While it seems a sure bet that same sex marriage will be recognised in Australia some time in the near future, I believe that “the how” will have as much ramifications as “the when” (I take it “the if” was never in doubt, except perhaps for those who thought that not only was Tony Abbott going to be Prime Minister, but that he would be so in to perpetuity).
Whilst some of those opposed to SSM believe that the result of a plebiscite would be favourable to their cause, I am not sure that it will, whether they win it or not.
West Australian State Premier, Colin Barnett, has called for the Federal Parliament to make the decision rather than it go to a national plebiscite. He believes that the debate will get “ugly” if the decision is not made by parliamentarians. I fear that he is right. I would hate to be involved in such an ugly debate, and hope that all evangelical Christians who love the gospel would conduct themselves with humility, clarity and self-deference if it comes to a plebiscite. If the lesser referendum issue of whether Australia becomes a republic became a “too hot to handle” topic for some time, how much more a plebiscite on same sex marriage. It could well be our chance to show ourselves gracious losers, who yet offer a far better vision of the good life than any sexual permutation, hetero/homo/otherwise could ever offer to the culture.
Of course many of those who want a plebiscite on the matter are confident that it will be voted down. At the same time they accuse those who want a parliamentary decision of wishing to circumvent the will of the people. The idea seems to be that parliamentarians can be publicly pressured and exposed by vested interest groups to vote in favour, hence a decision by parliament would skew the decision. Of course if that is the case then the people can have their own virtual plebiscite at the next election and vote out any parliamentarian who has failed to represent the wishes of their electorate on this one. That’s how parliamentary democracy works.
But as someone who believes that the only sexual relationship that God sanctions (and that is a big statement in itself) is heterosexual life-long monogamous marriage, I tend to side with Colin Barnett on this one. The reason is simple enough – 80 per cent of the population doesn’t care. They just want to get on with things, and assume that changing the definition of marriage for a minority of people won’t change their own lives, their own hopes, their own relationships, their own dreams. In other words, marriage in how Christians understand it isn’t an important enough issue for them to fight over. That’s why people live together, get divorced, get remarried, have sneaky affairs. Sure, believe what you want, sleep with whom you will, just don’t get me involved (aka, just let me live my life my own way).
And what will 80 per cent of the population see from the sidelines if the issue goes to a plebiscite? Hand-bags at 20 paces from two equally shrill groups, who both constitute minority positions in the eyes of most Australians. And what will most Australians do? Turn off and let that 20 per cent get on with it. And with the mainstream media a liberal institution, Christians who want to fight this one are going to have to pour a lot of time and resources and energy (and lose a lot of goodwill in the community when their angry brethren go toe-to-toe with those in the pro-SSM crowd who are angry and bitter about it).
Christians need to face up to this and get real. Would they rather win the hearts and minds of people through the gospel or through law? More to the point, CAN we win the hearts and minds of people through law? No, of course we cannot.
The problem we face is not SSM per se, but the deeply ingrained belief in Western culture that our satisfied self is our best hope. That is our idol. That is our ideal. To step on the toes of someone’s idol is going to raise hell – literally. We realise what our idols are when they are threatened.
Which should make angry Christians question their own anger at this point. What idol of ours is being threatened by a pagan culture expressing its own idolatry through a desire to join together what Christians believe God has not? My concern is that the idol under threat is not marriage (which is a poor idol anyway, as it has the most propensity to let you down through a good dose of sinful reality), but the desire to control the cultural narrative that Christians have long felt they have had, and which is now under perceived threat. Could it be that many Australian Christians are angry because their own idol is now under threat in a way they could never have envisaged thirty years ago?
As someone who has grown up with a marginalised understanding of the gospel in a non-conformist background, I would say gently to my establishment brothers and sisters who are used to having a seat at the table, it’s not that hard to make the mind shift, and it’s incredibly liberating! Besides, the true table we are awaiting is the table at the marriage feast of the Lamb. That’s our hope, right?
As I have said before, I think Christians are in for a tougher three or four decades as our ethical and communal framework is put under the microscope and subjected to all sorts of fallacious and mischievous legal challenges. There will be a concerted effort to silence the church from offering a traditional Christian ethic in the public square. And that may well happen.
Hence I firmly believe that the battle that does need to be fought is that for freedom of religious expression. And for what it’s worth I think that 80 per cent of Australians who don’t want this SSM fight would be keen for religious expression to be free – not because they are particularly religious, but because they don’t like the idea of another Australian not being allowed to speak their mind.
I believe that Christians should let zealous SSM proponents run their course, and then, as they inevitably will, let them over-reach themselves in the courts, and find that whilst they may technically have their law on their side, and hence be able to silence other perspectives on anti-discrimination grounds, that will never win the hearts of the vast majority of Australians that the Christian gospel needs to reach. In fact that is one of the issues coming up before the Tasmanian courts as we speak – an anti discrimination case being brought against the Catholic Church for promulgating, – shock, horror, – Catholic Church teaching among Catholic Church schools. The trans-gender Greens candidate Martine Delaney in bringing the case to court, may well win the battle, but something tells me that her approach won’t win her the war for peoples’ hearts.
Because, let’s face it, it’s not in the public square that we as God’s people will win the hearts and minds of our neighbours and friends, it’s in the private circles: the backyard barbecues, the sports clubs, the shared commutes, the catch ups with school mums and dads. That’s where the gospel can drip-filter down into the nook-and-cranny lives of those that the elite cultural floodlights can never shine into with all of their brilliant group-think zeal. Besides, in true Big Brother style, people pay lip service to that stuff, but silently resent it. The public square melodrama has ebbed and flowed for Christians for centuries, but the idol-smashing reality of the gospel message has ploughed on regardless. It doesn’t need cultural sanction to do so.
So, Parliament or Plebiscite, does it matter? I don’t think so. I firmly believe SSM is going to come in regardless, but I am not too worried about it. Why? because ultimately whilst I believe marriage is an important thing, I don’t believe it is an ultimate thing – no human to human relationship can be – and that’s something our culture doesn’t seem to get. Marriage is not ultimate, it simply points to what is ultimate – the ultimate reality that one day the True Bridegroom is going to return and that it is our role as his Bride to prepare ourselves for his appearing. And I am not sure a bun fight with the pagan culture on this issue will do anything more than distract us from that task.
(Feel free to disagree strongly!)