See how God was humbling him. And teaching him about the sufficiency of his grace, and about his all-surpassing strength in the midst of Paul’s weakness.

Learning From The Thorn

I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to say that tomorrow’s election — and whatever government it delivers us — doesn’t exactly make my list of Awesome Stuff I Hope Would Happen To Me.

I may not be quite ready to assign it a satanic origin. But it sure feels like a thorn in our collective flesh.

Which leads me to think that maybe we need to start asking the kind of ‘What could God be teaching us?’ questions that Paul asks.

So here’s my list (for what it’s worth). Maybe you could add to it?

1. It could remind us of the ‘imperfectability’ of human leadership

We need to smash the idol of human leadership that grips the hearts of Australians.

Don’t believe me that we idolise our leaders? Think we’re too cynical for that?

Actually, our cynicism just proves it. We’re cynical because we’ve set our hopes unrealistically high.

Our crushing disappointment reveals that most of us want our leaders to do far more for us than simply administer justice. Instead, we want them to fill our lives. Give us peace. Security. Hope. Salvation even.

Maybe this election will be a good thing because it will sear the lesson into us that human leadership is not only imperfect but imperfectable!

2. It could help us rediscover the breadth of public life

Maybe the results of this election will force us not just to nod our heads to but to actively embrace the fact that, as
Michael Allison and Richard Glover
put it, “politics is about more than voting, governments and governors. Politics is primarily about citizenship – how you conduct yourself in the community.”

Wouldn’t it be awesome if we went back to advocating for stuff we cared about the old fashioned way?

Not by ‘outsourcing our values’ — e.g., by voting in a candidate or party we want to perfectly represent our concerns. But by pitching in together. Using our different gifts. And making our legislators listen to us.

Are you any good at research? Good! Use your abilities to do some research about the things that matter to you — say … the economic value of resettling asylum seekers.

Any good at communications? Great! Turn the research your sisters and brothers produce into something compelling that wins hearts — and a hearing in Canberra.

At the very least, start talking to your local member not just whinging about whichever party they represent!

3. It could drive us to prayerful witness — maybe even martyrdom

Ultimately, Paul’s thorn to teach him that God’s grace was sufficient, God’s strength made perfect in our weakness.

It forced him to look away from himself and to the Lord — drawing others’ eyes there in the process.

And maybe the outcome of Saturday’s election could do something like that for us.

What if having some of our key concerns marginalised drove Christians in our nation to prayer?

To call upon the Lord instead of looking to ourselves — our influence, insight and strategy — to make things right.

To cry “Come, Lord Jesus” instead of plotting the second coming of Christendom in Australia.

Even to risk social (if not literal) death in order to testify to the perfect, just and compassionate rule of our Risen Lord instead of desperately trying to bend the instrumentality of our society’s organisation towards our ideas of justice and compassion.

Marginalisation won’t be fun. Neither was Paul’s thorn.

But a thorn in our collective flesh might be exactly what we need to rediscover that God’s grace is sufficient for us, and his strength is made perfect in weakness…

secularism in Australia

I’ve been thinking a bit about secularism in Australia recently.

Lots of factors feed into this. But the spark that’s ignited the powder keg came when I stumbled across this report called ‘Making Multiculturalism Work’, published by UK think tank, Theos (who address issues at the intersection of faith and public life).

I haven’t had time to read it in detail yet. But it looks fascinating.

One of its key findings concerns how the application of a kind of ‘progressive values’ means test might hinder cooperation between different groups:

“In fostering … common action, the report argues, we should abandon any ‘progressive tests’, in which groups are required to show that they are sufficiently politically progressive in order to merit a ‘place at the table’. Instead we should use ‘relational tests’, in which organisations must be willing to work with people from different backgrounds and perspectives.”

What this suggests to me is that those groups with ‘thicker’ — ie. more substantial and value-laden — visions of society and what makes for the common good, may have more chance of successfully collaborating across their differences than those with a ‘thinner’ — more formal, minimal and (supposedly) value-neutral — vision.

I’m sure there’s plenty of research to be done about the extent to which something similar is true in the Australian context. (And I’m probably not the person to do it.)

But it’s definitely made me wonder about how we evaluate those groups that would usually be looked at askance — treated with suspicion and possibly even marginalised because of the fear that they may impose their ‘narrow’ and ‘partisan’ values on others.

I obviously have my own stream of historically orthodox Christianity in mind. But such a description could equally well be applied to many other religious, ideological or cultural groups — from Muslims to Marxists and Macedonians.

Ultimately, I’m wondering whether such groups, each harbouring their own distinctive vision of society and the common good, could actually be the most fruitful potential contributors to a tolerant and inclusive secular Australia?

maybe I’m not so crazy after all…

I’d given up hope of getting a blog post in this week. But inspiration has struck — at 4.30 on Friday afternoon! (Better late than never I guess).

Although, rather than ‘inspiration’ I should say ‘Oliver O’Donovan’…

You see, O’Donovan affirms my recent flip-flopping between conservatism and liberalism when he draws together some observations about the gospel and the created order at the conclusion of a densely-packed few pages of argument in chapter 3 of Resurrection and Moral Order (pages 53-58):

Christian ethics … looks both backwards and forwards, to the origin and to the end of the created order. It respects the natural structures of life in the world, while looking forward to their transformation. This can be seen, for example, in the First Epistle of Peter, which starts with a general characterization of the Christian life in terms of ‘hope’, which is set ‘fully on the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ’, and then elaborates a special ethics in terms of respectful submission ‘for the Lord’s sake’ to every institution of human life, especially the institutions of government, labour and marriage (1 Pet. 1:13; 2:13ff). There is no conflict here between what might be thought of as the ‘radical’ character of the general outlook and the ‘conservatism’ of the specific counsel. A hope which envisions the transformation of existing natural structures cannot consistently attack or repudiate those structures. Yet the ‘conservatism’ (if it is proper to use the word) includes a sense of distance, which springs from a sharp awareness of how much the institutions need redemption and how transitory is their present form.

I find this heartening. And packed with explosive implications.

Heartening — not only because O’Donovan agrees with me(!) but because I’m due to preach on 1 Peter next semester and this suggests I’m not barking up entirely the wrong tree.

And packed with implications because taking 1 Peter seriously has the potential to lay dynamite at the foot of many cherished ideas about politics, work and relationships on both the right and the left.

turns out I’m more liberal than I realised too

Having recently concluded that I may be more conservative than I realised, this past week I’ve found myself reflecting on whether I might be more liberal than I realised too.

What sparked this reflection was some reading I’d been doing in preparation to speak about sex and gender — and the difference Jesus makes not only to how we think about these things but also to how we engage with them practically.

Basically, I keep finding that — as a Christian — I agree with Queer Theorists like Judith Butler and Eve Sedgewick.

I’ve noticed this surprising alignment when I consider the way Sedgewick argues against the naturalness of sexual orientation — and the comfortable Either/Or we often reach for when discussing sexual identity (e.g., either gay or straight).

Likewise, I’m inclined to credit Michel Foucault’s provocative claim (upon which Queer Theory is more or less founded) that homosexuality was invented in the nineteenth century.

Before that, homosexuality as we know it — ie. as an identity tied to a particular lifestyle — didn’t exist.

I can’t see any point in denying this.

In fact, there are even things here I want to affirm. For example, Queer Theory’s overall tendency to treat sexuality as something quite fluid and multifaceted seems to resonate nicely with the scholarly consensus about the lack of reference to homosexuality as a settled identity or orientation in the Bible.

Although — and here I no doubt part ways with most Queer Theorists — the Bible is perfectly well acquainted with same-sex desire and same-sex sexual activity.

Biblically, homosexual desires — along with a wide range of other misdirected and out-of-proportion desires — are treated as evidence of the brokenness of our world.
And homosexual acts as a misuse of our bodies — one that departs from our good Creator’s vision for our sexual wholeness.

Neither homosexual acts nor homosexual inclinations are the real issue. They’re results of the real issue — which is idolatry according to Romans 1, the ‘de-godding’ of God.

And so, with that thought, my reflections come full circle.

Because the issue of idolatry also lay at the base of my previous attempt to summarise my theology of politics (I hesitate to call it a political theology):

Before the risen Lord Jesus, earthly governments must renounce their tendency to idolatrous self-divinisation.

Of course, the same goes for the Economy and My Little Patch Of Individual Autonomy — two often-hypostasised alternatives to earthly governments.

They are the things governments should butt out of, according to classical and contemporary conservative thought.

But neither the economy nor the individual is immune to the temptation to pose as divine. Thus, both must learn to shrink back before the Lord Jesus, whose self-emptying ‘economy’ alone truly enriches and gives life (2 Corinthians 8.9) and whose risen sovereignty alone offers lasting security and salvation (1 Peter 1.3-5).

In other words, sexuality, politics, and the economy are all in the same boat.

All are good gifts from our Creator, and all able to be rightly used when he is allowed to be God. And yet all also tend to claim too much for themselves — presenting themselves as natural and inevitable — drawing our hearts and allegiance into their self-destructive maelstrom.

Hence, my surprising sense of alignment with Queer Theory when it questions this ‘naturalness’ when it comes to sex and gender…

I guess I’m more conservative than I realised

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“I guess I’m more conservative than I realised…”

That was what popped into my head as I was haranguing a group of students last night about how their allegiance to Jesus should impact their politics.

Because Jesus is risen, his authority trumps every human authority claim — in the household or the polis.

According to Colossians 3.22-25, Christian slaves are to recognise that ultimately they serve the Lord Christ over and above any earthly master.

Paradoxically, though, this motivates a thoroughgoing obedience. “In everything”, Paul says (verse 22).

For slaves this was to be expressed in enthusiastic and willing service. And not merely when that might earn their earthly masters’ recognition.

On the flip-side, Christian slave masters too were reminded that their authority was relativised by the superior claim of the Lord Jesus.

Colossians 4.1: “Masters, supply your slaves with what is right and fair, since you know that you too have a Master in heaven.”

And similar logic is on display in New Testament thinking about political authority.

Caesar is called on his claim to provide life, peace, salvation and protection. For these are things the risen Lord Christ alone provides.

As a result, Christians mustn’t worship earthly political leaders — or drift with the tide in ascribing to them ‘magical powers’ (to borrow a phrase Ben Myers picks up from Bonhoeffer).

At the same time, Christians are summoned by Jesus to be better citizens than the citizens of this world. Paying their taxes ungrudgingly. Honouring the Emperor. Seeking the common good.

This is where my thought about being more conservative than I realised comes in.

By putting earthly authorities on notice, Jesus leaves them — including governments — a relatively minor role (certainly compared to their more grandiose ambitions to deliver life and lasting peace).

And this chimes in with a typical conservative theme — governments need to learn their place, stop overstepping their bounds, and just butt out!

So there you have it: more conservative than I realised.

(Ah, well. There goes my left-leaning,
Karl Barth-, N.T. Wright-, and Stanley Hauerwas-reading Christian hipster cred…)

sex and secularity

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I’ve been thinking about sex a lot lately.

Not in that way. More in the way Alain De Botton argues we should in his recent book, How To Think More About Sex.

In particular, I’ve been dwelling on sex (as well as love, desire, and gender) because I’m giving a series of talks at La Trobe aimed at sparking conversation and thinking about this crucial topic.

And sex really is a crucial topic. As the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre suggests, it’s an “extra-social social act” — a kind of thumbnail sketch reflecting the issues and tensions bubbling away in society more generally.

From my perspective, this is certainly true of the whole ‘marriage equality’ thing going on in Australia right now.

While songs like Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ pack an undeniable emotional punch, questions can be raised about the equation of the push for the recognition of same-sex marriage and the American civil rights movement.

More deeply, I’ve begun to detect some tensions between the call to legally recognise same-sex marriage as a basic civil — or even human — right and at least some versions of secularism.

Take the account Rowan Williams gives of what he calls ‘programmatic secularism’ in Faith In The Public Square (page 26):

This assumes … that any religious or ideological system demanding a hearing in the public sphere is aiming to seize control of the political realm and to override and nullify opposing convictions. It finds specific views of the human good outside a minimal account of material security and relative social stability unsettling, and concludes that they need to be relegated to the purely private sphere. It assumes that the public expression of specific conviction is automatically offensive to people of other (or no) conviction. Thus public support or subsidy directed towards any particular group is a collusion with elements that subvert the harmony of society overall.

If this is a fair reading of at least one strand within contemporary secularist discourse, then surely the push for marriage equality cuts across it — especially when couched in terms of a ‘right’ to access the institution of marriage.

For surely such a ‘right’ runs deeper than the “minimal account of material security and relative social stability” proper to such secularism.

Or have I misheard the case for marriage equality?

if it’s big in Japan…

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Yesterday, I heard a Christian missionary speak about the challenges he’s facing in Japan. One of the big ones is that, apparently, in Japan to become Christian is to become un-Japanese.

It’s seen as a massive betrayal. Giving up on what’s most essential and distinctive to the Japanese culture and way of life.

And from what I hear this is a fairly common theme — especially in non-Western cultures.

But it’s got me thinking…

Why don’t we assume something similar about becoming Christian in Australia?

If it’s big in Japan, why isn’t it so big here?

Or, rather, why don’t we expect it to be so big here? (I’m less interested in a historical or sociological account of how Australian culture and Christian ‘values’ have become intwined. And more interested in why Christians in Australia are likely to find the thought that being Christian means becoming un-Australian in some essential sense.)

Is it perhaps that we’re too engaged — too deeply embedded in and complicit with the Australian way of life? Too uncritically accepting and unable to imagine any other possibility than being here, fitting in, belonging?

Are we too unprepared to own the kind of identity the Apostle Peter hails his readers with: “elect exiles of the dispersion”, “temporary residents”, “strangers”?

And if I’m onto something with these hunches, then I’d want to know what it is that’s got us here. Even if all I’ve got is questions. Questions like:

How helpful is our popular evangelical emphasis on ‘just praying the prayer’ and not standing on ceremony?

Not that calling people to conversion is a bad thing. But I worry about what happened to urging people to count the cost. Or to baptising people into the radical new identity and life-course Jesus launches us on — where we’re summoned to observe everything our Lord teaches…

Please don’t misread me. It’s not that I’m looking to place (or avoid) blame here. But I do think it’s worth trying to tease apart the matted ball of contributing threads.

Otherwise I doubt we’ll never disentangle ourselves from our culture long enough to meaningfully engage it with the gospel.

consumerism and idolatry (i)

It’s definitely beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. And that means not only is present-buying on the agenda. So too is the obligatory Christmas critique of consumerism.

While Christians aren’t alone in mounting the Christmas consumerist critique, it is something many of us like to indulge in. And given the way Wikipedia defines consumerism, it’s not hard to see why:

Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts.

Certainly, a set of social and economic dynamics that make acquisitiveness part of the air we breathe — either by pandering to our existing anxieties or by eroding whatever sense of contentment we’ve managed to scrape together — seems ripe for critique.

But I’m not sure I want to go there. At least not just yet.

So I’d like your help thinking it through. In that spirit, let me share 10 thoughts about consumerism and idolatry — taken one or two at a time…

1. That consumerism is (a form of) idolatry is an equation so often made that it’s could be axiomatic. At least, that’s true in the Christian circles I’m familiar with. So I guess it’s either axiomatic or an unsubstantiated rumour that we’re hoping will be rendered more certain by constant repetition.

2. It’s worth pausing to ask why — or in what sense — we consider consumerism to be idolatry. Is it simply because we think that everything that can co-opt or, as James K.A. Smith would have it, ‘enlist’ us apart from the gospel is idolatry (whether it’s the nation or materialism or whatever)? Or is there something distinctive about the phenomenon of consumerism that merits our identification of it with idolatry?

the Sermon on the Mount – resources

I guess it’s more or less obvious after months of posting that I spent a good chunk of last semester giving talks on the Sermon on the Mount.

It was challenging, exciting, confronting, challenging, inspiring, and did I mention challenging?

Here are the resources I leaned on in putting together these talks:

As I reflect on the series, two overriding themes emerge.

The first theme is my attempt to apply the Affirmation And Antithesis model of cultural engagement laid out by James Davison Hunter in his important book, To Change The World.

Each week I set myself the challenging of engaging a group or ‘live issue’ on campus or in the wider society, highlighting the radical and often surprising way Jesus would speak to that issue (as best I could determine from the Sermon on the Mount), and opening up the conversation to see where it took us.

So we explored what Jesus would say to The Socialist Alternative, The Secular Society, The Islamic Society, and even the Christian Union. We tried to tune in to what he’d say about Indigenous Reconciliation, Lady GaGa, and our career plans. And we didn’t shy away from considering what he’d say to us.

It was a hoot!

The second theme is the strengthening of my existing conviction that a Christian ethic proclaims and embodies the gospel.

Spending so much time sitting at Jesus’ feet — and listening to the direct and uncompromising words of his mouth — drove me to appreciate his goodness and his grace all the more (and not in an ‘Oh, my gosh – how can we possibly live up to that? We’ll need to throw ourselves on his mercy’ kind of way).

To the students and staff of the La Trobe Christian Union, thanks for bearing with me and letting me lay some occasionally off-the-wall stuff on you. And thanks for chipping in, sharpening me up, and carrying the conversation forward.

I pray that the Lord will continue to show us how we can find our truest and best humanity by entrusting ourselves to him and walking ever more confidently in his ways.

Social Design for mission and ministry (3): utilise community

According to the guidelines at Facebook Developers, the first imperative of good social design — which, of course, works from the outside in — is to utilise community. In the virtual world this means:

  • Personalising your content for the people engaging with your product or service — so that it’s obviously relevant to them.
  • Connecting people with those of their friends who are already engaging with you — so they can see that people they know (or, taking a step down, people like them) trust and benefit from what you’re offering.
  • Highlighting social context — ie. the real names, faces, and stories/testimonies — since “associating content to people that users care about naturally draws them in”.
  • And working on being teflon-coated in how you gain, handle and use any information people share with you.

Basically, it’s about starting where people already are and helping them ground whatever you’re offering them in their existing relationships and experiences. Rather than asking them to put blind faith in you and then taking control, you continually give them social “proof” and put them in the position of power.

My sense is that where this leaves those of us wanting to apply social design principles to Christian mission and ministry is at the intersection of a three trajectories:

  1. Tim Keller’s helpful approach to missional community in terms of a primarily affirming and appreciative relationship (within which there is scope for criticism — although this shouldn’t be the first foot we put forward) to the existing culture of the neighbourhood, workplace, community, etc.
  2. An emphasis on building bridges of love and relationship so we can welcome people into the distinctive community we’ve discovered in Christ as well as maintaining a faithful presence within our wider community context.
  3. A properly Christian practice of leadership and power that follows the grain of an Asset Based Community Development-type approach.

More on what this might look like in practice next post.