The Times They Are a’Progressin’

Editor-at-Large Paul Kelly is surely right in The Australian newspaper today when he says that the current freedoms of religion are set to be lost for the sake of the progressive cause.  And in saying this all Kelly has had to do is point to the past fifty years of progressivism in the West.

What I like about the likes of Kelly and Greg Sheridan from that same newspaper is that they are not afraid to say what many Christians won’t – or can’t say.  Many Christians are unable to envisage a day when actual religious freedoms in this country won’t be wound back; either because they don’t want to think about it, or because they have little understanding of history – either political or church history.

And you can see why they can’t imagine such a day.  With a recent church culture steeped in Baby Boomer feel good services, with so-called attractional sermon series on finances or how to feel good about yourself (the felt-needs), we’ve been marinading in baptised version of late modern individualism for the past three decades. It’s no wonder that the general Christian culture is deluded into thinking the good times will continue to roll.

And insofar as much of that version of Christianity merely appropriated the shiny, secular self-as-locus culture, my worry is that many church goers just won’t care if those freedoms are lost because the good times so described may well indeed roll on.  The pang of the Zombie Apocalypse and its attendant loss of religious freedom will be anaesthetised by the Beautiful Apocalypse of better and shinier white goods and technology. And cheap airfares.  Don’t forget cheap airfares.

Well they won’t care until either the fees at their local independent Christian school go through the roof due to government funding being cut, or the school closes down altogether.

The time to start equipping God’s people for the spikier, more confronting times we are facing is not now. It was back then, when the storm clouds were still far off, but visible.  Yet I can’t help feeling that many a church leader failed to read the signs of the times, and have not steeped their people in the language of alien and stranger.

And as the saying goes, you can’t fatten the pig on the way to the market.  It’s hard to play catch up.  What we have now is the shock of many Christians in the West, who are almost unable to believe this is happening, and assuming the best outcome, with no real reason or logic for doing so.

The likes of Kelly and Sheridan have been pointing towards a collapse in Western values for some time; and with the knowledge that those values were built upon a Christian bedrock.  People like Kelly and Sheridan have been reading the books and authors that many Christians simply ignored, or that Christian K-Mart couldn’t find a place on the already laden  shelf for.  Sure the Christian framework did not always live up to its claims, but it’s not as if there were not sections within the church prophetically – and mournfully – calling it out for its lapses.

So when Kelly made this observation this morning –

Conservatives lost the issue of same-sex marriage. They are likely to lose the issue of religious freedom. They are losing the battle over legalising euthanasia.

– he’s got history on his side.  Name one ethical battle in the past forty years that has swung the conservative way.  There isn’t one.  Yet the flurry to win the next one continues.  The call goes out to “retake the institutions” as if that is even a possibility any more.

Now I am not going to label Christianity as only conservative – or indeed even as being defined by conservatism -, but insofar as many parts of the Christian framework are in the crosshairs of the hard progressive agenda and are indeed pejoratively labelled as “conservative” by that tribe, then conservative is a badge I’m often willing to wear.

Of course the complexity of it all is that many a Christian loudly and proudly claims to align with the wider progressive, indeed views it as a more (the only) faithful expression of public theology.  Yet that “loud and proud” has been noticeably absent when it comes to defending Christian brothers and sisters who hold to a perspective on ethical matters that the secular progressive agenda has labelled toxic or unacceptable.

Many progressives who claim the gospel can bask in the happy knowledge of having it both ways.  They’re part of the church.  But they’re part of the church that the progressive secular agenda is willing to put up with in the public square and who they are happy to co-opt.  But it’s a case of cherry picking the issues. They never seem able to  stray into areas that would embarrass the secular progressive agenda, and possibly exclude their voice in future conversations.

They never protest too loudly about any human rights issue that are explicitly refused at the secular table. So think any matter on abortion (even partial-birth), or the rights of children to know their biological parents, or the fact that euthanasia is deeply problematic.  All of these matters have been reframed by progressivism and declared to have been decided already and no longer open to rational discussion.

In fact, not only do progressives within the church not protest loudly, they’re silent on these matters to the point that they will not even defend their conservative brothers and sisters who do wish to discuss them. And that’s in spite of the fact that those three ethical matters mentioned above will be leveraged in coming debates about the limits or otherwise of religious expression and liberty of conscience.  Gifted, vocationally minded Christians will lose their jobs in the public service industries and beyond, over their conscience in these matters.  They already are.

Perhaps progressives in the church know that upsetting conservatives within the church won’t bring down the same amount of wrath upon their heads as upsetting the secular progressive agenda.   I hope it’s that, because if they’re simply silent because they agree lock, stock and barrel with the secular agenda in these areas, well that’s a betrayal of the ethics of Jesus for a start.

But it could just be the fear of being scorched. Just read the tweets and placards that rain down upon the heads of those who dare to challenge the progressive shibboleth.  The language makes Donald Trump’s sound puritanical.  Disagree or agree with Lyle Shelton – the former leader of the Australian Christian Lobby -, it’s hard to imagine how the filth that’s flung at him on social media is in anyway honourable or making a positive contribution to debate in the public square.

It’s hard calling for a public square that honours noble speech when every second tweet is a expletive ridden slap-down of an opponent.  We’re at a stage in which, when the future Queen of England wears a dark green dress instead of the prescribed black dress all Twitter hell breaks lose.  What to do? Better off to ‘fess up to being a witch now, then apologise for the bad, and so be done with the hanging quickly, rather than endure the increasingly sordid and personally destructive trial by social media that will come your way if you don’t.

It’s instructive that the first thing the progressive agenda has jumped up and down about in terms of Barnaby Joyce’s recent infidelities is not so much the fact of the infidelity, but with whom it was carried out.  “Power-imbalance” is the new way to express outrage at adultery, because to express outrage at adultery would open a chink in the currently impervious armour of a world view in which a transcendent judgement does not get a look in.

And what’s more interesting is how quickly many within the Christian world followed suit – as if that was the primary problem to be prophetic about.  “Thou shalt not commit Power Imbalance” is one of the new commandments.  As Charles Taylor would observe, it simply shows how captive many are to the modern social imaginary.  So it takes Paul Kelly pointed out the obvious nonsense in this argument:

This is not just about halting sexual abuse or harassment, an essential goal. The progressive vanguard has moved far beyond this — it is now focused on power and argues that consensual sexual relations based on a power imbalance are suspect on grounds of exploitation. Just think about that crazy idea.

Surely the true test of whether your ethics are gospel ethics and not merely progressive – or indeed conservative – is whether you are a “both-and” person or a “yes-but” person.

So when someone jumps up and down about gun control, don’t be the person who says “Yes, but what about abortion?”  And when someone jumps up and down about abortion, don’t be the person who says “Yes, but what about gun control?”  Be a “both-and” person.  That would make sense of the gospel.

And if that means in the current clime we’ve got a better chance of sorting out issues in the US to do with gun control, then run with that thing now in light of the terrible atrocities being experienced, and see how far it can go, rather than glowering in the corner, waiting for people to acknowledge the evil of abortion before you lift a finger or raise a voice.  Life is far more complicated than the “Yes, but” version of our own biases.

And if you’re tempted to lazily slap down the conservative wing of the church for railing against abortion by claiming Christians haven’t taken responsibility for babies born into tough situations, then just know that there are many Christian couples (including several in my congregation) who would love to adopt an unwanted child in this country, but are having to spend huge amounts of money and time going overseas to adopt because, as they say “abortion has killed off the adoption industry” in Australia.

Take the photo below as an example of the problem.  What effect would adding the words “I am a partially born baby – abort me” to this otherwise admirable list have?

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It would immediately label you a transgressor. If I ticked every example on that list and simply added a biblical understanding of the sanctity of human life cradle to grave, and how it was not ours to take away regardless of circumstance, I’d be barred from any protest march on the grounds that i am doing violence.  The fact is you can hold all of the others on this list with deep conviction and be welcomed to the progressive clan.  But add those in and you are beyond secular redemption.  You are a secular sinner with no hope of redemption.  History has passed you by.

The politics of Jesus is not the politics of the conservative or the progressive, it is the rule of the King of the Universe over all of life regardless of those lives we disregard.  All will stand before the King answerable for what we have done in the body, to our own bodies and to the bodies of others. All life belongs to him, is answerable to him, and is ultimately not defined by itself.   That should make conservatives pause and think when they say “Yes-but what about?”, and it should make progressives pause and think when they say “yes, but what about?”