How can a Christian be complicit in incarceration, torture, and murder? With discomfiting ease, it turns out.

Australia's Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison is, as he regularly makes clear, a devout Christian.

Whenever this subject is raised people point out, not unreasonably, that he is therefore in for a heck of a time in the afterlife, since the Bible is chock-full of instructions about how Jesus Christ felt people should treat each other:

Galatians 6:2 - Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

Deuteronomy 15:11- For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.

Matthew 25: 34-40 - Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherits the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Mark 12:31- And the second [is] like, [namely] this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

…and so on. It's fair to say that Jesus was pretty unambiguous about how he felt about helping those in need (summation: he was fiercely pro) and also how he felt about those who harm and oppress others (spoiler: anti).

Thus people like to ask rhetorical questions like “how can Morrison reconcile his faith with his actions regarding asylum seekers? You know, who have broken no law, are asking for our help, and are locked away in subhuman conditions to rot until they beg to be returned to the tender mercies of those they fled in the first place?”

And it's a fair question, and most of the time the response is of the flavour “because he is presumably a monstrous hypocrite”. However, it's a mistake to think that Morrison's beliefs are at odds with his actions. In fact, according to the precepts of his church, Morrison's more on the side of God than that busybody do-gooder Jesus.

Morrison belongs to Shirelive, a giant Pentecostal church in the Sydney suburb of Sutherland. It's an evangelical Protestant church of the clapping-and-waving variety and falls under the charismatic umbrella of what is somewhat dismissively called “prosperity theology” - the idea that material success is a sign from God that you're doing His work.

The flipside of this doctrine is that those who are not doing well are clearly not in God's good graces. Such as, for instance, the poor, or the sick, or those fleeing persecution from repressive regimes by buying passage for their family with people smugglers and being intercepted on the high seas by Australian Customs Vessels.

You may justifiably ask how this can possibly work theologically, given everything that Jesus said about camels and the Kingdom of Heaven and needing to liquefy the rich to get them through the eye of a needle. And the answer is that it's via a handy bit of doctrinal sleight of hand.

Morrison's church believe in Predestination, the notion that God knows absolutely everything about everything from the moment of creation until the end of the world. Long before you were born He knew everything about you – what you'd do, what you'd think, who you'd meet, the very specific types of pornography you'd enjoy, everything – including whether or not you were going to Heaven or Hell.

The guts of the idea is in this passage:

Ephesians 1:4-6, 11-12 - For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will - to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves... In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

The Calvinist branch of the Protestant church took this particularly to heart, coming up with a series of precepts known by the acronym “TULIP”, with each point backed up by carefully cherry-picked bits of scripture.

TULIP stands for:

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

Before you get too excited, total depravity is recognition that people are completely affected by sin and thus your opinion on what's right and wrong is irrelevant – after all, you're just a big old sack of sin!

Mark said “man's heart is evil” (Mark 7:21-23), Ephesians declared that we are “at enmity with God” (Eph. 2:15), Corinthians says we can't understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14).

You still think people shouldn't be locked in prison camps for asking for help? You reckon you know better than God, do you? Ba-bom: wrong! You just don't get it, because you're a sinner.

Unconditional election refers to the above idea in Ephesians that God nominates people for salvation and damnation without condition: in other words, your eternal fate is not decided by your behaviour in this life. You could murder your way through your days or dedicate your life to charity and it'll make zero difference to God since He's already decided where you're headed. Romans makes clear that some are chosen and some are not (Rom. 9:15, 21), so: boom.

Seem weird to you? How's about you just shut your sin-hole?

Limited atonement gets around that whole “Jesus died for your sins” thing: turns out he only died for the sins of those already chosen. Matthew said Jesus died for the “many”, you know, not the all (Matt. 26:28), and there was that whole separating-the-sheep-and-the-goats thing (Matt. 25:32-33). So don't go looking to the J-dog for moral authority there, Sinny McSinnington.

Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints reaffirm that only God gives grace and once given you can't exchange it for grace for others, de-gracify yourself, or return it for the cash equivalent. I'm paraphrasing, admittedly.

What's the upshot of this? Basically, it doesn't matter what you do in life, your fate is already sealed. Only God can judge whether that's fair and since it's God then yes, it is.

Calvinist ideals proved remarkably influential in the United States. Some of the Pentecostal churches have a particularly strong Calvinist influence and are predictably very big on the idea of Predestination, as befits a church that is focussed on one's individual, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

According to the church, not only can you not possibly understand how God works because you're neck-deep in sin, the mere act of questioning the reasoning is in itself morally dubious. As Romans 3:10-12 helpfully puts it: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

So what does this all mean for Morrison?

Well, he knows that those who come across the seas are all doomed to damnation – after all, God wouldn't have plonked them in the middle of the civil war in Syria if He didn't want to punish them for their unchangeable wickedness – and therefore locking them up indefinitely to self-harm in disease-riddled camps is perfectly fine. He's not going to examine his conscience on the subject, because the act of doing so would be an affront to God.

Meanwhile, he's on a sweet parliamentary salary with a high-profile government portfolio, a wife and kids and a lovely house in a quiet Sydney suburb. God's clearly giving him a tangible version of a spiritual high-five.

So to answer the original question: how can Scott Morrison be responsible for overseeing all these human rights atrocities and call himself a Christian? With absolute ease. And he probably sleeps better than you do.

After all, it was predestined.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Catholic compassion and asylum seekers

Could the asylum seeker issue give the Catholic Church a way to establish itself as a force for compassion and save Australia’s politicians from themselves?

In 1795 Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave a series of lectures on ‘Liberty and Truth’ that so incensed the fury of the aristocrats and triggered the unruliness of their press gangs that he found himself fearing whether “the good I do is proportionate to the evil I occasion”. He persisted regardless, and in the Bristol lecture said this about the benefits of privilege and abundance:

The purifying alchemy of education may transmute the fierceness of an ignorant man into virtuous energy, but what remedy shall we apply to him whom plenty has not softened, whom knowledge has not taught benevolence?

Seven years before Coleridge gave the Bristol lecture, in 1788, a fleet of British boats arrived in Australia, and were followed by more boats for many years as those in power unburdened their cities of uneducated and impoverished trouble-makers by sending them to a far-away place.

Today, many of the world’s boat people flee their homes to seek freedom from poverty, starvation and brutality. In one of many northern hemisphere incidents last month, as the weather improved and the seas calmed on the Mediterranean, the Italian navy rescued 1,100 people in leaky boats off the coast of Lampedusa, at a time when boats coming from Africa were reported to have increased ten-fold. Thousands of desperate people have died at sea in recent years, attempting the trip to Italy. If such a thing as a queue existed, most would not have had time to look for it.

A relatively small number of people on boats seek refuge by taking a less well-worn but distant and dangerous voyage south to Australia. For those that take the southern option, no safe haven awaits. Instead they risk everything to attempt arrival in a country riven by a different type of desperation. For more than a decade now, the two major political parties have frantically striven to outdo each other in displays of pathological aversion towards outsiders arriving by boat, including outsiders escaping from regimes whose conduct Australia officially denounces. Australians are being told, and many tell themselves, that we are being over-run by boat arrivals because we’re a soft touch. But the issue is not new and we are just one of many destinations.

How does a misunderstanding of such proportion come about? Governments of civilized nations tend to become repressive by iteration. Hubris develops step by step and often must astound those who exercise unhindered power, as much it does those who groan under it. The powerful might wonder at times how they get away with it, but as they do, they become bolder until no lie is too big to tell.

When Hannah Arendt wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem in the 1960s she asked whether evil arises from fanatical extremism or is the product of mere thoughtlessness. In the end, she leaned to the latter view. If ordinary people tend to conform to mass opinion, readily obey orders or are passive when unspeakable things are happening around them, then Adolf Eichmann could rightly defend himself by claiming he was just an ordinary citizen doing his job. While Arendt entertained that defence and lost friends for doing so, she also agreed that Eichmann’s refusal to share the earth with fellow human beings, Jewish and others, was reason enough to justify his conviction.

There are those for whom a defence of ordinariness does not work. The Pope in Rome is one of them, as are his cardinals and archbishops who are looked to around the world for moral and spiritual guidance. Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy recently revisited the vexed issue of Eugenio Pacelli, known also as Pope Pius XII. Causing unease to this day was Pacelli’s silence when Jewish refugees were being rounded up around Europe and taken away in trainloads to unknown locations. An authority on the history of Christianity, Professor Duffy reluctantly accepts that Pacelli was a sophisticated diplomat and that he judged, with some justification, that a papal denunciation would have made matters worse for those detained, little knowing at the time that on the scale of savagery that secretly prevailed, matters could not have been made much worse.

If the present running sore of boats and refuge-seekers in Australia can be traced to the Tampa incident in 2001, the decade that followed has been marked by escalating iterations to such an extent that the only way one of the two major political parties can now demonstrate it is more resolute than the other is to display greater degrees of pitiless insensitivity than its rival.

Maybe the recent Manus Island incident will be a turning point, maybe it will now be clear to all that we are on journey of no return and it’s not a journey a civilized nation wants to be taking. Against such a view are the cheerleaders at News Corp, such as Greg Sheridan, who helpfully reminds the nation that “the Manus Island disturbances are part of the serious battle of wills that the Rudd and Gillard governments so dismally failed”. Therefore, to preserve its manhood, “the Abbott government must mobilise whatever level of resources is needed to make Manus work”. You don’t have to believe that News Corp is calling the shots on this to conclude that the present Government is determined not to blink, or at least not to be seen to blink.

In a virtually all-male cabinet, rather than act as a circuit breaker Manus Island will be a test of strength. There will be no one to say, “We’ve gone far enough. Let’s go back to first principles and look for another way.” The impulse will be to show some balls, to turn the screw another notch.

To fulfil its purpose, escalation must take things to a new brink. The last escalation required boat arrivals to be called ‘illegals’ by their handlers, who were also to call them by number and not by name. Whatever the next escalation might be, it would likely be taken, secretly at first, with the ostensible purpose of deterrence – a supposed higher good - and require the enlisting of a compliant tabloid press and a continuous monitoring of the public appetite for brutality with each turn of the screw.

The Australian government is well aware that that the vast majority of boat arrivals are found to be genuine refugees, yet research last year reveals that nearly six out of ten Australians think people arriving by boat are not refugees and should be treated more severely. Neither the Government nor the Opposition attempts to correct such misunderstanding. On this issue we have a bi-partisan agreement to fail the test of leadership.

The US provides an instructive contrast to Australia. Successive administrations offer amnesties to immigrants who have entered the country illegally through the heavily guarded southern borders. Like Australians, the popular view among American citizens is that these immigrants should be treated mercilessly. But the country’s leaders take the view that people who demonstrate the degree of determination, courage and resourcefulness to succeed in gaining entry are the type of people that have made America great. Accordingly, and against popular opinion, America’s leaders from both sides of politics grant regular amnesties.

By contrast, the failure of secular leadership on boat arrivals in Australia is a toxic stain on our polity and reputation. Itcan be traced through successive leaders in Howard, Beazley, Rudd, Gillard and now Abbott, the latter having made audacious promises, militarized the issue, aggravated our powerful neighbour, Indonesia, and dug the nation into a hole.

Business leaders largely keep out of it, and media outlets are methodically kept in the dark. There is no reason to suppose that anything will change unless both political parties, and the Government of the day in particular, were to come under considerable pressure from a key constituency.

In recent times the Catholic population in Australia has not been tested, or not at least since the hey-day of B.A. Santamaria and Daniel Mannix. There are roughly 5.3 million Catholics officially living in Australia, or about 25 per cent of the population. They include the leaders of both political parties and a significant proportion of the Abbott cabinet ministers, 47 per cent of whom are nominally Catholic.

While the official Catholic Church has so far remained mute on the boats question, the Pacelli defence of silence is becoming increasingly incongruous. Although the question has an insistent spiritual and moral dimension, the national secular debate, to the extent there is one, is framed around the merits of functionality and capability, and so increasingly focused on ‘operational matters’.

Under the present Pope, there appears to be a more enlightened and compassionate papacy in Rome that may look favourably on an apostolic intersession for a worthy cause on an issue with far-reaching international implications. And in the wake of unremitting sexual abuse allegations world-wide and its disturbing complicity in child stealing as revealed in the movie Philomena, the Church could do with involvement in a cleansing cause.

Australia’s Cardinal George Pell is a case in point. Although the Sydney Archbishop does not head up the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and is about to become a resident at the Vatican, he is presently the most senior Catholic prelate in the country, and the one most closely identified in the public mind, rightly or wrongly, as the church’s Australian spokesman. Could the Australian Catholic Church rehabilitate its standing as a voice of compassion and in so doing save our politicians from themselves? It might be a long shot but it’s a chance. No doubt, it would take vision, courage and ingenuity to find an effective voice that speaks with authority on the humanity of boat people. But it’s worth a shot. As a parting gesture to the standing of Australia as a civilized nation, what about it, Cardinal Pell?

Published in Weekly Email

There's nothing inherently wrong with atheism, or theism for that matter. Too often though, proponents of one have nothing but insults and abuse for the other. Richard Dawkins is damaging the otherwise rational good name of atheists.

You really are a gratuitously unpleasant man

That was a tweet from English MP Tom Watson to Richard Dawkins. Dawkins had upset more than a few people by tweeting the following:

Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed [sic] flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.

Watson certainly isn't the first person to find Dawkins unpleasant. I also think it is safe to assume that Dawkins could not care less what Watson thinks about him - and I'm not suggesting he should.

I'm a Christian, and while I've not often been the recipient of any abuse or name-calling as a result, it is undeniable that Christians and others of faith are mocked and ridiculed. Whether it be on the playground as a kid, or on the internet as an adult, most of us are pretty used to it.

It's fine. I mock things I find to be ridiculous and I can hardly complain about getting a little of my own medicine. I'm secure about my beliefs and being made fun of is an unavoidable part of being human – and especially of being an Australian human.

Dawkins, however, is another matter. He doesn't just make fun; he has, on more occasions I can count, displayed a grim, almost maniacal determination to heap derision upon people of faith.

To be clear, I am certainly not suggesting that he should be stopped. I've written before about how pointless I consider the criminalizing of offensive speech. If Dawkins wants to act like an ass, then so be it. But his behaviour should be recognized and called out for the counter-productive abuse that it is.

It's not that I don't understand his position, in fact he and I are a little more alike than I would like to admit.

On one level, I find atheism incredibly attractive, and that's not just because it would free me from some decidedly inconvenient obligations (although that is a tempting prospect). It's because I know that if I was an atheist, I would be the most annoying kind: smug, arrogant, dismissive and supercilious. Stephen Colbert put it much better than I can: "Atheism: the religion devoted to the worship of one's own smug sense of superiority."

I don't doubt that it must feel great to refer to religions as "stone-age myths". I would relish the opportunity to scorn people who orient their moral compass with a book written thousands of years ago.

Why? Because being intellectually superior feels good. Many atheists are smug and condescending for the same reason many Christians are judgmental and bigoted - because it feels good to put someone else down, especially when they don't even accept the standard against which they are being measured.

Decades ago, Christianity was the "standard" in Western culture, and Australia was no exception. That's not to say that everyone was a devout Christian, or that everyone who dutifully showed up for church every Sunday morning actually believed a word of it - but we were, for the most part, a Christian nation.

Since then, there has been a liberation of sorts. There are few people now who would feel any social obligation to attend church or profess any religious belief. In fact, it's quite the opposite, many people (myself included) feel a pressure to be dismissive of the church and its claims. It's a none-too-subtle pressure to "grow up" and leave behind what many regard as antiquated, bigoted, homophobic and even racist beliefs.

In truth, cutting religion out of my life would be a profoundly easy decision to make. I'd cut my ties with the church, keep the friends who were happy with that decision, ditch the rest, and start writing pieces entitled "How I Grew Out of My Religion". I fancy I'd be in good company.

The reasons I don't do that are the subject of a different piece - but suffice to say that I don't accept the basis of atheism and I reject any assertion that there is no evidence for a deity.

But that doesn't mean that the accusations from atheists don't hit me where it hurts. No one likes the feeling that they are somehow inferior, blinded by an intellectual deficiency.

This is what Dawkins relies on to discredit theists. When he writes his books and his articles, when he gives his speeches and sits on panels, he is not simply discussing different points of view or considering ways to more clearly separate church and state. He is trying to humiliate Christians away from Christianity. The way he goes about it makes him sound like the atheist version of the Westboro Baptist Church, and he does much the same damage to his own cause.

If the atheist world-view has merit (and, again, that's another article) then Dawkins should be able to make its arguments without resorting to rage and name-calling.

Dawkins’ refusal to intelligently engage with Christianity (and religion generally) in favour of insults and slander betrays, to my mind, a lack of faith in his own arguments. He may well humiliate some people into giving up on defending their faith, in the same way that school-yard bullies humiliate other children into changing their behaviour - by making them ashamed and fearful, but he won’t make any real difference to the way religion and people of faith operate in society.

Until he learns to argue without insult, a bully is all he will be.

Published in Weekly Email
Monday, 18 February 2013

The science and religion of death

Death is a terrible and tragic thing, so terrible and tragic that we will go to any lengths to avoid that most unavoidable of things.

Smoking. Drinking. Obesity. They’re an axis of evil that gives rise to countless government initiatives, public health warnings and thousands of blogs and opinion pieces on how we can reduce the damage they cause.

Fair enough too, there are genuine and serious health risks associated with all three issues. Public information campaigns and government regulations will undoubtedly reduce the rates of early death they cause.

They will not however, prevent death – we all die eventually.

The fascinating thing about the axis of evil is the sense that people who indulge in these behaviours are not just doing something that is physically hazardous; they are committing a crime against morality. Longevity has become a quasi-religious goal and it’s almost an act of heresy to do anything that might, in any way, reduce one’s life expectancy.

Smoking is an easy example because the evidence that smoking is harmful is so incontrovertible. Comments sections (yes I know, but still, they are a reflection of public responses) on any tobacco related article are filled with furious zealots, thundering away about how all smokers are about to drop dead of cancer and don’t they just deserve it! Smokers angrily counter with arguments about how alcohol and obesity kill just as many people as smoking, so get off my lawn.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS): “In 2004-05, 18% of people with malignant neoplasms (cancer) were current daily smokers, 15% drank alcohol at risky or high levels, 76% did little or no exercise and 53% were either overweight or obese.”

Clearly there is some cross-over happening here, and past smokers were not included in the breakdown, but the evidence certainly suggest that there is some basis to the argument that alcohol and obesity are, at the very least, equally as dangerous as smoking. 

Smoking, of course, has causes other forms of damage beyond cancer, heart disease, stroke, emphysema etc: “Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in Victoria. On average out of every 1000 deaths in Victoria:

  • 119 are caused by smoking
  • 24 are caused by alcohol (including road deaths caused by drinking)
  • 12 are caused by road deaths (including road deaths caused by drinking)
  • 3 are caused by other drugs, including heroin.

842 deaths out of 1,000 however, were not attributable to smoking, alcohol, car accidents or drugs.

Life expectancy in Australia has been steadily increasing over the last 100 years.

11.16 Life Expectancy at Birth—1985–2010

According to the ABS: “High life expectancy at birth generally indicates low levels of infant mortality, a safe environment in which to live, a good health care system, sufficient food and the adoption of preventative health measures.” 

Here in our safe, gentle, modern civilization, death has been removed from our lives in ways that have never before been possible. We have no wars on our home soil and we have the lowest childhood mortality rate in human history (as long as we're not indigenous). When we are so injured or sick that we are at serious risk of death, we are rushed of to hospital, where the mess and trauma of imminent death is sanitized and, to a large extent, hidden, by kindly and efficient medical staff.

Almost 70% of Australians say they would prefer to die at home is they were suffering from an incurable illness. But the faith in medical science and the belief that death is something we must hand over to professionals, means that actually, about 70% of us will die in acute care hospitals, where drugs, nursing staff and medical intervention protect us from the harsher realities of death. The carers involved with the lucky few who can die at home have far different stories to tell. 

And so death has become less common and more distant, and seems to be all the more frightening for it.

The concept that fear of death led to mankind creating religion is not new.  The basic idea is that religion means I do not need to fear death because I/beloved person will not just end, I/beloved person exist as more than just highly complex chemical interactions and therefore I/beloved person will continue to have some connection with life, even after death.

Religion was a solace for the grievous, incomprehensible injury of losing all those future possibilities that death takes from us.

Then science came along and messed with religion. No one, even those folk who try so hard to ignore the reality of science, can rationally hold on to the belief that, after we die, we all end up sitting on a cloud, playing harps with Jesus/Allah/Jehovah/other deity of your choice. Science explained what clouds are made of, proved that heaven didn’t exist in the sky because the universe is infinite and generally made it harder for people living in western civilisation to see heaven. So, because humans are always hilarious, we turn from religion to science to ease our fear of death.

Medical science can stand between us and death, we can find immortality, we just need to take all the pills, have all the test, do all the scan and follow the instructions of medical professionals and then we’ll never ever die!

Science has proved, beyond any doubt, that smoking will reduce life expectancy, so the anti-smoking zealots have done a backwards post hoc ergo proptor hoc and convinced themselves that because they don’t smoke, they don’t need to fear death. The corollary being that those people who do smoke are not just ignoring facts about a hazardous activity, they are committing heresy against the tropes we hold close in the hope we’ll live forever. The underlying tenets (or in this case, facts) are lost in the face of zealotry. Plus ça change.

It’s senseless behaviour of course. We’re all going to die and very few of us are going to die peacefully in our beds, surrounded by dozens of perfectly formed, gently weeping great-great-grandchildren.

Non smokers/drinkers/obese folk also die of cancer, heart disease and stroke, the difference is that they will do so about 7 to 15 years later than smokers/drinkers/obese folk - depending on which study you look at. 

No sensible person could object to public dissemination of facts about hazardous behaviour. The tobacco companies’ lies (of omission and commission) about the dangers of tobacco were iniquitous. The combination of addictive nature of nicotine, sugar and alcohol, the vulnerability of people most likely to suffer addiction and the profits that the supply of these substances provides, requires some level of government intervention. The damage that smoking, in particular, can do to innocent bystanders also demands a regulatory response that will protect people who are unable to protect themselves. None of these things, however, are in any way supported by gleefully sanctimonious judgement of the people who don’t know, don’t understand or worse, do know but are helpless to change, dangerous habits. The subsequent rejection of the addict as morally bereft may give the occupiers of the high moral ground a temporary buzz, but it’s not actually going to change their lives or longevity.

All it’s going to do is irritate the rest of us to death.

Published in Weekly Email
Sunday, 10 February 2013

Escape from Westboro

The Westboro Baptist Church is known all around the world for its hateful messages, and almost as well-known for the humanity that is revealed when entire towns (or outlaw motorcycle clubs or even the KKK) turn out against them. Failing dismally in spreading their perversion of Gospel, the WBC now appears to be collapsing from within.

Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper have escaped from the Westboro Baptist Church. This is a very good thing.

Of course, they probably didn’t have to escape in the physical sense. It’s unlikely that anyone chewed through ropes or scaled a wall. But I suspect that their escape was no less harrowing, for the Westboro Baptist Church is a cult. It may not necessarily look like it from the outside, but I have little doubt that it is.

One of the things that most cults have in common is the way that members are coerced to break ties with non-members, in particular families.  This is unsurprising, as families are often the people that are most likely to try and draw a person away from a destructive force like a cult. As the saying testifies, blood really is thicker than water.

The Westboro Baptist Church never had to worry much about family pressure, as many of the adherents are family members. In fact, the vast majority of the 40-odd members are in some way related to Fred Phelps, the overbearing head of the church.

For a group of only 40 or so people, the Westboro Baptists have for years attracted incomprehensibly heavy media attention. There can be little doubt that this the precise intention of their protests – not only targeting the funerals of homosexuals and soldiers (for whom they bear a semi-coherent animosity) but just about any high profile death.

That is to be expected. People love someone to hate, presumably because seeing awful people makes viewers and readers feel better about their own failings. The church actively broadcasts in advance their intention to protest at high-profile funerals, the media swings into action, massive counter-protests are organised, the church’s protest is “thwarted”, the media reports the triumph of mankind over evil, and everyone has a good feel.

Published in Weekly Email
Sunday, 03 February 2013

Let the light shine in

Peter Hoysted has trawled through some Australian Catholic Church history and what he found will sicken you. Not just rampant child abuse by “shining lights” of the Church, but a systemic and systematic cover-up. (TRIGGER WARNING)

The Royal Commission into child sexual abuse is due to commence its hearings. The next three years will be a trying time in Australia. Firstly, for the Commissioners who face a gruelling challenge to investigate the breadth and depth of this evil, to the victims who will lay their lives bare in public and finally, to all Australians who will learn of some of the nation’s darkest secrets.

This is a bleak episode of Australian social history and it is crucial that, when the Commission’s investigations end, we have a proper understanding of what has taken place and a clear view on how to proceed so that what happened can never happen again. 

Published in Weekly Email

We’ve published a few articles about GLBTI issues over the years, but it’s always amused me that the two most popular ones were the article by Sue-Ann Post (an ‘out’ lesbian) arguing against gay marriage and this article from July 2012, by Andrew Tiedt (an ‘out’ Christian) arguing in favour of it.

I am sick to death of the gay marriage debate.

Truly, I am. In a world where there are so many truly important issues to discuss, I find it incomprehensible that Christians are busy rending their garments over whether homosexuals should be able to call their relationships “marriage”.

On one side, homosexuals are insisting that being able to say that they are “married” is a “human right”. It remains unclear exactly how it is that the mere labelling issue will change anything other than the paperwork, but nonetheless the argument is vigorously prosecuted.

On the other hand, we have Christians flagellating themselves at the thought of homosexuals being allowed to marry. Exactly how it would actually affect, well, anything for a heterosexual, remains unclear.

Christian theology explains that the “quantum” of sin is neither here nor there. All humanity has fallen and sinful, and requires salvation through the death of Jesus on the Cross.

This means that the question is not the quantity of sin is a person’s life, but rather whether they have repented of their sin and sought forgiveness.

In other words, if a person has not accepted God’s forgiveness, it doesn’t really matter how much they have sinned — they are not saved.

Moreover, Christian theology teaches that it is not homosexual orientation that is sinful, but rather the act of homosexual sex.

In those circumstances, the Australian Christian Lobby’s disproportionate focus on homosexual marriage is puzzling, to say the least.

Jacob Holman graphed the press releases from the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) over the six months from January to June 2012 by category (republished here with his kind permission). It is pretty clear what the ACL care about.

Australian Christian Lobby ACL

It’s not even that you can suggest that gay marriage is the uniquely “live issue” — during the this time the Australian government abandoned its commitments on foreign aid and reduced welfare payments to our most vulnerable citizens and yet this barely rated a mention. Any reading of Jesus’ teaching or The Bible as a whole makes it clear that caring for the poor should be a priority — but it doesn’t seem important to the ACL.

Gay marriage was the number one issue — this, despite the fact that their position has no real justification in Christian theology.

Would the legalization of gay marriage result in less people accepting the Christian faith? It is difficult to see how that would follow. 

The irresistible conclusion, in fact, is that the ACL’s agenda is not a “Christian” agenda, but rather simply a conservative one.

If the ACL sought, above all, to pursue an agenda in line with what the gospels say is God’s agenda, then their primary focus would be ensuring that Australia looks after the poor and cares for people in need. They would pursue freedom of speech so that Christians could talk about their faith and make sure Australians were free to practice any religion they chose, without persecution or discrimination. They would concentrate on loving their brothers, not alienating them.

What the ACL has done instead is pursue a relentlessly conservative agenda and covered that agenda with a “Christian” cloak. That agenda is no more or less valid than any other agenda — lobby groups are an inevitable consequence of our democratic system of government. But the “Christian” label is grossly misleading.

The focus on gay marriage makes this especially clear.

As is probably by now obvious to you, I am a Christian, but I cannot see how gay marriage will have any effect on my marriage or my faith. I fail to see why it has anything to do with me at all, other than the fact that the legal right for people to enter into same sex marriage is being withheld by people claiming to speak on behalf of my religion. In case I haven’t made it clear yet — they do not speak for me, or for my religion as I understand it.

Marriage, really, is a just a word. The ACL has not been able to advance any sensible argument against gay people using that word for their relationships, all they have is a simple adherence to a conservative idealogy.

When allowing gay marriage would cost heterosexuals absolutely nothing, but would mean a great deal to some of the gay community it seems simply malicious to refuse to do it. And when there are so many genuine Christian issues that are starved of any attention, pursuing this issue with such intensity betrays the true motives of the ACL.

Once gay marriage slips out of the spotlight we will finally see whether the ACL has the stomach to fight for the issues that most Christians actually care about. I’ll be eagerly watching to see whether their vigour in opposing gay marriage will be replicated on other issues.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Published in January 2013
Tuesday, 04 September 2012

Underpants Squid For PM

I believe in the almighty power of the giant squid that lives in a golden cave in MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, painstakingly fashioning underpants for humanity from its own ink-stained emanations.

I believe that the universe is held together by invisible vibrating organisms called Gordon, which are so sensitive to certain frequencies of sound that a child’s cry or the instrumental break in Nutbush City Limits could cause an irreparable rift in reality.

I believe that the common cold is caused not by a virus but by the inability of most people to pronounce “controversy” correctly.

I don’t care if nobody’s ever actually seen a cave-dwelling mountain squid in the highlands of Ireland. I’ve never seen any peer-reviewed, double-blind studies that prove there isn’t a giant underpants-knitting squid.

Likewise, any claims that nobody has ever witnessed the life-giving oscillations of Gordon only serve to confirm my belief that Gordon is invisible. And don’t try and tell me you’ve never sat next to a bawling moppet on a plane and felt some of your life-force slip away; or wished the Earth would implode rather than hear another refrain from Ms Tina Turner.

And have you ever wondered why it is that the people who seem to get coughs and colds year in and year out are the very same people who say “controversy” rather than “controversy”? Hmmm?

I know these things are true. I wouldn’t believe them if they weren’t true. I don’t want to hear any namby-pamby so-called “scientific” refutations of my beliefs, thank very much. I’ve heard them all before, and I don’t care for them.

It’s high time my beliefs were respected, recognised and represented in the Australian way of life.

Thus, I propose that we acknowledge MacGillycuddy’s squid and its supreme omnipotence publicly and explicitly, with a short but sombre underpants-snapping ceremony at the Opening of Parliament.

I propose that, in an effort to preserve the integrity of our planet, all children aged five and under should be prevented from crying by any means necessary. Legislation should be passed making under-age crying a criminal offence under the Environmental Protection Act. All copies of Nutbush City Limits should be destroyed and all relevant publishing and performance rights withdrawn.

Additionally, I propose that alongside the theoretical teaching of the implication of human rhinovirus in the common cold, the equally compelling linguistic theory should be included in the biological and medical syllabus of schools and universities. We should, as they say, teach the controversy. Controversy. Whatever.

I don’t see how any democratic and responsible government could possibly see fit to deny my proposals. Sure, they could argue that my beliefs are not based on any observable, repeatable, verifiable, tangible or predictable phenomena or data, but when has that ever mattered? Since when are such quantifiable hallmarks of human knowledge necessary pre-requisites for acceptance by Australians policy-makers?


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Published in September 2012
Wednesday, 04 July 2012

Limmud Oz

“I know the smell, the taste, and the significance of censorship. The right of authors to express their views and we have a responsibility to listen, even if we don’t agree with what they say.”

These were words that June Factor, the author of many works on Australian children’s folklore, herself the victim of censorship in the past, used to introduce a panel of speakers prohibited from speaking at Limmud Oz 2012 ( the Jewish Cultural Festival) at Monash University on June 10 of this year. While the panel was held at the same time as Limmud Oz, it was held in a separate building and billed as LimmudX. Ironically, Limmud means ‘learning’ or ‘study’ in Hebrew.

Published in July 2012
Wednesday, 04 July 2012

The ACL And Why We Don't Like Them

Why is the ACL so obsessed with Same Sex Marriage? An actual Christian wonders at the misuse of his faith for political ends.

I am sick to death of the gay marriage debate.

Truly, I am. In a world where there are so many truly important issues to discuss, I find it incomprehensible that Christians are busy rending their garments over whether homosexuals should be able to call their relationships “marriage”.

On one side, homosexuals are insisting that being able to say that they are “married” is a “human right”. It remains unclear exactly how it is that the mere labelling issue will change anything other than the paperwork, but nonetheless the argument is vigorously prosecuted.

On the other hand, we have Christians flagellating themselves at the thought of homosexuals being allowed to marry. Exactly how it would actually affect, well, anything for a heterosexual, remains unclear.

Published in July 2012
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