Michael Jensen and a Christian Response to Drowned AsylumSeekers

I live in Sydney, and I attend an Anglican church. Even so – and this is no secret – I’m not a ‘Sydney Anglican’.

For those in the know, Sydney Anglicanism represents a somewhat feisty version of Reformed Evangelicalism. It’s a diocese where the works of 16th Century Swiss Reformer John Calvin are highly prized, and where issues like women in ministry or same-sex marriage are generally frowned upon (quite often with some gusto). The diocese as a whole is (I think many would agree) rather zealously ‘evangelistic’, and issues of social justice are, in general, sidelined as being, at best, tangential to the ‘real’ work of the Gospel.

(As a side note here, I simply can’t understand how this false-dichotomy (‘evangelism’ vs ‘social action’) can be sustained, as it is my understanding that the ‘Good News’ about (and announced by) Jesus of Nazareth is epic in scope. I sometimes wonder if this intense focus on ‘personal salvation’ is nothing less than a drastic underestimation of the the work of God in Jesus. The ‘Good News’, the Evangel, is all about the wise rule of God being worked out in every aspect of [re]creation, so how is it possible to evangelise by focussing solely on personal sin and forgiveness? I don’t get it, but I digress.)

This week, however, I have been pleasantly surprised. In fact, I would go so far to say that the events of this week have done much to rekindle the flame of hope that is usually my guiding light but which, of late, has been a flickering candle struggling amidst the darkness of despair.

This week, Dr Michael Jensen from Moore College (the symbolic heart of Sydney Anglicanism) wrote a beautiful article, outlining the profound sadness that surrounds the Australian Government’s decision to leave the bodies of dozens of asylum seekers – human beings created ‘in the image of God’ – at sea, and the way that, from a Christian perspective, we cannot be comfortable with the walls of partition that separate ‘them’ from ‘us’, which is the only way that such dehumanisation as we have witnessed through this tragedy can stand. He outlined brilliantly how our ’embodied-ness’ is essential to our being, rather than something to be overcome.

It was excellent.

But more than this, Michael and the St Barnabas Anglican Church, Broadway (‘Barney’s’), have announced a special memorial service for those who perished in the tragedy (this Sunday, June 23rd). It is, I think, a profound gesture. It is something that is much more than just ‘symbolic’.

Thank you, Dr Jensen and those at Barney’s, for doing this, and for the gentle rebuke that it offers to my understanding of ‘Sydney Anglicanism’.

The ‘Apocalypse’ We Had to Have?

In the last couple of years, I have come, in increasing measure, to the rather pessimistic conclusion that it will most probably take some sort of ‘apocalyptic’ event to finally make us humans realise that our current trajectory is unsustainable.

Obviously, this is somewhat at odds with my usually fairly optimistic, hope-filled outlook on possibilities for social change, however I am more and more (reluctantly) convinced by the argument that only an upheaval (or series of upheavals) of epic proportions will cause us to see with the required clarity that we can’t go on the way we are currently living.

This is a great cause of sadness for me.

Now, I need to say here that the kind of epic upheaval that I’m talking about here has absolutely nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian idea of ‘apocalypse’, even though that is the word that is most often (wrongly) associated with what I am talking about. Biblical (and the extra-canonical) ‘apocalypses’ are not predictions of ecological disaster or nuclear war-and-fallout in the 21st century. They are contextual to their own time and situation and speak to the desired overturning of socio-political domination using the evocative language of metaphor.

What I’m saying is that I most certainly don’t see these things predicted in the book of Revelation or Daniel or anything else. That is just not what those texts are doing.

Rather, I see the trajectory for such events in the newspapers and on the television. I see those in power almost completely ignoring the ramifications of their actions, knowing that short election cycles are ‘what really matters’—at least in regards to keeping them employed. They also know, I suspect, that they will most probably not be in power when the sorts of things I’m talking about happen. They won’t be blamed, at least directly, for the natural (or otherwise) outcomes of their actions in the present, or won’t have to face up to it in any event. Those who are in power at the time will, likewise, be able to palm off responsibility, vaguely directing blame at inaction in the past and framing themselves as the heroes of the story for trying to act, even though it will by then be too late to effect meaningful change.

The way I (am coming to) see it, it may actually take the sort of massive environmental disaster that our top scientists are so consistently warning us of to help us see that current trends of consumption—and the economic systems that support and encourage them—simply cannot continue. It may take massive destruction and loss of life through nuclear war and subsequent nuclear fallout to realise that the sorts of political games those in power are playing have real-life consequences (as if WWII wasn’t evidence enough).

Whatever the case, it may be that we will only be shaken out of our drunken stupor when such an ‘apocalyptic’ scenario unfolds and we are forced to make the changes we should be making now. It may be that it is only from the ‘post-apocalyptic’ perspective that hindsight will make it all so clear.

To channel former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, perhaps it will be ‘the apocalypse we had to have’.

The cycles of consumption and environmental destruction and of geo-political aggression and war cannot continue if we wish to evade such a future. Current trends, however, lead us directly along that path.

Perhaps, though—and this is where the optimist in me just won’t lay down and accept it—we will heed the wake-up call before it’s too late.

Perhaps.

Claiming (or otherwise) the Label ‘Christian’

Sometimes I find it extremely difficult to claim for myself the name ‘Christian’. Sometimes, I must admit, I find it very nearly impossible.

Now, it’s not because I think it’s ‘tough’ being a Christian in Australia. It’s not because I think there’s any kind of persecution that Christians in Australia must endure. (There are Christians in a number of countries around the world who do face persecution for their faith, but Australia is no such place.)

It’s something else entirely. In fact, it’s two things.

Firstly, it’s that I’m not actually a very good disciple. To call oneself a ‘follower of Jesus’ is, to my mind, a pretty big call. In consciously attaching myself to the example and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, I’m asking people to receive me as a kind of representative of him. In a way, I’m suggesting that when people look at me, they should see the resemblance of Jesus. My life and my actions should remind those who I come into contact with of the stories of Jesus in the Gospels; the way he treated people, the way he engaged with them as people.

This is not always/often the case.

When I think about the ‘fruits of the Spirit’—the attitudes and actions that should be the essential characteristics of the followers of Jesus—I realise how far I am off the mark.

  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • Self-control

I’m not winning at this list. I’m trying. I think I might be getting better at some of them. But I’m certainly not winning.

So, sometimes I feel like I might not be taking it all seriously enough. Sometimes I feel like I should just drop the title and leave poor Jesus out of it and stop bringing his name into disrepute.

Sometimes, however, and this brings me to the second point, I just can’t stand being part of the group that identifies as ‘Christian’.

Now, obviously, the name ‘Christian’ covers an incredibly broad range of people. It is quite literally a ‘broad church’. There are ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’, those who like the bells and smells and those whose highest aim is ‘contemporvence’. And, of course, there are Sydney Anglicans : )

As such, this one name for all of us together is sometimes a little bit uncomfortable.

What I can’t stand, though, is when fundamentalist groups shout louder than the rest of us, and society comes to identify that as synonymous with ‘Christian’. I can’t stand it when hermeneutically illiterate people or groups claim to hold the ‘biblical position’ on every topic; that ‘God said it’ and they are now the gatekeepers of all orthodoxy.

I simply can’t deal with it when angry groups who are anti-‘gay’, anti-Islam, anti-environmental concern, anti-everything, try to speak on behalf of all Christians.

In fact, I hate it.

It makes me really angry, and I don’t want to be angry.

It makes me want to distance myself from the group.

Now, I’m obviously not going to try, in response, to speak on behalf of all Christians about what Christianity really is. I’m sure that there are a whole bunch of people who identify as Christian who would be mortified to be associated with me.

All I’m going to say is that we, as Christians, should be taking seriously this idea of representing Jesus. Where the fruit of the Spirit is not present in our interactions with others, then I think we need to ask ourselves some serious questions.

When we are told (consistently!) that we are much better at demonstrating hate, rather than love, I think we need to listen.

And where we are fixated on, and defined by, exclusion, I think we need to reassess our picture of Jesus.