Defending Christianity is one of the goals Scott Morrison has set for himself in 2018. But is the brand of Christianity he wishes to defend the very reason why Christian faith in Australia is on the retreat?
When Christianity came to Australia with the early settlers its brands were shaped by the homes from which the immigrant population came: England (C of E), Scotland (Presbyterian), Ireland (Catholic), Germany (Lutheran). Adherence to the brand was by default loyalty to ethnic and cultural roots. (In the same way today Greek Orthodox congregations, Polynesian congregations, Sudanese congregations, Coptic Christianity etc are strengthened through similar identity commitment). On the other hand the older denominational brands now have very little relevance within Australian society, with the possible exception of Roman Catholicism whose future influence remains very much in the balance.
To put it simply, Christianity in Australia today has two brands; adherents of both can be found in most major denominations. The first is marked by a commitment to an individualistic spirituality, demonstrating a practical dualism in which matters of faith are corralled out of the public arena leaving space only for personal belief and morality. Unsurprisingly advocacy of this brand of piety and morality is met with indifference at best and vehement opposition at worst within Australian civil society. High profile promoters of this brand include Cardinal George Pell, Lyle Shelton - Australian Christian Lobby CEO, Senator Cori Bernardi, Brian Houston - Chief Pastor Hillsong and the leadership of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. The second insists that dualism and Christianity are irreconcilable: adherents take seriously the fact that Christianity is an incarnate faith; that God’s intention in salvation is nothing less than the whole world and adherents are to be immersed in the world for its good, called to be salt and light. High profile promoters of this brand of Christianity include Pope Francis, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Tim Costello, Father Frank Brennan and Ted Noffs.
The first, the brand Mr Morrison seeks to defend is assumed by many or most secular Australians to be the only brand there is, partly because the media turns to this brand in its desire to paint Christianity as quaint and irrelevant in a complex, diverse and educated world. In light of this brand Christianity is perceived to have nothing of value to contribute, outside its platitudes, to the important debates that must be pursued in the public arena if major global issues are to be addressed. This brand is observed to be incurably moralistic, a characteristic which the majority of Australians found alienating in the recent debate on marriage equality in Australia. I am told by Christian friends (of the second brand) that because Christianity as a whole has been aligned in the public mind with a narrow and judgemental mindset, engaging secular friends in a conversation about faith has now been made so much harder.
Adherents of the first brand tend to a textual fundamentalism, be it of scripture itself or ecclesiastical tradition as expressed through authorities such as canon law. It is the case that those who adhere to this brand of Christianity accuse those of the second brand that they do not to take scripture seriously. This needs to be the topic of another blog, but I strongly contend the reverse. Those who insist on a literal interpretation of the creation narratives demean and belittle scripture and make Christianity a source of ridicule. Equally seriously (I will return to this) those who find in scripture an eschatology which justifies the cruel annexation of Palestinian land, homes and livelihood on the grounds that God’s ultimate plan is the sovereignty of Israel prior to the return of Christ, make a nonsense of the God revealed to us in Jesus.
Perhaps most crucially, adherents of this brand of Christianity voted Mr Trump into the White House and by all accounts continue to support him. They almost returned Roy Moore, the gun toting, and accused power abusing Senator of Alabama to Washington. Why? Apparently because he and they support a view that individual rights always trump social responsibility, a position that is the very antithesis of the Christian Gospel. This is a position which supports the minimisation of tax, unregulated financial markets, no universal health care and the ridiculing of environmental responsibility.
This is the brand of Christianity which it appears Mr Morrison wishes to defend, the same brand that wishes its freedoms defended in legislation following an enquiry headed by the current mayor of Hornsby, Philip Ruddock.
Well not in my name. I do not wish to be associated with this defence.
The second brand of Christianity, the one of which I am a convinced believer and advocate believes that not only is the nature of God revealed in Jesus but so also is the true nature of humanity. Eschewing power, not embracing it, let alone clutching to it no matter what the cost, is the way of the cross, is the way of peace, and is the way of salvation. So convinced am I of the truth of the Christian Gospel that I want to advocate it, as did the early Christians, as the Way, indeed without being imperialistic, the only way.
In this ‘way’ true leadership is the exercise of an authority (authenticity) that attracts trust and confidence, not an exercise of power. This kind of authority cannot be bought; it accrues in the lives of those who are sources of blessing and freedom to others. Onlookers asked of Jesus “How did this man get this authority”. Authority is hard won and easily lost. Very few leaders in the world today exercise true authority. The exercise of an office does not automatically endow the holder with authority (authenticity). Without authority the holder of the office has to resort to exercising power as most dictators do and sadly and tragically as Mr Trump appears to do. Without genuine authority political leadership in Australia is floundering.
The brand of Christianity with which I am familiar knows nothing of winners and losers in the conventional sense; winning is associated with lifting the lowly and losing is associated with exalting oneself.
It is a very great concern that the first brand of Christianity, known to many as the ‘Christian Right’ exercises enormous influence in the USA and appears to hold sway in the Australian Federal Coalition.
Why is it such a concern? I do not believe democracy as we have come to understand it can survive unfettered individual rights at the expense of equity and fairness in society as a whole. But this is the track the world, inclusive of Australia, now appears to have taken.
International harmony and well being is dependent on upholding international law, the defence of human rights and a commitment to the sustainability of the planet. None of these appear to be the priorities of the first brand of Christianity even though they are 21st century applications of scripture and the mind of Christ.
To return for a moment to the Christian Right’s unconscionable support for Israel’s annexing of Palestinian territory and the consequent impoverishment and suffering of the Palestinian people. Jerusalem in the Hebrew tradition is the dwelling place of the most high – God. The only interest Christians can have in Jerusalem is in a unique city which should host the spiritual longing of all nations. In the Christian tradition Jesus is Jerusalem, God dwells in him. (You will not worship on this mountain [Gerizim] or Jerusalem Jn. 4: 21). American support for Israel’s unlawful and cruel policy towards Palestinians is made politically expedient as much if not more by the American Christian Right and its misuse of scripture as it is by the Zionist lobby. This is a very dangerous alliance not simply for any possibility of peace between Israel and Palestine, but for much broader harmony and good will.
So what Christianity is Mr Morrison seeking to defend? Christianity as the ‘way’ needs no defence. It simply needs more folk to rise with authority (authenticity) in the living of it. Those who adhere to the first brand make this task so much more difficult.