The Church’s Voice In A Divided Australia
Australia is going through an interesting phase in its history, and so is the church. The Left vs Right divide in politics seems as strong as ever evidenced in the debate over carbon tax and refugee asylum policy. During this particular phase in politics the Greens (thanks to their partnership in a minority government) have been able to advance agendas that have elevated the debate on gay marriage in particular. The secular attack on the church is strong and fought on many fronts. As a movement of churches we find it hard to have collective voice on issues because of the autonomous nature of our structure. However, many of these issues need to be addressed if we are in the business of applying our beliefs and convictions to the issues of the day. Part of the challenge lies in learning how to communicate in the new digital world and choosing which hill to die on.
1. Social Media Train-wrecks
There have been a few examples recently of Christian organizations being soundly thrashed in the social media world. Generally speaking Christian organisations are led by people who are new to the world of social media and how things work in this viral landscape. Subsequently, there have been some well publicized faux pas and some campaigns that have arguably backfired. A good PR spin doctor will tell you that any publicity is good publicity, but I don’t necessarily think that is space we want to inhabit. I argued in a previous article that perhaps churches or Christian organisations are using social media that is not used readily by their target demographic. Unless you understand this medium and can devote the time needed to interact after initially posting – you may be well advised to steer clear of it until you’ve brought yourself up to speed and have the resources to devote to maintaining a presence in this interactive world.
The people for whom social media is their natural habitat are able to get a viral storm happening around any ill-advised postings of yours within seconds. To a large degree the social media cycle moves quickly and one ‘trending topic’ is soon replaced by another. However, unless you use this medium well you may well find that a constructive intent delivers a destructive result. Often, without intending, when Christians venture into this world they end up confirming stereotypes instead of turning them on their head.
I rather suspect that churches and organisations with a membership base who are conversant with social media will be the wisest when operating in this realm. For them it is a good space to inhabit, and they should be able to pick up on how to use these mediums well. If not, don’t worry. The most potent form of communication still is (and will always be), face to face.
2. Fighting The Phobia
The most successful propaganda victory in recent history would have to be the wide acceptance and usage of the ridiculous phrase: ‘homophobic’. A tried and tested propagandist tool is to caricature your ‘enemy’ in the most extreme way possible. If you use a term enough it eventually gains acceptance and works its way into the vernacular. So successful has this tactic been that now to simply disagree with homosexuality equates to you have a ‘phobia’ of gay people. So the debate is reduced down to the the crudest of binaries: either you agree with gay marriage or you are homophobic. (Phobia: a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it.) It is no longer possible to place yourself elsewhere on the scale between having a moral objection and having a ‘phobia’ of gay people.
So ready yourself (if you haven’t already been) to be labelled in extreme terms. These are the rules of the debate when in opposition to secularists: You either agree or you are demonised. It’s easier to demonise someone rather than having to dialogue rationally and learn to deal with differences, or accept that people can have a moral disagreement which means that they in all good conscience cannot agree with gay marriage.
For me personally I don’t accept the term ‘homophobic’. There may be some people at the extreme edge who have a genuine ‘phobia’, but probably no less than some gays or secularists who have a similar discomfort with Christians. Judging by the hatred, vitriol and threats that are directed at Christians in the public realm it may well be that the genuine phobia exists other than where usually indicated.
Actions speak louder than words, and meaningful dialogue with people from across the barricades is more effective than shouting matches across the digital barricades. Love speaks louder than any other language, and we need to find practical ways in expressing this. We all know of trusted tradespeople who have no need to advertise and are never short of work. It’s funny how word spreads….
3. The Legacy Of Sexual Abuse
For many people, the Church at large has lost its moral authority and relevance when it comes to making a contribution on issues related to sexuality. This is thanks to an undeniable legacy across a number of denominations of institutionalised sexual abuse (and physical abuse) of minors in particular. Some denominations have made a greater contribution than others, but we are all tarred with the same brush in the perception of many. For those of us in the contemporary church this is a legacy that we have to live with handed on to us by our previous leadership generations. Thanks for nothing.
Our response must be to maintain the highest standards of vigilance and to be forthcoming with as much help and accountability as possible in relation to victims. This side of heaven the stain of this sin will never be removed, it is an indelible mark on the Australian psyche. We need leaderships who don’t stonewall and a culture of humility and openness. It is difficult to argue against abortion on the basis of the sanctity of human life when we have seen the denigration of so many lives in past generations through agencies of our churches (be they people or organisations).
We are in the process of building trust, and this is a long process which will continue throughout our lifetime. Just don’t be shocked that we are often not accorded credibility when speaking on certain topics. Sadly, it is well deserved.
4. The Green Debate
Arguably, Christians should have been champions of the environment long before the vacuum was taken up by the modern Green movement. From the very beginning of God’s dealing with his created order we have understood ourselves to have been entrusted as stewards. It’s a long story as to how we never took up that mantle and that it is now left to a constituency who broadly speaking have rejected the message of the Gospel. (That’s not to say that there aren’t Christians active within conservation and Green groups.) The debate at the moment is inherently political. The biggest issue on the table currently in Australia is whether to Carbon Tax or not to. This means that to take sides means effectively taking a position on a taxation device rather than a direct position on the environment. It is an economics issue as much as it is an environmental one.
The dividing lines on the debate mean that no matter what argument Christians side with, they possibly by association stand shoulder to shoulder with entities who they don’t agree with on many issues. Some church denominations have taken a stand for the current Carbon Tax proposal under the banner of the ARRCC: Australian Religious Response to Climate Change. The Baptist denomination has not taken a stand on this issue, and nor could it. Significant individuals and individual churches have the freedom to take their own stand but we do not have the identity to speak as one on the issue.
This means arguably for each church leadership there is an opportunity to engage in the debate outside of the narrow constraints of the party political divide, and without having to associate with groups who on other issues would love to dance on our graves. Our theological understanding of stewardship deserves close attention and teaching in the light of contemporary science. Perhaps a useful addition to the divided debate is another apolitical perspective that draws its mandate from the God given responsibility of stewardship rather than than being based in the political and ideological philosophies of groups for whom the Gospel is anathema. I would never argue for a Government tax policy from the pulpit but I would passionately declare our status as stewards.
I suspect that Baptist churches have stayed away from addressing this debate and left it to the political realm, leaving each member to make their own minds up. This matches the silence on political issues within our movement. The apolitical stance of most of our churches is a fiercely guarded principle. However, addressing the issue of stewardship from a theological perspective gives us freedom to engage in this debate without having to side with one or other side of politics. When last did you hear talk or teaching about environmental stewardship in your church?
5. Choosing Which Hill To Die On
The sheer number of issues that the church could take a lead on is exhausting. It’s possible that by getting involved in advocacy on too many issues we essentially forget the hill Jesus died on, and the message that arises from his death and resurrection. Scripture tells us that the message of the Gospel is foolishness to the world – and anyone trying to advance the Gospel or Gospel perspectives will find that out soon enough in contemporary Australia. Ultimately the church has a central message which is encapsulated within the Gospel. No other single issue deserves or demands the kind of energy, advocacy, creativity and persistence as this. In whatever debates we enter, whatever issues we advocate on behalf of, we need to ensure we don’t lose this emphasis.
Amongst post-evangelicals there is a growing affinity with issues of the Left, and a greater diversity of opinion subsequently within the younger generations of our churches. One genuine fear I have is that a new generation of believers will find it easier to seek acceptability through identifying with opinion leaders on a range of topical issues, than setting themselves apart from the world by virtue of an identity as messengers of the Gospel. The main distraction of the church in my teenage years was the allegiance to doctrine, which shouldered the Gospel off main stage. If I am to hope (as I do) for a more sustainable planet, it is only that those who live on it may come to know what is it to be reconciled with God through Jesus. That is the hill I choose to die on.