November 30, 2022

Australians All Let Us Rejoice, For We are Safe and Free

In one of the greater insights into the national Australian psyche, famed expat cultural commentator, Clive James, made this statement about his fellow Aussies:

“The problem with Australians is not that so many of them are descended from convicts, but that so many of them are descended from prison officers.”

In other words, as much as we like to think differently, we’re not a bunch of lawbreakers, merrily going around leaving gates open and gunning down police officers like so many rebellious Ned Kellys. No, we Aussies are a bunch of rule keepers, and increasingly with the advent of the all-pervasive eyes of social media, rule enforcers. Or “snitches” as a previous generation might have sniffed at us.

While the word “gaslighting” may be the word of the year for 2022, according to the Meriam-Webster dictionary, the word of the year in Australia (and perhaps the last couple of years too), is the word “safe”. How can we be kept safe? How can the government ensure that we dwell in “safety”. Australians are addicted to safety.

In fact, the word change in the national anthem from “young and free” to “one and free” missed what we are really about. What we are really all about, and we’d be more than happy to trade a touch more freedom for a touch more of it, is safety.

How else do we explain so many of the landslide elections in our states in the post-COVID era? They were rewards for keeping us safe. Now I have to say I thought many of the decisions made by governments were good ones, but at the same time, as we’re seeing, some were over-reach.

And others – that seemed safe at the time, and which ushered in a sugar rush of poll approval – will end up having long term consequences that may undermine the safety reasons they were given in the first place. All safeties have to be balanced against other safeties.

But let’s leave COVID behind (could we please?). Because this is more about the language around safety in terms of our psychology, not our physiology. The issue of safety is so tied up with our collective psyche that it’s invaded areas of our cultural conversation that were previously free of it. And this is particularly true of how orthodox views held by the church around matters of gender and sexuality are being cast.

One of the interesting things about the recent state election in Victoria, is that the government was returned with an increased majority, off the back of a Premier whose lockdown of the state was the longest in the world. That’s right, not the longest in Australia, but the longest in the world. The language of safety – and the desire for it among the Victorian populace – was paramount.

And the Premier, and indeed his whole legislative agenda – has rolled out the same language over the past few years around churches and faith-based schools in terms of their employment and enrolment policies, as well, more worryingly for churches, their teaching programs. The Victorian government deftly pulled the “safety” card out when it came to pushing legislation that would restrict how schools staffed, or enrolled.

The concern around the safety – or otherwise – of conversion therapy, which was so remotely a threat, and so treated with disdain by most churches, became the reason behind some quite frankly disgraceful overreach by the government. When the state is suggesting to churches that not only their pastoral care, but their very sermons, may have to be vetted for how “unsafe” they may be for those with confusion around sexuality and gender, then we know how much safety is regarded by constituents.

The Christian perspective on sexuality is viewed not simply as wrong, but bad. Not simply as immoral, but unsafe (and therefore immoral). I would expect the language around safety, at a psychological level, will increasingly demand that the Christian perspective in the public square be deemed a social mental health risk. In fact it already is.

Currently the government in Victoria, and increasingly in other states of Australia as well, including my home state of Western Australia, is pushing the safety button long and hard – and loud. Not in order to convince voters that safety is the paramount issue at stake here, but because voters are already primed for it. All of the language around the issue has been about safety and suicide and self-harm. Politicians such as Dan Andrews are smart. They know that politics is downstream of culture (even if it was a hard right winger who came up with that apt aphorism).

So we find ourselves in the ironically delicious situation in which, at a time when we have never been as physically safe, we are being told that we’ve never been as psychologically unsafe. Which, by the way, is clear proof that we are completely and utterly sheltered from the trauma that many in the world put up with on a weekly basis. Real terrorising physical trauma leaves psychological scars well beyond what the average Aussie will experience ever.

Yet, when it comes to global domination, Australia is well down the list on most things, but not safety. We may go out of the World Cup tonight in Qatar against the Danes, but when it comes to the safety World Cup, we’re right up there on the podium, with the ticker tape fluttering and the champagne flowing.

This is partly why, to the consternation of many Christians in Victoria, the bogeyman of government overreach into the faith practices and the freedom of conscience of the devout (hello Andrew Thorburn), was not even on the radar of most of that state’s voters. I would expect this to be the case for other states as the months and years – and election cycles – roll on. What many hoped would be a key issue, just wasn’t. So let’s not kid ourselves.

Quite aside from the fact that most people in Victoria have no clue as to how religions work, and no interest in knowing either, the key concern was whether or not the government that was voted in would be able to continue the psychological safety project, even if it was failing – and clearly it was failing – on so many of the other projects that have actual safety implications, such as a terrible health system, ambulance ramping, clear corruption in terms of tendering processes for major works programs, and the like.

Dan Andrews’ victory speech contained this super smart slogan “Hope Always Defeats Hate”. Well it’s super smart, but not technically true. There are plenty of unsafe places around the world that prove exactly the opposite, as I am sure we will find out in Iran and China in the coming months and years. But for those who have not had to encounter actual hate – the kind that puts you up against the wall and shoots you, or in a re-education centre out the back of central Asia, then it rolls off the tongue quite easily.

Andrews also said this:

“As a community we were not, as some would say, divided, we were instead united in our faith in science and faith and care for and in each other,”

Sounds almost spiritual! And once again it is. Andrews – in line with many progressive governments around the Western world – knows that you have to pitch a vision of life that has more to it than science and rationality. There must be something almost transcendent and spiritual about it all. Dan Andrews is perhaps the cleverest politician of our generation in his ability to theologise and moralise for those who have limited capacity to do so for themselves. Super clever.

Meanwhile, as even supposedly conservative leaders turn towards a therapeutic language to describe reality (witness Peter Dutton caveating his comments around Andrew Thorburn’s church association) with these words:

‘The views that have been expressed by a pastor at this church in relation to gay people, or to the issue of abortion – they’re an abomination and I condemn those points that have been made by that particular pastor.’

Perhaps another way of putting it might be: “I for one welcome our new Safety overlords.”

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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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