Christians are on a hiding to nothing if they play the persecution card in the upcoming discussion on religious freedom in Australia.
There is zero traction in that approach or, as is more likely, there is negative traction in that approach.
Let’s be clear. In our current clime it will simply make things worse. Any such claim will be viewed merely as a churlish persecution complex from those losing their seat at the cultural table.
A recent article by theologian Robyn Whitaker in the online journal The Conversation is a case in point.
It debunks the idea of persecution on two fronts.
Let us be clear: Christians in Australia are not being persecuted. They have the freedom to gather and worship freely, to meet in public places, to join the army, to teach, to vote, and to be prime minister. Christians own and run vast institutions. They are still the largest religious affiliation in the country (at 52% in the 2016 census). These are hardly the signs of a persecuted group.
To claim persecution is not just historically inaccurate, it is offensive on at least two levels in the current context.
Those two offensive contexts, according to Whitaker, are:
- Christians around the world who face actual persecution that is life-threatening.
- Christians in Australia being historically – and partly – responsible for life-threatening persecutions towards the LGBTIQ community.
You can see the flow of the arguments. Real persecution for Australian Christians is a long way off getting you killed for your faith.
For most Australians the fact that Christians are free to do all that stuff mentioned above is proof enough that persecution is all in our minds.
But secondly, and more forebodingly, the gathering narrative fortified here by Whitaker, is that Australian Christians have handed out plenty of persecution themselves, namely to the gay community.
The Christian church has a terrible track record toward LGBTIQ people. Hate speech and abusive conversion “therapies” have been used by Christians against the LGBTIQ community. Even churches that consider themselves moderate cannot underestimate the effect on someone’s mental health of subtly yet consistently being told there is something “wrong” with them for their sexuality. Yet that is what many churches have either actively preached or communicated in non-verbal ways.
Now there are plenty of caveats in this article that I would take issue with.
First, it’s no surprise The Conversation prints a piece that maximises Christian blame for the negative experiences of the LGBTIQ community down the years. It’s a left-leaning magazine with a progressive agenda after all. It’s hardly going to give equal time to an alternate viewpoint.
And 52 per cent Christian? Australia? Gimme a break. Unless of course you redefine the word “Christian” to mean whatever you wish it to mean thereby emptying it of meaning. Whitaker’s tactic here is to highlight that majorities cannot by dint of their majority status, be persecuted, especially when they are powerful majorities at that.
And the mental health issue is complicated. Stats in Scandinavian countries, where gay marriage has long been supported, church attendance is low, and church public influence is minimal, shows a stubbornly high mental health crisis in the gay community.
Something more is going on in the mental health of the gay community that cultural acceptance and “the church as bogey-man” narrative is not solving. But say that in the public square and brace yourself.
And finally, Whitaker’s own poorly constructed proof-texting article about same sex marriage on the ABC website (she claims it was critical scholarship) prior to the marriage vote, betrays her liberal, revisionist bias. That article was an example of what not to do with the Bible. This article shows she is happy to stand apart from traditional Christians and no longer identify with them tribally.
All that aside, Whitaker has certainly picked the mood and tone of the Australian public and is running with it.
And this is where I think that the persecution rhetoric is ultimately self-defeating for Christians in the religious freedom debate. This is where I think that those gearing up for a battle and filling the war chest for an advertising onslaught have a tin ear.
Sure I know that Jesus said that persecution includes vitriol and slander for belonging to him, but this is the age of Twitter and Facebook for goodness sake! Slander and vitriol are the new normal. Good luck playing that card.
Christians thinking of putting hard earned money, energy time and hope into the persecution game need to get out of their bubble, and fast.
To be successful such as narrative would take a level of sophistication, creativity and positive story-telling that was clearly absent from the “No” vote in the marriage debate.
Has anything changed in six months? If the average Aussie hears Christians claim persecution here’s what they hear: The spoilt baby is squealing and throwing a tantrum because it’s being told to share its toys with other babies.
Here’s how Whitaker puts it:
And while some Christians fear job loss over their opinions, the weight of current evidence is that the people who have actually lost their jobs are those who have been LGBTIQ or allies.
It’s simple. The persecution narrative is historically not the Christian narrative in the West. And those to whom it has belonged are not about to hand it over to us. And they’re in a strong position culturally and emotionally to refuse it to us. Besides, even if they did hand it over, we’d muck it up.
Why do I say that? Because the gay community has spent a lifetime tapping the subversive power that comes from being a creative minority because it was persecuted. And now that its moment in the sun has arrived, it is spreading its not inconsiderable wings and dazzling all and sundry with its colour.
Majority groups are never subversive and rarely creative. They don’t have to be. Majority groups don’t have to tell stories; the culture tells their story for them. And that’s been the case for Christianity in the West. Until now. And it’s made us lazy.
Now, with our influence waning rapidly, and the house of cards falling. we’re panicking. We didn’t trained for this. Didn’t envisage this. Couldn’t contemplate what it might feel like to be on the outer not out of choice but out of necessity.
Even if we were given the chance to write a creative narrative that captured public imagination, we’d be cack-handed. We haven’t cut our creative teeth on the edge of the culture. We’re like an under-training runner about to tackle a marathon. We simply haven’t put in the miles.
I keep hearing how we have to tell better stories if we are to capture the public’s imagination. Indeed I am currently reading A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing by Glynn Harrison.
Well what are we waiting for? The enemy to overrun our trenches? Surely the time to pull the trigger on a better story is now. But our stories in the public square remain as stubbornly dry as our powder.
Still not convinced? Then try this test. Just the other day I heard the following statement about the very real likelihood of the loss of religious freedoms in Australia:
“If society moves towards prosecuting those holding a minority view with no evidence they are causing any harm to society, we are in deep trouble.”
That was said with no level of irony. Zero.
That was said with no admission that that is exactly what many Aussies believe happened to the gay community, and in which we were complicit either be omission or commission.
There is now an overwhelming recognition by many in our culture that our primary cultural task is to repair the damage before we move on to anything as nebulous as shoring up poorly conceived ideas about what freedom is, and which rights override which rights.
I road tested that statement above with the first person I spoke to after hearing it. A non-Christian family member. His response? A snorted reply: “You mean the gay community, right?”
If your first thought is not “gay community” when you hear that statement then you’re in that Christian bubble I am talking about. If your first thought is not how that might blow back in our faces if we try to employ it for ourselves in the public square, then you’ve got the tin ear that I mentioned.
And if this is so, then you’re going to be increasingly angry and confounded when you experience what feels like persecution, but which you’re not culturally permitted to attach such a label to.
The job insecurity for not signing up to Wear it Purple Day. The cultural hostility in your education institution that makes you self-censor. The scorn from family members around the Christmas table. The comedic or caricatured depictions of homophobic Christians on TV shows.
All of those things will happen – are happening – in Australia at the moment. But they are not viewed as persecution. They are simply considered a case of the declining majority gatekeepers getting a taste of their own medicine.
These experiences are viewed at best as unfortunate side-effects, or at worst as karma; a comeuppance for those holding outdated and dangerous views that kept a truly persecuted minority from their own seat at the table.
But the money will be spent nonetheless. The poorly constructed ad campaigns that fail to tell a better story will be made regardless. The expectations will be raised again. And then those same expectations will be dashed again.
The expectations will be dashed just as they were in November. Just as they have been at every cultural cross-roads moment in the Sexual Revolution for the orthodox Christian public. Just as they will be next time.
We’re like the unfortunate Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who, after all his limbs are hacked off in an increasingly futile exchange, yells out “Come back here! I’ll bite your legs off!”
Is there a solution? There is, but it’s not an easy one. And the reason it’s not easy is that we lack that vital aspect of the fruit of the Spirit: patience.
If we’re going to capture the public imagination with a creative story, then it’s probably going to have to be written from the margins. It’s probably going to have to be crafted over a long period of time. It’s going to have to be revised, redrafted and road-tested in far humbler, and more painful, circumstances than we are used to.
We’re going to have to be patient, we’re going to have to sit out on the edge of the culture speaking to the centre, not from the centre.
We’re going to have to commit to tasting and seeing that while this might be bad, the Lord is still good! We’re going to have to start behaving like a creative minority not simply because we have to, but because – like our Saviour – we get to.
None of this is to say this should fill us with glee. The society that sloughs off the Christian frame may soon find that the fruit of the gospel withers on the vine once the root of the gospel is cut. But it may not. Things may tick along nicely for years, decades, centuries.
That all means we have time. Time to live as a creative minority in a hostile culture. Time to experience what the gay community experienced for so long.
And time is what is needed. Only time will allow us to construct a better story. Better stories aren’t white-boarded around lobbyists’ board tables. They are put together piece by painful piece in the midst of struggle.
When that happens, and only when that happens, will we find that we’re living a better story, not just constructing one for a thirty second commercial. Then, and only then, will we find we are experiencing our story as a better story, not just a smarter story designed to one-up our opponent.
And then, and only then, will we be well placed to offer our story as a better story to the war-torn and world-weary who arrive on our doorsteps having discovering that the stories they tied their hopes to were not better stories after all.