June 9, 2020

COVID-19 gave the church a blessing in disguise: let’s not waste it.

The bold prediction by atheist gadfly and newspaper columnist, Peter Fitzsimmons that COVID-19 would deal a blow to religion because older people – who were more at risk – were more religious, has been gloriously exposed as wishful thinking. If truth be told, despite the suffering (or perhaps because of it?) the church has received – and given – a blessing.

And this blessing has gloriously exposed Fitzy’s naivety  in glorious technicolor.

With the advent of so much church material online, and armed with a theology of suffering that sees hope in the coming of the King and His coming kingdom, Fitzy would surely have had to doff his red bandana to the global church’s response to COVID-19.

I suspect he is too churlish to do so, and will simply double down. Ah well, he is a Grinch, after all.

The list of Blessing videos from around the world, in which Christians in lockdown in various countries come together through technology, is surely proof enough of the rampant diversity of the church. Even in these torrid times around racial issues, the age AND the racial profile of those singing was so diverse! I hope that struck you.

Here’s a screen shot from one of the more minor Blessing videos, which links Australia with our nearest neighbour Papua New Guinea.  Aussies and PNG-ers singing God’s praise apart and together.

Screen Shot 2020-06-09 at 12.27.39 pm

It was emotional trawling through the different versions and seeing the stupendous range of people!  A bit like a fractured glimpse of Revelation 7:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

Now before we get ahead of ourselves, there is sadly much to do. Let’s not fall for an over-realised eschatological wish dream. Whenever we do that we are either sadly disappointed or angry when it fails to materialise. I want more diversity in our churches, and worry at how divided we are.  We’re actually under-represented in evangelicalism by the poor, the uneducated, whatever nationality they are.  And generally, blokey tradies are sparse too. What gives?

But still, it was great to see the diversity we do have played out on video! Even my birth country of Northern Ireland showed a racial diversity that it once did not have. When I was living there, there were two types of people by and large, Catholics and Protestants (religious or not), and they were white. Very few people of other nationalities. Yet the main UK Blessing video had a range of ethnic diversity within it even from churches within Northern Ireland.  And that’s a blessing in itself.

I find this super encouraging. And super challenging at a time like this. And can I say, can we hold on to that?  Because it seems as we come out of lockdown, rub our eyes, and look at all the smoke and tear gas and anger and anguish, we too will be tempted to shut into tribalism, even as Christians.

I am not naive, there is much work to be done in the church in areas of integration. But that does not excuse some of the attitudes I have seen towards other Christians by Christians this past week.

In the past seven days I have been “schooled” online equally by a white racist from South Africa who claims to be Christian, and someone on the more progressive end of the Christian church, who had completed a 180 turn-around on the safety or otherwise of large gatherings, specifically in relation to Black Lives Matter.

The first incident followed a short radio piece I did on why the various response to the race issue was complex, and be careful not to condemn. My wife and her family are non-white South Africans. Race issues have been table talk at our place for a quarter of a century.

But not complex to him! Not at all!  It was simple. I was wrong. And in addition, since in my radio piece I had quoted from a movie that is blasphemous (Marriage Story), I was completely in the wrong and should not be listened to. He spent a fair amount of time disparaging me, and anyone else who came to defend my position.

And then I was schooled again, from the opposite perspective. This time i I challenged someone on the left of the political spectrum over his apparent, very public 180 degree turn-around about attending large gatherings.

Weeks before he had public scolded churches for their ungodly push to open up. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for him to do both. He just should admit that he is saying one thing when previously he said another. Truth telling is important for the Christian. As is owning our inconsistencies.

He was having none of it.  Sadly, his reply was no more gospel than the previous bloke:

“I hear your point and it appears that I have contradicted myself. I think it is about what is right and just and our attitude that motivates our gathering.  Back in April, (when we were in a stricter lockdown than now), it was privileged, white churches demanding their own rights and not believing they needed to put protective measures in place.

It doesn’t “appear”. You did contradict yourself! And that’s okay! Just admit you’re a faulty human being who gets things wrong. I can live with that. So am I! I’ve got more respect for the leader of the march in Sydney who simply said she didn’t care whether the government said it was safe, she’s doing it anyway”. That’s honest! No twisting and turning, ducking and diving. That’s why, ironically, non-Christian protest movement makes Christian protest look so lame.

And the irony too! Apart from the fact that the most “privileged, white” churches seemed to have gone into lockdown faster and harder than most (so there was no factual basis to what he was saying), he has judged fellow believer’s motivations on the basis of race and social status. Because there’s not such thing as a privileged white church, just privileged white people who make up that church.  Fellow believers.

And how does “right and just” come down to personal feels? I want “right and just” to be “right and just” across the board. To refuse that truth means I can no longer call out wrongness and injustice with any integrity because I have no basis, other than my feelings for doing so.

To dismiss the motivations of other Christians based on the fact they don’t fit your categories for who is just or merciful is folly. It might provide a sugar hit for the next short while, but it cannot sustain a robust theology in the public square. All we are doing at that point is giving ourselves a complexity hall-pass that we are not willing to give to anyone we disagree with.

Friends, neither of those positions are the gospel. One is an obvious racist reactionary response that knows nothing of the love of Jesus. In fact I find it hard to believe that someone who is deeply hostile in terms of race relations can actually have the Spirit of God living within them.

But the other is not from God either. And here’s the tricky thing: it sounds more like it is. Yes we want justice, yes we want racial harmony, and yes we want to see historic wrongs righted.But a pastiche of gospel words slapped over the top of an identity politics approach will not deliver. It already isn’t.  Just read the hostility between professing Christians on Facebook.

The great irony of identity politics is that it is completely binary: There is the oppressor and there is the oppressed. There are good people and there are bad people, and it’s all based on an increasingly demanding intersectionality chart. And guess what – you’re never the bad person. Even the whitest, middle class person can paint themselves into some sort of intersectional salvation.

Yet the revolution eats its own, that’s a friendly warning. The ground of this false gospel, with its kingdom without a king (as opposed to the hard right’s desire for Christendom without a Christ), will sink away under you eventually, and take you down.

Perhaps the sobering reminder by someone who found himself on the wrong end of a revolution. The famed quote from Alexander Solzheinitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago exposes our naivety that we are complex (and good), while our opponents are simple (and bad).  Solzheinitsyn sweeps that away:

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

That’s why I have really appreciated those Venn Diagram memes doing the rounds that show we can hold different truths in tension about what happened and that be okay.  No need to deny that to make ourselves squeaky clean for whatever political revolution wishes to sign us up for its cause. Because let me assure you, that revolution will eventually chew you up if it is not grounded in Jesus.

If you don’t believe that, or if you chafe at it and turn from it, then be careful: you may be part of the problem, not part of the solution. You may not be the one singing a soaring blessing, you could be growling a curse, no matter what language you dress it up in.

So let that go, and embrace the fact that you might not be as squeaky clean as your political ideology demands you be in order to be part of it. You might find that you attend a BLM protest in spite of your previous stance on the matter. You might find that you soften your heart towards people who you previously despised because they were white and privileged (and odds are, you are as white and privileged as they are).

Jesus is the friend of sinners.  Lenin is not. Donald Trump is not. Jesus is. (I already know I’m going to get schooled for saying that too).

Let’s leave knowing that it is God’s desire for His world that it inherit a blessing, and He is working that out in his vastly diverse church.  I hope Peter Fitzsimmons puts aside his zealous certainty and watches it sometime soon:


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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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