October 19, 2015

The (Half) Problem with Eric

Dumped cabinet minister Eric Abetz, has gotten it half-right when he lamented (grumbled?) in this morning’s The Australian newspaper that the media in Australia mocks Christianity in a way that they do not mock other religions.

And when I say “half-right” I also mean that he has gotten it half-wrong.

Mr Abetz, a self-avowed social conservative who was sidelined when the more centrist Malcolm Turnbull took over as PM from Tony Abbott, said this:

“Just imagine making fun of somebody else’s religion of a different nature, as in if you are a Muslim, Buddhist or a Hindu. There is the double standard that you can basically vilify anyone from the Christian side of the tracks but don’t you dare touch anyone else.”

To that I would say, yes, Eric, I agree with you wholeheartedly.  There is a huge double standard here.  But then again, what did you expect from the cultural elite, fed as it was at university from a liberal/Left diet? You actually mention that. When a culture goes into decline, as I think the West is, the institutions that once made it strong are viewed as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Tim Keller puts it very well in New York, a part of the West well ahead of the bellcurve when it comes to suspicion of Christianity.  He states that when people call for a return to Christianity and Christian values, the general populace say, “Oh yes, we remember those times.  When blacks were not allowed at the front of the bus. We remember them well, and we have no wish to go back.”

And obviously there is also the little problem of “sin”. If you believe, as I sincerely do, that there is no name under heaven by which we can be saved other than Jesus, then anyone that espouses that notion is going to be castigated for spiritual reasons. People hate God! Those spiritual reasons often masquerade as a secular piety that is shocked that anyone could be so exclusive, but at its core it is a spiritual matter.  So at one level Mr Abetz is half-right.

But another, deeply significant level, Mr Abetz is half-wrong. And this “half-wrong” does not simply balance out the “half-right”. The half-wrong is a heavier half, so to speak.   Once the fulcrum tips in its direction, its weight wins out and sends the see-saw crashing over.

What do I mean by this? Well not only does Mr Abetz’s grumble sound like the whine of a someone losing their place at the head of the cultural table, it scoops up too many other side-issues that evangelical Christians hold differences on. For a seasoned political operator Mr Abetz was surprisingly naive, because he opened up the opportunity for the secular media to once again link political conservatism with evangelical Christianity. He may not have intended to (though he may have), but perhaps he hasn’t noticed how unhelpful that is.

Hence the manner in which The Australian framed the article is significant.  The online headline link reads: Media Mocks Christian Right. And therein lies the problem with politicians such as Mr Abetz; they seem unable to disentangle certain conservative political views, that may not necessarily be the only evangelical or biblical stance on a matter, from core gospel matters.  And they seem to do so with the assumption that all right-thinking evangelicals think this way!

Mr Abetz does not seem to countenance that he is conflating the gospel with a certain political position.  Not on everything, but on enough things to corrupt what Christianity actually is, especially in the eyes of the average Australian.

Here’s how the article goes on:

“Senator Abetz … said Australian political reporters did not give fair treatment to conservative policies, such as stopping the boats, scrapping the carbon tax and opposing gay marriage, often mocking the conservative point of view.”

Now as an evangelical Christian I think that gay marriage is a parody of true marriage, is untenable from the Bible, unproven as a happy alternative through time and space, and completely at odds with what we can see from nature (so no right-wing narki-ness please).  Hence it is a core gospel matter. However his comments regarding how political conservatives are treated  are injudicious, especially when he makes them at the same time that he is discussing Christianity.  He’s not speaking as private citizen Abetz at this point, and I am sure a large number of Christians wince when they read such comments.

Is there a standard evangelical Christian view on a carbon tax, and stopping the boats? Many will think so reading the article. Mr Abetz may claim he made those distinctions in his interview, but he should know better in this current clime.  Or perhaps he does know better, and believes that the Christian perceptive on these two things IS the contrastive perspective.  I hope not.

If Mr Abetz is as across the media as a once-senior government member should be then he should know that those two conservative policies are likely going to be viewed as the standard evangelical position on such matters, to which I would say, “Don’t speak for me Eric.”

Now I happen to think that those two issues are more nuanced than either Left or Right is espousing, but in my experience there are evangelical Christians who hold diametrically opposed views to Mr Abetz on both the carbon tax and the manner in which we deal with the world’s refugee problem.  Indeed I just spent a leadership weekend with 60 Christians from our three congregations, many of whom hold very different views on many social matters.  They are, however, bound by a gospel unity: a commitment to obeying Jesus as Lord as revealed in the Scriptures.

Hence I know – and share meals with – plenty of card-carrying evangelicals diametrically opposed to the government’s policies on matters, who, while not supporting same-sex-marriage, believe that Christian communities should be defined by what they are for, rather than what they are against. The path of cultural negotiation in Australia is becoming hard enough for evangelicals, but when the dead-ends and blind alleys of the political evangelical Right distract things, it becomes ever more difficult.

In short, Mr Abetz should read recent church history. Evangelical Christians in Australia looking to rescue the country through politics could learn the tragedy of the Christian Right in the USA in the 1980s and early 1990s, a thoroughly discredited movement that has, in part, been blamed for the  antipathy many Americans have with Christianity.  The over-reach of this group that attempted to pull America back to what it said were its roots was both toxic and ultimately futile.

Just ask evangelical convert, the once-lesbian Professor of English at Syracuse University, Rosaria Butterfield, what it was like dealing with the Religious Right in the USA, in the 1980s for the LGBT community.  It was tough going and nasty. The only way they survived was by doing strong community together for the marginalised and weak in the culture.  Sound familiar? It was just as tough and nasty for Rosaria Butterfield then, as it is for her now,  as she deals with many on the hard secular Left  who see her as a traitor and wish to shut her down.  That the secular Left should so treat her should be no surprise to Chrtistians. That those claiming Christ as king should have done so in the 1980s? Well shame on them.

Evangelicalism in Australia should not be able to put into a Right wing box, or a Left wing box for that matter.  Keller, as usual, has a pithy way of putting it, in his book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City:

Many people have a driving impulse to place every church somewhere on the ideological spectrum from liberal/left wing to conservative/right wing. But the gospel makes a church impossible to categorise in this way, for it brings deep, powerful changes that convert people from their sin and deep, powerful social changes as well. It defies the values of our hearts (selfishness and idolatry) and of the world (power, status, recognition, wealth)….A gospel-centered church should combine the “zeals” that are not typically in together in the same church.

If you ever get to read this Mr Abetz (you may have a little more time on your hands now to do so), then it may surprise you than if it came to a calendar clash between attending the pro-refugee rally or helping out at the pro-life pregnancy support service, there are many evangelicals who would have to flip a coin to decide which one to attend.  And that’s the way it should be when we truly understand the gospel.

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