August 30, 2019

This Is the Legislation You Get When the Common Ground Is No Longer Common

The response to the Australian Government’s just announced Religious Discrimination Act legislation is proof, if further proof were needed, that there is no longer a shared vision of the good in our country.  The common good is no longer common.  The common ground is shrinking – and fast.  This is the legislation you get in such instances.

Religious leaders are scathing of the legislation, and the lack of consultation around it.  But so are gay activist groups.  Some might say that if both sides are unhappy  the government must be doing something right.

That’s the positive.  The negative is this:  Attorney General Christian Porter’s legislation is the government’s way of putting a legal fence around warring neighbours to keep them apart.  It’s an admission that the age of rapprochement is over.

Increasingly we can no longer live with our deepest differences in any meaningful, positive manner.  It seems we need to be protected from each other in ever more complex, legal, ways.   This shrinking common good simply means we’re in for a more litigious society.

The government has pushed all of the contentious decision to the courts, as far away from itself as possible. If you’re a young person thinking about a career that has good prospects, I’d say law is the way to go.

This is not a new tactic, indeed I’ve seen it before. So for example, in congregational churches when an intractable division occurs between two members of staff, decisions are always pushed as far away as possible, in a vain attempt to soften the result.

Common ground between the two opponents – and their backers – shrinks. Nervous leaders, keen to avoid conflict, invent all sorts of ways for other people to resolve the conflict.  A bylaw here that ends a meeting early; a sub-clause there that no one had seen until just before the decision was supposed to be made.  All of these are designed to insulate the church leadership from making an unpopular decision.

And so the matter drags on for months and months. Car park meetings are held, congregation members are divided, but no final decision is made. Until one day, finally, with everyone shattered emotionally, and  backed to the edge, someone gets pushed over the cliff.   It’s no solution. The results are always division and hurt within the church.

Of course this shouldn’t happen in church, because the divisions could be overcome by recourse to the gospel (1 Corinthians anyone?), but without the gospel – or indeed any shared vision of the common good – our culture must resort to law.  And as we know, law will not lead to life, but to death.

Porter’s declaration that the legislation is a shield, – a protection from discrimination claims – , rather than a sword, – a promotion of religious freedom- , merely shows this to be the case.

Shields are designed to parry the blows of an opponent. They do protect, but only insofar as you actively hold them up.  And that means we’re going to be kept busy! Faith-based groups such as schools can expect to spend an inordinate amount of time fending off the blows from Sexular Culture activists through the court system.

They may win their cases, thanks to the legislative shield, but they’ll use up awful lot of time and energy doing it, time and energy that would be better spent promoting their vision of the good life.

But of course that’s precisely what their opponents don’t want.  Because not only do they not share that vision of the good life, they view that vision of the good life as the bad life.  They view the vision promoted by Christian schools for example, as exclusive, discriminatory, and ultimately unsafe and toxic.  And no amount of “Yes, buts” will change that.

How do we get common ground out of all that, when we’re so diametrically opposed?  The government can’t answer that question either, which is why it’s pushed the decisions to the courts.

Yet in spite of this impasse, some things are on our side. So, for example, faith-based schools are the education institutions of choice for many secular Australians.  The savour of the gospel keeps attracting people who have no gospel background at all.  The common ground schools create is incredibly attractive to many people of no faith.  Why? It’s hard to say, but to borrow a well know Aussie phrase “It’s the vibe, your Honour.”

This does give us a unique opportunity. If the vibe of a faith-based school is attractive to so many non-Christians, then such schools can become experiments in rebuilding common ground.   They can hold to a particular ethical and theological framework, but continue to welcome all who come to them.  And in so doing, create questions in the minds of those who ostensibly don’t share our beliefs, but feel compelled by the vision of life we embody nonetheless.

Christian schools can use the legislative shield to ensure their freedom to choose staff, and then model what living with deep difference looks like.   Sure, there is going to be pushback, but the shield might just do the trick!

If this is the legislation we’re getting, then perhaps it’s time to knuckle down and create a compelling vision of the good life, an area of common ground in which differences can  both be acknowledged and tolerated.

The common good may no longer be as common as it was, but it’s still possible to reclaim some land. And, despite its inadequacies, this legislation may give us the chance to do that.


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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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