SSM: Without A Pleb In Sight

The on again/off again plebiscite on SSM seems off again, today at least.  It’s been reported in The Australian today that the ALP will not support it on the basis that “it will fail and set back the cause”.

The Australian quotes ALP leader, Bill Shorten:

I’m worried Malcolm Turnbull will just stuff it up.He stuffed up the republic referendum, he stuffed up the NBN and he stuffed up senate reforms when he promised to fix it.

Mr Turnbull returned fire:

“There are arguments to put against a plebiscite. You can say it costs too much money and so forth. The worst argument, the absolute worst argument against a plebiscite, is to say that it wouldn’t be passed. So if Labor is seriously saying that, they are saying, ‘Don’t consult the Australian people because they won’t give you the answer you want.’ It is the most anti-democratic argument.

The issue threatens to drag on for another three years.

Or does it? It wouldn’t take much for a few Liberal MPs to cross the floor, and voila!  Of course that may not happen and we will simply have three more years of increasingly angry debate, until Parliament passes it after the next election – or the one after that, or the one after that.

It seems more likely than not that the legislation will pass one day – maybe without a pleb in sight of a ballot box.  That’s increasingly the way public ethical matters are dealt with in the late modern west these days, and that tide’s not for turning.

I have previously confessed to a certain ambivalence about a plebiscite.  It seems fairly obvious to me that there is no middle ground left to debate such issues and the cause of the gospel isn’t necessarily going to be furthered in all of this. This current SSM matter didn’t result in that middle ground of friendly discourse being vacated, it merely proved it had been already.

Faced with a difficult and complex matter in which we needed to have respectful discourse, we simply proved that as a culture we had no money in the bank to draw from. Don’t believe me?  Read the comments below the line in the newspapers.

There is no longer enough common ground among us to draw us together as a nation, and our love of football, sun, good times and Australia Day fireworks displays merely masks this reality.

This is something Bill Shorten has used to his advantage. That’s just good politics.  It’s bad public policy for sure, but the idea of good public policy determining political decisions seems naive in the age of wedge politics.

Besides, the  battle for language on this one is well and truly over and opponents of SSM have lost it, or are left scrambling for cover.  The progressive movements of the past forty years have proven smarter, tighter and more resourceful at every turn, and this is no exception.

The result?  Traditional marriage proponents have been reactive, not proactive. And reacting is always a bad look, akin to answering the question “Do you still beat your wife?” And political leaders who are pro-SSM have neither the reason nor the will to hose this issue down.  Why would they?

Orthodox biblical Christian communities should take note: campaigns, lobby groups, websites, reasoned arguments are simply no match for high functioning political parties.

So what does it mean for us?  A number of things:

1. Keep Doing What We Always Do. When the edict was signed by King Darius in Daniel ch6 that no one should pray to any other god or entity except the king, the story tells us:

 When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.

Note those last words: “as he had done previously”.  In other words a swift, sharp jolt in the political landscape didn’t upset him, didn’t see him scrambling to “get back to God” who would heal the land or whatever; it simply saw him do what he had previously done.  That’s a reminder to us to focus on the main task of God’s people.

Daniel didn’t open that window towards the crumbling Jerusalem, moaning and whining about how good the old culture was, or wishing it was 500BC again.  No, he opened that window towards Jerusalem in faith that the covenant God of Israel had a new Jerusalem to come, a new Jerusalem that itself was a shadow of the New Jerusalem of the new covenant to which we belong, and in which is our hope.

2. Trust God and Thank Him.  The guts of what Daniel did do is the guts of what we are still to do: trust God and thank Him.  Praise should be the defining characteristic of the Christian – both privately and publicly in the face of a turning culture. God’s Old Testament people AND His New Testament people are given the same brief:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. (1Peter2:9)

Yes we are citizens of Australia, or wherever, so there is a level of interest we must have with what goes on in our land – but I suspect we allow ourselves to get lost down rabbit holes more often than not.

Our primary allegiance is to another nation altogether, yet the decreasing regularity among many of God’s people to gather as that nation and proclaim those excellencies is a warning that not all is well.  In these uncertain times we need to be fixing our own house first. I see no point in “winning” the SSM debate, if we continue to battle a pick-and-mix Christianity in which a consumer model of church wins the day.

3. Admit Our Limitations/Focus On Our Calling.  I fear that too many Christians will burn up a lot of energy on this issue, without producing a lot of light.  Part of that is because they are not willing to admit their limitations in these difficult political processes, that they are no experts, and that they are just not cunning enough politically.

Now I know that sounds like a cop-out, but, as someone said to me yesterday, is this the hill we want to plant our flag on over the next three/six/nine years?  Jesus has already died on the one hill that matters.  Hebrews reminds us that we gather around Mt Zion – a joyous festal hill; the “Jesus is Lord” hill.  Jesus promised that when he was lifted up he would draw all people to himself: Proclaiming the crucified, buried, raised, ascended and returning King is our primary politics.

Sure some of us are charged to maintain a thoughtful and public voice on these matters, but God has not promised to rescue us through a political process, but through an anti-politics of weakness, non-impressiveness and the message of a crucified Messiah.

4. Gird Our Loins For Conflict.  I am not so naive as to think that when the SSM legislation is eventually passed we will all get on with our own lives doing things as we did them before.

The new secularism is extremely interested in us. This will be a watershed moment, not so much for marriage as for a variety of freedoms, including freedom of association and freedom of speech.

Former Human Rights Commissioner, and current government MP, Tim Wilson, who is both gay and pro-SSM, has stated that there are too few safeguards for issues of religious conviction.  His desire for a plebiscite was partly based on it being  good opportunity to give voice to the concerns of religious groups about how anti-discrimination legislation will play out in the public square. I fear that opportunity is now behind us.

All of the signs from overseas point to it being a rocky road ahead for churches, para-church organisations, faith-based schools, charities etc, especially in terms of funding or their right to make public pronouncements that reject legislated positions on ethics. There will be difficult decisions to make.  Some will cave in and follow the kings’ edict for the sake of expediency, all the while convincing themselves that this is what the smart thing to do is.

Others will find that their organisations either go to the wall or have to reinvent themselves because they wish to maintain fidelity and will not obey the king’s edict.  That’s been the norm for most Christians for most of history – we need to get used to it.

Hard secularism neither recognises nor respects public expressions of  religious faith, simply because it does not understand religious faith at all.  There will be conflict. You may be caught up in it.  It may cost you.  Just like it cost Daniel.

But if it does cost you, don’t be alarmed of the lions in the den. The lions may rage, but ultimately they are impotent.  Put your trust in the Lion of the tribe of Judah, for as Revelation 5 tells us “he has conquered” and he alone can unlock and enact the scroll of history.


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