November 5, 2022

Andrew Thorburn is Lawyering Up: I Think That’s the Right Move

Essendon’s CEO-for-a-day Andrew Thorburn has engaged with lawyers and is reserving the right to sue the Essendon Football Club.

Perhaps you’re wondering why the bloke who wrote “Being the Bad Guys” thinks we should be pushing back. Aren’t we supposed to be like Jesus? Isn’t our stance towards the hardening secular world not to assert our rights for the sake of our public witness? More of that in a moment.

Media is today reporting that following Thorburn’s messy exit from the club over his links with City on a Hill church, the former NAB CEO is seeking at the very least a public apology for what happened. And from what he said at the time of his sacking, this latest move seems to be focussed on ensuring that those who want to repeat the process downstream need to think again.

“Many messages expressed genuine worry for jobs and employment prospects due simply to faith. I believe that there are many Australians who fear the implications for their livelihoods, aspirations and participation in community life. It is troubling that faith or association with a church, mosque, synagogue or temple could render a person immediately unsuited to holding a particular role. That is a dangerous idea, one that will only reduce tolerance for others and diversity of thought and participation in our community and workplaces.”

I received lots of messages too, once again from people downstream of the big CEO jobs. And it’s not as if this has just come out of the blue. The number of conversations I’ve had over the past few years from those in roles that include top-of-the-tree to all the way down, is concerning.

And he’s right about the reduction of tolerance for others and actual diversity. I can guarantee you that the diversity programs being run in most major organisations in Australia – or the West for that matter – are only skin deep. Everyone can look as different as they want to look – hey that’s an HR requirement! But thinking differently to where the company is going? Not happening, or at least not going to be happening soon, if organisations have their way. Watch this space for a soft version of China’s social contract policy.

So it’s uniform thinking all the way from boardroom to storeroom. Or at least that’s the ideal. Everyone who matters thinks the same about everything that matters. Or at least they say they do, because when they see what happens to the likes of Thorburn, they wonder when it’s coming for them. Best to keep your head down and get on with it.

Oh wait, that’s not working any more either. Unless you’re a vocal ally and participant in the company’s diversity program, you’re not really getting the culture of the place are you? The risk is not that you will become unemployed, but that you will become unemployable. The next reference check won’t even have to mention religion, all it will say is “Wasn’t a team player. Didn’t fit the values of the place.”

Don’t believe me? Listening to how the Essendon cheerleaders in the club, politics and media are sidestepping around the religious discrimination matter, by saying it’s just about values alignment is a lesson in how to obfuscate. Murray Campbell called that out here. Campbell states, in commenting on a politician local to the scenario in Melbourne:

He could say (correctly so) that it’s against the law to discriminate against someone in the workplace on the basis of their religion and yet he also believes it’s legitimate to force someone out of their job if their values don’t align (Ie their religious values). In other words, we don’t live in a society where there is a neat division between religion and secular, or between private and public. Everything is religious. Every value and action, every job and interest, is shaped by underlying commitments and views of the world, and these inevitably take on a religious flavour. It’s not as though some sexual ethics belong to a neutral space while religious views are found elsewhere. All values are religious in nature.

But I am going to suggest here that the courts are going to align themselves with the obfuscators. Unless of course they are pushed. And that is what Thorburn seems set on doing.

Which brings me to why it is right, as a Christian to do this. But first, for those Christians perhaps of a more irenic and progressive disposition in the public arena, if you want to fight for one injustice – and you could probably name a whole bunch that you have fought for or you pay others to fight for, then at least allow the fact that all injustices should be fought for. Let’s leave the intersectionality thing at the door on this one. I’m hoping in the church we’ve reached peak intersectionality when we see how far down the rabbit hole the secular version of it is going.

And besides, if you want to use that particular weapon, then the average low grade employee who fears for their job is probably in a less safe space than you are in your workspace. And if you’re in ministry or some form of theological institution, then they’re definitely in a less safe space. I mean, when it comes to this stuff, ministry is a sheltered workshop).

So Thorburn is doing it for justice for other individuals as well as for himself.

But he’s also doing it for justice in the bigger sense. The idea of what justice is. Because at the moment it seems to be descending to mob rule. And the rules of the mob are actually lawless. No rules at all.

So the same state Premier, Dan Andrews, who is more than happy to riff on a sermon at City on a Hill church some 9 years ago, one plucked from the vaults by some journo with a beef, is more than happy to keep some of his more questionable actions being investigated by IBAC (Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption) agency under wraps. For that’s how lawlessness works when the lawless hold the levers of power. One law for you, another for me.

But to that vexed question: What would Jesus Do? That seems to be the only question on everyone’s lips – or at least on myriad Christians lips – right? Well Jesus went to the cross for our sins and tells us to take up our cross daily. When he was reviled he did not revile in return. He allowed himself to be crushed by the Roman Empire, for our sakes. All true, all good.

But here’s the thing. He allowed it. All the power was with him. He could have commanded legions of angels to rescue him then and there. But he didn’t. Why? He allowed unjust power to crush him for our sakes. He allowed it so that mercy and justice would meet at the cross.

And here’s the kicker: You’re not Jesus. Yes you, me, all of us, we are to take up our cross daily. But it won’t be to die for the sins of the world. Don’t get a Messiah complex. We are called to do that in our times and in our settings.

A better example for what it will be like for us is the Apostle Paul. Here is someone who none of us reading this are ever going to say they’ve had it worse for the sake of the gospel. And are never going to likely have it worse. And he put up with a lot. I’ve just read Acts again, and this amazing man was amazing! He preached the gospel, performed miracles in the power of the Spirit, took beatings, mockery, false accusations, put up with hunger and nakedness, gave up his rights for the sake of the gospel…

But not all of his rights. And not all of the time. In order to avoid a beating Paul pulled out his rights as a Roman citizen. You can read of that in Acts22.

The mob rule is doing what the mob rule does (and did to Andrew Thorburn). It went crazy. And the hot reaction, perhaps tinged with fear around the concern for public order that so drove the Romans, saw Paul ready to be flogged. And he pulled out his trump card: citizenship. Justice mattered in the public square.

And even in Philippi in Acts 16 when Paul and Silas did get flogged, once again on the basis of a mob rule that would have given the online mob on Twitter against JK Rowling a run for their money, he pulls out the trump card again, and with more force. In fact it would seem he let himself be beaten to make it even more uncomfortable for the authorities. Read what it says:

When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.”  But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. (Acts 16:35-39)

“Now they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” Paul isn’t going to let off the hook those who were the champions of Pax Romana and the rule of law. He wanted them to be alarmed. Sure he wanted them to be saved too – and that’s the constant argument we might here from those who say we should just always take it on the chin. But let’s hold both things to be true: Our evangelistic witness is important, and so too is our commitment to a rightly ordered public square. Order is so important that Paul even demands it of the Corinthian Church on the basis that God is a God of order (1Corinthians 14:33). If you can’t hold both things in tension then we’re actually reducing religious belief to a set of private tenets – the very thing our opponents wish to do.

I think this is exactly why Andrew Thorburn is doing what he is doing. “You want me to skulk off quietly as if this thing was done with any sense of justice beyond the rough justice of mob rule? No! You come and argue your case in front of me. You come and show me that what you did was just and was the pattern of behaviour that you, as a supposedly modern society, want to exhibit!”

Yes he’s doing it for us, but I believe he’s also doing it to draw a line in the sand in the public square. Perhaps it’s good if the Essendon chair has to squirm a little. Perhaps it’s good if the club has to reassess why it’s pushing such agendas, at the risk of isolating some of its support base. Perhaps it’s good that the Twitter mob have to revisit something they thought they’d killed and buried a month or so ago. Perhaps it’s good that other Christians down the food chain might have a legal precedent to point to when their time comes. Perhaps it’s good to remind the hardening secular public square that these rights, which they take to be their home grown efforts (and subsequently theirs to dish out according to their own “values”) didn’t come up from the ether. UK historian Tom Holland is instructive on just how Judea-Christian our rights are. Roman rights were hyper-hierarchical and patriarchal in the extreme. Good luck being a slave of barbarian descent arguing a sexual abuse case against your owner.

And none of what we have to do has to be done in a churlish or angry way. It shouldn’t be done with any sneering anger or sense of revenge. Jesus wasn’t reviled, but as Peter says, entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. So must we, regardless of the outcome of justice on earth. But let’s not stop seeking it on earth.

No, nothing we do has to be done with a sense of entitlement. But it does have to be done with a sense of justice. Cool, detached justice in a culture that claims to champion justice blindly for all. Yes, maybe at the end of it all, Andrew Thorburn will still be considered “the bad guy”, but at least let’s make the supposedly good guys of the culture strain and contort themselves into proving it is to be the case.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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