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.

Further,

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.

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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.

Challenging the Individualistic (False?) Gospel

Last Sunday I had the incredible privilege of attending a combined church service in a small village in rural South Africa.

It was an amazing experience!

The whole service was very special, and the time we spent after the service listening to and praying with the local church leaders over lunch was beautiful, but the thing that stood out most significantly to me was the singing. Oh the singing!

What struck me was the way in which the individual voices worked together so perfectly to produce the whole. These voices came together so gracefully (and seemingly effortlessly!) to produce impossibly beautiful harmonies. As soon as someone led off with a new song the people in the congregation instantly (quite literally) sprang into action – each voice playing its own part (and individually discernible if you paid close enough attention) to produce a remarkable symphony. Individually, each voice was good and each part necessary; together they were sublime.

In the midst of this experience, I was struck by the intrinsic social nature of humanity in general and of Christianity in particular; the way in which we only make sense in relation to others. I couldn’t help thinking of the powerful imagery the Apostle Paul uses when talking about individual Christians coming together to form one ‘body’. Each part is necessary and must play its own part in order for the whole ‘body’ to function as it should.

I was also struck by how profoundly us Western Christians miss this point.

Of course, this is something that’s been noted many times before, and I don’t really want to get into that whole naive and simplistic notion of how everything about Western Christianity is corrupt and useless and how everything about (in this case) African Christianity must therefore be pure and wonderful. Reality is always far more complex than this, and those statements taken at face value are plainly ridiculous.

Rather, I want to offer two relatively simple observations that stood out to me in the midst of the church service and that wonderful singing.

1) Firstly, I feel like a fairly sizeable proportion of the Church in Australia—at least the parts I’ve had a lot of experience of—has prioritised the personal over the communal to such an extent that individualistic Christianity, if it can be called such, has triumphed. We are taught to focus on our (individual) walk with God. We seek to understand God’s plan for our (singular) lives. When we meet together we are often told to block out everyone else and focus only on God. We hear the biblical imperatives in the second person singular.

Now I don’t for a moment want to forget that our faith must be personal, but I do want to keep that understanding in tension with the fact that our faith must absolutely not become individualistic. It just doesn’t work that way.

In fact, it is my belief that Christianity should offer the most significant critique of and alternative to the rampant individualism that we so often see in Western societies, rather than being (as has so often happened) the conduit for it.

2) Secondly, and this point leads out of the first, the intense focus on personal (or more specifically individual) ‘sin’ has meant that we have lost almost all understanding of the social nature of sin. Not only is personal sin often something that involves other people anyway, but there is significant social or ‘structural’ sin that plagues our societies. I know this might offend some people (who might consider that places like the U.K. or the U.S. or Australia are societies which are ‘based on Christian values’), but I am convinced that there are structures of institutionalised ‘sin’ that are far bigger than one person. There are groups or organisations or companies or social structures or prevailing attitudes or cultural practices that are partly or wholly oppressive or exploitative or just plain evil. These things are real, and they don’t just disappear if we ignore them. In fact, that’s how they thrive.

Again, I don’t want to neglect the fact that our faith should certainly be personal. We do need to bring our own thoughts and attitudes into the light for examination. The point, I guess, is that it can’t stop there. It cannot be our sole focus. Unfortunately, it often is.

And so I finish where I began.

The extraordinary singing only worked because each voice understood itself in relation to the others. It is because of this fact, I think, that the result was a thing of such beauty. May our lives be the same.

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.

Redeeming My Roots

For almost a decade now, I’ve been thinking about the concept of ‘redeeming my roots’.

Please let me explain what I mean.

Before I became a Christian, I was a reasonably open-minded individual. Working from the foundation of a basic liberal worldview, I was an advocate for freedom and equality and the necessity of a good classical liberal arts education as the corner stone of a strong society. From that foundation, the framework of my political and philosophical outlook on life was built around a fairly strong suspicion of authority, taking the shape of anarchism.

ratm-ratmRage Against The Machine’s self-titled debut album became the soundtrack of my political journey. This worldview was predominantly furnished in the style of libertinism, with a few somewhat awkward hints of humanitarianism thrown in the mix.

I may not have been able to explain how all of this fit together, but I was only about 17 or 18 at the time.

Now, obviously, not all of this was good.

My relentless pursuit of pleasure meant that I spent most of my time drunk, about to get drunk, or thinking about getting drunk, and my inclination towards anti-authoritarianism was polluted by my own pain and anger in regards to my then lost relationship with my father. This was made manifest in some less than helpful ways.

The problem, though, is that the whole construct was pretty much swept away by a certain fundamentalism when I became a Christian.

Please let me be clear: the people who walked beside me in my formative years as a Christian were (and are) some truly wonderful people. I remember clearly the love that was shown to me in the small country town church that I started to attend on Sunday mornings after spending the previous night out on the town. With little or no sleep, and either very badly hungover or still drunk, I would walk into this small congregation – reeking of Jim Beam – only to be hugged warmly on arrival by a woman who must have been about 135 years old and who needed to stand on a chair to reach me.

The problem was not at all the people themselves. They were very well meaning, dear people. The problem was, rather, that the predominant theological influences on me at this time were all pretty much fundamentalist.

Under the guise of ‘submitting to authority’ (and being warned more times than I care to remember that “rebellion is witchcraft”), I moved strongly, yet always uncomfortably, towards authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism. The pinnacle of this sort of anti-intellectualism, I recall, was trying to have a conversation with a really good highschool friend about 6-Day Creationism. I remember seeing the alarmed look in her eyes that moved from astonishment to pity through the duration of the conversation. I (sadly) read Left Behind, and somehow became convinced that ‘good’ Christians never questioned support for Israel and were uncompromisingly conservative in political affiliation. I began to believe that homosexuality was somehow like a toxic gas that corrupted everything it touched and was the arch-enemy of ‘decent’ family values.

I threw away all my formerly-favourite CDs, including Rage Against The Machine.

Worst of all, I began moving towards a position that regarded my former humanitarian inclinations as some kind of bankrupt emotional drivel. ‘The Gospel’, I was told, was about ‘getting people saved’. What good would feeding the hungry be if they were destined for (a literal) hell, after all?

Now, not all of this was bad.

Before I became a Christian I guess I was a bit of a no-hoper. I remember my friends’ parents (who often randomly found me passed out on their floors on a Saturday morning) rebuking my friends when they laughed at me for getting a part-time job as a night-fill worker at Woolworths. Their argument, it seems, was that this would probably be the high point of my life and I should be affirmed in reaching my fullest potential.

When I became a Christian, I started getting my act together. I finally found direction in my life and started working hard and saving for theological college. I had goals. I had purpose. I found some discipline.

The problem was that I quickly began to lose much of what made me me. I started conforming to some kind of cookie-cutter Christianity that wasn’t so much concerned with me as an individual but was rather more focused on spitting out good little conservative automatons who wouldn’t question what they were told and would become engaged in the valiant work of defending the Truth against all manner of immorality and heresy, with fingers firmly implanted in ears so as not to be polluted by such things.

And thus, since about 2004, I have been on a quest of working through all of this and [re]discovering what it actually means for Josh “Jack” Dowton to be a Christian.

This journey was, in part, kicked off by my theological studies where I was fortunate enough to be guided by some extraordinarily intelligent and faithful individuals who encouraged me to think again. I was also helped by the work of N.T. Wright (who showed me that ‘the Gospel’ is much broader, and much better news, than is often portrayed by conservative Evangelicals), and by groups such as the Micah Challenge. I remember in 2004 putting up a Micah Challenge poster in the room that the church youth group I ran met in, which spoke of the Millennium Development Goals and the need for Christians to be involved in this cause. I remember also copping a bit of flack for it, but nevertheless remaining convinced that this sort of thing was central to being Christian, even if I wasn’t exactly sure how it all fit together.

What I’ve been trying to work out, then, is what needs to be ‘redeemed’ from this former me, and what needs to be thrown away (both from the ‘old’ [pre-Christian] me, and from the ‘mindless conservative Christian’ me).

It has been, and still is, an interesting journey.

While I am still very much convinced that a certain transformation must take place in the process of becoming a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, I am nevertheless convinced that this transformation takes into consideration what truly makes someone themselves and is not about simply producing clones. While I am convinced that, for the Christian, there needs to be a process of ‘dying to oneself’, I am nevertheless convinced that this does not mean a total disfiguring of one’s identity, but is rather about putting off the selfishness that plagues humanity and embracing self-sacrificial love that is best illustrated in the life and teaching of Jesus.

This is a difficult process, but I think it is also a rewarding one.

As such, I have entered into this process over the last 9-or-so years, and I think the process still has a fair way to go. In some ways, it’s almost like a second ‘conversion’ experience, though it has taken a lot longer than the first one. I have realised that some of my pre-Christian impulses were very good ones and have, for example, ‘redeemed’ my humanitarian tendencies through the belief that all of humanity somehow bears the ‘image of God’ and each individual is thus deserving of respect and dignity. I am convinced that poverty causes this dignity to be diminished, and that where this image is disfigured in one we are all implicated. I have re-embraced my inclination towards freedom through the lens of the prophetic impulse that weaves throughout the scriptures and which strives towards liberty and fullness of life. I have even allowed myself to listen to RATM again, even though my philosophy these days can more more accurately be described as grace against the machine.

I am sure, though, that many people would simply suggest that it is a slow move to theological ‘liberalism’. Perhaps it is. Perhaps, though, there is far more to this Christianity thing than being worried about the labels ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.