(A Short Post on) Public Faith, Cultural Privilege, & Confected Culture Wars

Mike Frost* posted the following statement on social media yesterday:

The church has grown so accustomed to cultural privilege—a privilege it should never have had in the first place—that its erosion feels like persecution, when it’s not.

As a result, instead of meaningful engagement with society, we draw battle lines in confected culture ‘wars’ featuring praying football coaches, dissenting county clerks, and recalcitrant wedding cake bakers.

To my mind, this is one of the most piercing (and succinct!) analyses of the state of public faith (and flawed understandings of ‘mission’) in places like Australia and the U.S.—and I’m sure a number of others—that I’ve seen in a long time.

I won’t add any further comment on the statement here, but would love to get a conversation going around it in the comments section.

* Mike is a leading voice in the missional church movement, Vice Principal of Morling College (in Sydney, Australia), author, speaker, and a bunch of other things (including, some might say, provocateur).

Campaigning and (Enlightened) Self Interest

I’ve been thinking for a while about the morality of using ‘enlightened self interest’ in the service of campaigning (on issues like climate change, global poverty, asylum seekers/refugees, etc.).

Is it strategically more beneficial to consciously frame a campaign around enlightened self interest (rather than, say, a more ‘pure’ altruism)? Is it ethically/morally acceptable to do so? In a context (especially for Western nations) of unadulterated self interest, is a move to ‘enlightened’ self interest a step in the right direction?

It’s been helpful, then, to stumble across this interview with the excellent Rev. Dr Joel Edwards, where he discusses ‘legitimate self interest’ (in the context of the campaign around the aid budget in Britain).

I’m going to think a little more on these things. I’d welcome your input!

Nick Jensen, Same-Sex Marriage, and Public Faith

I wasn’t going to say anything about the recent furore surrounding Canberra couple Nick and Sarah Jensen’s plans to divorce if same-sex marriage is introduced in Australia, but I think it’s worth noting a few points. (If you haven’t read the article yet, I encourage you to do so before reading on.)

I’ve written a number of times (on this blog and on social media) about how Christians might approach the issue of same-sex marriage (you can find a couple of my posts here and here), and I won’t bother rehashing those arguments here.

What I would note are the following two points:

Firstly, I think Nick and Sarah do actually identity a crucial issue. For Christians, the meaning of marriage is not (or should not be) so much to do with legal recognition of the union. Rather, for Christians (and people of numerous other faiths), the significance of ‘marriage’ is the recognition of the union ‘in the sight of God’. This is something that the secular State cannot—and should not be asked to—oversee. The State’s recognition of unions has to do with the legal framework around it; it has nothing at all to do with the religious significance of that union.

Secondly, I think the Jensen’s make a serious blunder both in regards to their interpretation of how same-sex marriage would impact the current arrangement, and in regards to how they are going about engaging in issues of public faith.

In regards to the former, Nick notes the following in his article:

When we signed that official-looking marriage certificate 10 years ago at Tuggeranong Baptist Church, we understood that the state was endorsing marriage, as currently defined, as the fundamental social institution – with all that this implied.
But if this is no longer the case, then we no longer wish to be associated with this new definition. Marriage is sacred and what is truly “marriage” will only ever be what it has always been.


The truth is, “marriage” is simply too important. It is a sacred institution, ordained by God. It has always been understood to be that exclusive relationship where one man and one woman become “one flesh”. Any attempt to change the definition of marriage by law is not something in which we are able to partake.

It seems that the Jensen’s were under the impression, when they had their marriage solemnised by a representative of Tuggeranong Baptist Church on behalf of the State, that what the State was thus endorsing was a/the ‘biblical’ view of marriage. It was not. The secular State, as noted above, simply cannot do that. Rather, Nick and Sarah had what may well have been a lovely ceremony that had, to be sure, religious elements attached to what is essentially a legal agreement, for which the State can and should provide the framework.

In this regard, absolutely nothing has changed, and absolutely nothing would change if same-sex marriage was legislated.

When Nick and Sarah were married, they were sharing the legal definition of ‘marriage’ with people who have no faith inclination, people who may be on their second/third/fourth/whatever ‘marriage’ (for whatever reason), people who have ‘open’ marriages, and numerous others who don’t view the institution in the same way as the Jensens.

Apparently, none of this was a barrier for Nick and Sarah. Same-sex couples being able to be ‘married’ in the sight of the State, however, indicates to the Jensens, it seems, that the ‘sacred institution’ of marriage has finally been lost.

This is absurd. The fact that the Jensens have chosen this point as ‘the end of marriage as we know it’ makes them look either extraordinarily naive or somewhat vindictive.

And this brings us to the next point.

In regards to how the Jensens are going about engaging in issues of public faith, I think they have fallen precisely into the trap of presenting a tone or posture that reeks of “We’re taking our bat and ball and going home”. This, to my mind, is a petulant form of Christianity that exhibits all the traits of ‘losing badly’.

My suggestion, for quite some time now, is that we as Christians take note of what the Jensens have rightly recognised concerning the nature of the legal recognition of unions as being distinct from their religious significance, and voluntarily (and graciously) ‘hand back’ our ability to solemnise ‘marriages’ on behalf of the State. The State can do that for itself, and the Church can offer (non-legally recognised) ‘covenant ceremonies’, which speak of the significance of the union ‘in the sight of God’ (and people can decide for themselves if they participate in either or both of these ceremonies).

Such a voluntary ‘handing back’, done in the right spirit, would, I think, act as a kind of circuit breaker in the current debates. If we, as the Church, were to acknowledge that we had no real right to be acting on behalf of the State in regards to solemnising legally recognised unions, I think—if it was done with the right tone/posture—it could be taken as an act of good faith, allowing us the requisite space to dialogue about how churches (and other religious institutions) could identify (non-legally recognised) unions ‘in the sight of God’, and be allowed the freedom to do so.

As it stands, I fear that (with the inevitable introduction of same-sex marriage) many Christians will adopt the sulky posture of the Jensens (though perhaps not going to—or threatening to go to—the same lengths), and that it will confirm for many what they’ve always suspected: that Christians want to force their views on everyone else and, when they don’t get their way, they act like entitled idiots.

I don’t think it has to be this way.

The Energy Continues

A little while ago, I wrote about The ‘Energy’ of Violence, in which I suggested that violence can never be fully and truly defeated by violence; it takes something much more powerful.

In response to this, my friend labalienne reminded us that the sort of argument I advanced in my original post must take into consideration the violence against women that, scandalously, so often gets brushed aside.

In response to labalienne’s excellent response, I’d like to offer three points:

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge that I was wrong.

My first instinct, when confronted with this point, was a kind of self-defence, arguing that this wasn’t what I was talking about and that I would never advocate a kind of ‘passive-ism’ that accepts but does not confront and expose such violence.

Such for my ‘mansplaining’.

My first response *should* have been unconditional listening.

The point that labalienne makes is all too real, and all too often ignored. Us men so often respond with #notallmen (or #notmyblogpost, it seems), without necessarily allowing the gravity of the point to sink in. This is real, and it’s disgusting, and we—I—need to listen to the voices of women far more attentively.

Secondly, I feel it’s necessary to post the links to the series of articles written by Julia Baird in the Sydney Morning Herald, on the topic of the theology of ‘submission’ and ‘headship’ in Christian marriage and domestic violence (labalienne linked to the first of these in her post, but the second two were not yet written):

  1. “Submission is a fraught mixed message for the church”
  2. “Doctrine of headship a distortion of the gospel message of mutual love and respect”
  3. “Church cannot afford to walk past domestic abuse”

Thirdly, and finally, I want to make a point that I should have in the original post.

I’m white. I’m very, very white.

Violence in our world disproportionately affects people of colour (and especially women of colour), and is all too often inflicted by white men—by people like me.

What we don’t need is for people like me to stand up and talk like we’ve figured out all the ‘solutions’. In my post, the examples I was thinking of as I wrote included a poor Jewish rabbi (Jesus of Nazareth), masses of Indians standing up to the might of the British Empire (Gandhi and his followers), the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., and the nonviolence outlined by (post-prison) Nelson Mandela.*

My job is not to suggest (or appear to suggest) that I have the answers to these things, but to point to those who have experienced such violence and who have overcome not through responding with violence of their own, but with something more powerful. I also need to acknowledge the very real bodily pain and suffering that they experienced, and those who lost their lives in the process (and I thank labalienne, again, for reminding me of this point).

I’d like to keep this conversation going, and I hope the points above are helpful.


* Yes, I am aware (and somewhat disappointed) that all the main examples that were in my mind (Jesus, Gandhi, MLK, Mandela) were male.

“The Energy of Debate” (a response to “The ‘Energy’ of Violence”)

Here’s an excellent—and necessary—response to my last post (The ‘Energy’ of Violence) from my friend Labalienne, over at her blog Seaweave: The Energy of Debate.

I’m hoping to continue the conversation over the coming days!

The ‘Energy’ of Violence

These days, it’s relatively common for me to get myself in conversations about the ‘effectiveness’ of nonviolence. The discussion usually goes something like this:

Someone: “Look, I like the idea of nonviolence, but in the same kind of way that university students like the idea of Communism: it’s nice on paper, I guess, but it just doesn’t work in the real world.”

Me: “Right. So we’re talking about whether or not nonviolence can be an effective strategy, yeah?”

Someone: “Correct. It might be fine in certain situations, but it’s just not going to work in the face of full-blown evil.”

Me: “Leaving off for a moment a couple of points that could be challenged from what you’ve just said, you might be surprised to learn that nonviolent movements have, historically, proven to be more ‘successful’ than violent ones.”

Someone: “Right. So what you’re saying is that you’re going to fly over to Iraq to have a cup of tea and biscuits and ‘discuss’ options with I.S.? Good luck with that! With the reality of I.S., or Boko Haram—or Hitler and the Nazis—we’re dealing with pure evil. That kind of evil cannot be reasoned with, and it won’t be stopped by everyone sitting around singing Kumbaya! There’s only one language that these monsters understand, and it’s one that’s communicated through the barrel of a gun.”

…and so on and so forth.

Now, there are a number of intertwined issues in this discussion. There’s the dehumanisation of the enemy (using terms like ‘monsters’, ‘savages’, ‘pure evil’, and the like), which, of course, is a very helpful way of assuaging guilt. The thought of ‘exterminating brutes’ is much easier to accept than killing fellow human beings, and it’s why the official vocabulary of war is so full of euphemism. There is also, of course, the core issue of effectiveness (in terms of clear ‘results’), which has been shown a number of times to, quite clearly, favour nonviolent movements (despite common belief, and in all sorts of contexts—including overthrowing violent dictators.

But I think there’s actually a more foundational issue which needs to be clarified:

There seems to be a common belief that violence can be defeated by violence—violence of a different kind, perhaps (if you want to make that argument), but violence nonetheless (…the ongoing popularity of the myth of redemptive violence is here ‘Exhibit A’). Once it has reached the point where there is ‘no other option’, so the argument goes, violence is required in order to overcome the evil that is being (perhaps reluctantly) opposed, and to restore equilibrium.

The problem with this is that violence never defeats violence. Ever.

It can pause it, I guess, or suppress it (for a time), or deflect it or squish and squash or bend it, but violence can never fully ‘defeat’ violence.

Violence, rather, begets further violence—often in new and innovative forms, to be sure, but reliably nonetheless.

Violence, it seems to me, has a kind of energy to it, which ricochets its way through the pages of history. Energy, as the saying goes, never really dies, it simply changes its form. In the same way, the energy of violence is not defeated by further violence, but is simply changed and channeled into new forms.

The violence of I.S. doesn’t spring forth out of nowhere, but from the fertile ground of previous violence. Such is the case for Boko Haram, and Joseph Kony, and Hitler, and on and on it goes. (Perhaps it’s a touch too controversial, but I think this also explains the incredible violence that is alive and well in the U.S., but I’ll leave that for another discussion.)

The cacophony of violence in our world bounces off the blades of swords and the barrels of guns, echoing into perpetuity.

This, of course, is rather depressing.

There is, to my mind, only one antidote, and it’s best illustrated in the torturous death of a poor Jewish rabbi on a Roman cross.

Jesus of Nazareth, hanging on the cross, absorbed the energy of violence into himself. Rather than responding in kind—rather than calling his disciples to violent revolt—he drew the violence of Empire into his own body, and transformed it by the only force in the universe powerful enough to do so: grace. Instead of words of wrath, forgiveness flowed from his lips, and thus violence was robbed of its power. (Of course, the Christian story also insists that, through the resurrection of Jesus, death itself—that thing which gives violence its very power—was overcome in full.)

And this, then, is the reason why nonviolence is not just more ‘successful’ than violence, but in fact is the only truly successful response.

Meeting violence with violence can only ever deflect the energy of violence. Transforming violence through grace and love allows for the vibrations of violence to be wholly absorbed.

I am not for a moment saying that this is easy. In fact, it remains a truly extraordinary act (and one that I’m not sure I can fully appreciate, given that my life has been relatively free from violence).

It is also fact, however, that it remains the only way to truly defeat violence.

Perhaps it’s worthwhile to conclude with the words of Dr King:

Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to love our enemies. Some people have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you…?

Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love for even our enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist; the is the practical realist…

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.


I’m a fan of minimalist design.

I was introduced to the concept by a friend who, noting the design of the iPhone (which was, at that point, relatively new), described the possibility of stripping back that which is unnecessary in order to find ‘perfection’ (rather than seeking the same result by ‘adding things on’). In the context of the dominance of Blackberry phones and the ‘fact’ that a business device required a full, physical qwerty keyboard, the iPhone boasted a bold, minimalist design. And it won. It became that which we never knew we always needed.

I’ve thought about the point often since then.

When I read Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, I was struck by the chapter on the ‘discipline of simplicity’. I remain gripped by this vision where my speech and actions and entire way of life is far more…simple—far less cluttered and noisy and complex.

I’ve been thinking about what it means, for example, for writing blog posts like this (and how it challenges my usual verbosity).

I’ve been thinking about what it means for the public speaking I do on a regular basis.

I’ve been thinking about what it means for what I buy, the furniture in my house, and the clothes I wear.

More than this, I’ve been thinking about what it means for church. What is necessary for a local church to be doing to facilitate discipleship and mission. What is the ‘clutter’ that can—and should—be stripped away?

I’ve been thinking about what it means for politics. What is necessary for a government to be doing to facilitate the flourishing of a nation? It should be noted here that my understanding of ‘flourishing’ is somewhat more nuanced than ‘unending economic growth’.

As someone who works for an aid and development organisation, I’ve been thinking about what it means for community development (both here and abroad). As someone who is not a development expert, I need to recognise the clear limitations of my contribution to this discussion, though I think the idea of ‘minimalist development’ (where there is laser focus on that which is necessary to see empowerment and self-sufficiency) is an inherently attractive one. This is not ‘lazy’ or ‘cheap’ development, and nor is it the result of an obsession with simplistic notions of ‘effectiveness’ and ‘efficiency’. It’s the result of a desire to live with humility, leaving a small footprint, while seeking the genuine flourishing of human communities and the world in which we live.

These are my thoughts; I’d love to hear yours.