Month: April 2016

The Mixed Feelings of ANZAC Day

As the nation stops today to commemorate the service and sacrifice of many Australian and New Zealander men and women across a century of international conflicts, I find myself with mixed feelings.

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I am sympathetic to and even supportive of a special time for remembering and honouring both the fallen and returned service-people who gave or risked their lives in the wars our nation has fought in. No one should belittle or disparage these men and women and what they have done for the protection of the lives and dignity of others.

I am saddened when I hear of men whose remains have lay in unmarked graves for a hundred years, without any of the official recognition they were promised by the governments of the day. Saddened by the stories of those who never found their footing again in society upon returning from the battlefields and who received little help with the trauma they were left to struggle with. Saddened by the offensive scorn and open disrespect that veterans of the Vietnam war were greeted with upon their return by so-called anti-war protesters who self-righteously attacked soldiers who were simply doing what they’d been ordered (and perhaps even conscripted) to do. Saddened by the number of returned soldiers from more recent conflicts who take their own lives in Australia each year.

Everyone who lives in this country and enjoys its freedoms owes at least some basic gratitude to those who have defended it against the threat of invasion and the aggressive advances of tyrannous ideologies. One does not need to agree with the reasons that every conflict was fought or with every action taken by Australian governments or commanders during conflicts to appreciate this simple fact: we needed (and continue to need) the service of men and women in the armed forces to preserve our nation in the face of those who would do it harm or annex it for their own use.

tomorrowdownfall21_1502

Watching both the new television adaptation of John Marsden’s classic Tomorrow When the War Began and the 2004 German film Downfall on Saturday night, served as a timely reminder of sorts for me this Anzac weekend. That young men and women really did fight with all they had, when Australia faced a real prospect of invasion and subjugation just over 70 years ago. That Australian men and women contributed to the war effort in Europe that prevented the United Kingdom from falling to the tyranny of National Socialism, which had already conquered much of continental Europe. That the ANZACs didn’t stop fighting until the architects of the Holocaust were crippled and forced into surrender.

John L SmithLt. John L. Smith (1884-1916), Brisbane 1915

I attended the parade in Sydney last year, marking the centenary of the Gallipoli landing. I went mainly out of a sense of history, but was very moved by the occasion. This year is also significant for me on a personal level, in that in July, it’s the 100th anniversary of the death of Lt. John L. Smith, my grandfather’s uncle (pictured above).
He was cut down by machine-gun fire on the fields of Pozieres, France, as he directed his troops through a hellish maze of barbed-wire and was posthumously awarded a Military Cross. Helen and I visited the memorial in his home town of Ayr in North Queensland last year. Lest we forget.

On the other hand, I am cynical and even rejecting of the Anzac legend as a national myth or a form of civic religion. I don’t accept that the nation was born at Gallipoli. I dislike the way that war memorials and remembrance services utilise the forms of Christianity and other religions, but replace the substance with a different focus and message. I don’t accord this day the same place of importance that Christmas and Easter have for me as a Christian.

In short, I think the memory of the fallen soldiers would be better served by honouring them for who they were and what they did, while steering clear of the temptation to make them the objects of mystical veneration. And the church would be better served by thinking carefully about how to honour and care for returned servicemen and women, rather than uncritically allowing our culture to govern how we think about military service; or ignoring the people and the issues completely.

anzac spirit800 horsemen

The church is not served well by attempting to Christianise the Anzac myth, as some have attempted to do. Certain popular books that attempt to lionise Australian and New Zealander soldiers by portraying them as holy liberators of Jerusalem in WWI are based on a poor grasp of biblical prophecy and its fulfilment in Jesus and an unhelpful approach to the relationship between the Church and Australian nationalism.
The Diggers of WWI deserve recognition for fighting on behalf of all Australians, but it is misguided to canonise them as military saints simply because they fought in a conflict in Palestine. The part they played in God’s providential plan to allow Britain and her allies to triumph over Germany and hers was no more special than any other soldier on any other battlefront, from any other home nation.

Anzac Day provides the church with an opportunity to affirm the positive element in Australian culture of gratitude towards those who have served their country, at great personal cost. But at the same time we must be very careful what narratives we accept and promote about each specific war and about war in general. History testifies that we are on a learning curve in this area. In my university days, I did a special project on the attitude of Australian churches towards Australia’s involvement in military conflicts from WWI to Iraq. Christians in this nation (or at least their official church representatives) have undergone a significant shift in this period. In WWI, most evangelical churches supported war against Germany and co. as a righteous endeavour. Since the Vietnam war, most churches (including most evangelical churches) have been very cautious about endorsing Australia’s role in military conflicts. Many have outright rejected the legitimacy of our involvement in the wars since Vietnam and the political narratives that have been used to justify our involvement.

We must also, I believe, challenge any use of the Anzac myth as fuel for unbridled patriotism and nationalism. I say this because such understandings of our identity, loyalties and place in the world very easily mutate into stances that are incompatible with biblical Christianity. I also say it because it is easy to see how disastrous it is for churches to uncritically adopt nationalistic assumptions when we look at what happened when churches in the countries we went to war with did just that. ‘German Christians’ became little more than relay stations for broadcasting National Socialism to the German public. They syncretised Christianity with the Aryan myth of the Nazis. In Japan, the United Church of Christ (a forced merger of all Protestant churches in Japan) compromised Christianity with State Shintoism (Japan’s native religion) and supported the Japanese government’s actions in the Pacific War.

German Christians[2]
                    Flag of the German Christians

While the Anzac myth is far more benign than the nationalism present in these extreme cases, Christians the world over must be careful never to swallow the pill of inordinate patriotism – lest we risk committing spiritual suicide. We ought to be humbly grateful that God permitted the successful defence of Australia and New Zealand from our enemies and that those nations we fought against are now by and large friendly countries to us in the 21st century. And we must reject any idea that we are superior to the other nations of the world, so that we may never become the kind of monstrous aggressor our brave countrymen fought to defeat.

[1] Tourism Victoria “Anzac Day 2015, Melbourne” (CC BY 2.0) flickr
[2] RsVe “Deutsche Christen Flagge” CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia commons

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Celebrating a great Queen – on her 90th birthday

Ninety years ago today, Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth Alexandra May of York was born in London to the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth). Though almost no one would have anticipated her accession to the throne when she was born, she has now reigned as Queen of Australia, the United Kingdom and her numerous other realms, for more than two thirds of her long life, as Queen Elizabeth II.  80 years ago, she became the heir to the throne at the age of 10, upon her uncle’s controversial abdication of his kingship. Even then, succession laws meant the Crown would have passed over her, should her parents have produced a male heir prior to her father’s death. This little girl remarkably went from being an unlikely Queen to the longest reigning monarch in British (and Australian) history, oldest Sovereign in the world (and in British history) and arguably the most well-known woman in the world.

Princess Elizabeth

My support for the monarchy as an institution is well known to many, but my personal regard for her Majesty as a particular officeholder of the Crown is a significant element in this. She deserves recognition as one of the greatest sovereigns in British history, for her distinguished service, admirable conduct and genuine interest in her people around the world for more than six decades. I would argue that her sense of duty, irreproachable dignity, provision of stability and constancy of character make her the greatest monarch ever in Australia’s young history – even more notable since she has reigned for more than a quarter of our history as a modern, federated nation.

QEII

Times have changed significantly during her 63 years on the throne and the Queen has shown an impressive capacity to not only personally age with dignity, but to steer the royal family into the 21st century and provide advice to numerous prime ministers and other officials as they set the course for their respective nations.

She is precisely the kind of person who is appropriate to look to as a dignified symbol of leadership, justice, cultural heritage, honour, multi-culturalism and the various freedoms her subjects enjoy under the rule of law of the Crown.
She is popular and newsworthy, rather than obscure or irrelevant – yet she maintains a gravity about her not possessed by the world’s batch of banal celebrities and does not share their need to steal the spotlight. She has vastly more experience than any of her Commonwealth ministers and seeks the public good far more consistently than the countless politicians whose stars have risen and fallen during her reign. She is the constitutional head of a particular religion and sworn to uphold a certain form of Christianity in the kingdom where she was coronated, yet she deeply respects people of other faiths and no faith and is in a sense the guardian of freedom of religion in all her realms.

The honour and respect that is her due is not an archaic privilege demanded on the basis of the accident of birth, as some today might like to characterise it. It is a status bestowed on her as a public trust. The Crown carries with it enormous prestige and social capital, yet as with all such prestige and capital, this can be carelessly, foolishness or scandalously squandered or it can be used for what it was intended: the betterment of society and the increased trust and goodwill of the people. Elizabeth II deserves respect across the world and especially in her realms, not simply because she inherited a title, but because she is a model monarch for the modern world.

Elizabeth_II_greets_NASA_GSFC_employees,_May_8,_2007_edit

I have greatly enjoyed reading The Servant Queen and the King she Serves, a book about the Queen’s lifelong faith in Christ, published by the British Bible Society this year to commemorate her 90th birthday. It is impossible to assess whether her Majesty fits within what we would categorise as an “evangelical” from this distance from her. Besides the fact that many of her personal thoughts and feelings are kept relatively private from the public eye, the fact that she occupies the ceremonial role of leadership over the Church of England means would require her not to identify herself too closely with one faction or another within one of the world’s broadest churches. What is clear however, is that she does treasure and revere Jesus Christ as her own Sovereign Ruler and His teaching and example deeply affect her life.

servant queen

I recall the emphasis she placed on Christ’s saying “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Matt 20:28) as the motto of her Diamond Jubilee a few years ago. It was clearly not a new emphasis for a woman who has essentially carried out her weekly civic duties for more than 60 years as Public Servant No. 1. This Queen draws on Christ’s example to remind herself that her queenship is not for her, but for the benefit of the people she serves.

I also annually look forward to the Queen’s Christmas message, hoping it will be one of the years in which she offers one of her more profound spiritual reflections to the people of the Commonwealth, as Christ’s birth is being marked around the world. Two of my all time favourites can be found below:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBRP-o6Q85s (the original televised message, in which the young Queen finishes by quoting from Pilgrim’s Progress!!!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j1ZivB72j3c (the 2011 message, where she offers “History teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed.”)

I thank God for blessing Queensland, Australia, New Zealand and all the nations of the Commonwealth with such a wonderful monarch. Happy 90th Birthday Your Majesty. God save the Queen.

Counterblaste: Tax-exemptions for religious institutions should stay

Opinion pieces abound in today’s media world. Some outlets attempt at least a modicum of diversity in opinion, while other media brands are more one-sided than a rugby match involving the All Blacks. I often find myself disagreeing with the way Christianity is portrayed by certain pundits and how many opinionists who are hostile to the Christian worldview approach various issues. “Counterblaste” is my vent-shaft for presenting a different opinion to those I frequently encounter.

A family member recently shared a post on Facebook by actor John Barrowman (Doctor Who fans will know who I’m talking about), which featured the picture below:


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This kind of sentiment has been building over the past few years and is at the heart of a couple of recent attacks-in-print on religious tax-exempt status by a member of the “Rationalist Society of Australia” – Hugh Harris.

Harris argued in a piece for ABC’s the Drum this week that the tide of public opinion in Australia against special tax concessions for religious institutions has become so significant, that governments will soon have to listen to overwhelming public sentiment and act.

In a previous piece in January for New Matilda, Harris also argued for abolishing any tax-privileges for religious groups that exist solely or primarily for the promotion of religion and not as social welfare agencies. He contended that religion doesn’t serve the public good; most people aren’t interested in it and the revenue the government foregoes by not taxing churches and similar institutions could be spent on many important things if it were gathered through taxation.

Let me respond to these issues (and others raised along the way) with a few points.

1. From a New Testament perspective, it would be difficult to argue that civil governments don’t have legitimate power to tax churches if they so wish.

For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God,  attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.
(Rom 13:6-7, ESV).

 While these verses are normally applied to Christian individuals, I cannot think of a good reason that they do not apply to Christian communities corporately. If the government imposes taxes upon churches, I think we’re obliged to pay.

2. A society that promotes freedom of religion as an essential value, should see tax concessions for religious institutions as positive for the public good. 

Allowing generous concessions to all religious groups is one way the government can promote the freedom to easily practice one’s religious beliefs – a freedom available to all citizens. If the government only privileged Christian churches with tax-exempt status, allegations of privilege would be valid. But by allowing all genuine religious institutions the same benefits, the government can hardly be accused of promoting any one religion. The current tax arrangements simply make it easier for people in a pluralistic society to form communities around their sincerely held beliefs. The problem with Harris and his Rationalist Society is that they regard all religious beliefs as invalid and unworthy of promotion. The federal government shouldn’t bow to pressure from the anti-religious of Australia and change the tax system to make it more difficult for everyone from the big three churches (Catholic, Anglican & Uniting) to the much smaller religious minority communities to easily practice their beliefs in functional organisational contexts.

3. It is inconsistent to insist on the separation of church and state with respect to political matters on one hand, while exacting taxes from religious institutions on the other.

Time and time again secularists use the separation of church and state as an argument against religious influence in the political sphere. Many want religion, particularly organised religion, kept out of government, education, health and even community planning. But in reality, any government who chooses to tax religious institutions in the way Harris is proposing, abrogates the principle of separation between church and state, by involving the state more in matters of how its citizenry practice their freedom of religion.

The separation of church and state is a civil doctrine that recognises that civil governments and religious institutions should not attempt to control one another’s affairs nor interfere unduly with the other’s respective sphere. By opting not to extract taxes from religious institutions (which are non-for-profit organisations), charge GST on the provision of religious services, or require ministers of religion to pay typical amounts of income tax, the federal government is rightly distancing itself from religious affairs (not subsidising or promoting religion(s) as Harris suggests). To change the policy and begin taxing churches and similar groups is to abandon the necessary component of the separation, which grants churches independence and freedom from government involvement in their affairs.

4. Removing tax concessions or tax-exempt status for religious institutions would have detrimental effects on society that Harris does not allow for.

 Harris argues that faith-based charities, humanitarian and educational organisations etc; should automatically keep their tax benefits – as they do contribute to public good. The Rationalist Society supports a ‘public benefit test’ for any group in Australia receiving tax concessions. Under their definitions, churches, mosques, temples and probably theological colleges, would lose their current tax status.

Harris fails to recognise that “basic religious organisations” and the ministers of religion and other staff they employ frequently provide benefits to their local communities in addition to their primary role of representing and promoting their religious beliefs. Should a church that runs a program in local schools which provides breakfast for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds lose all of its tax benefits because that is not its primary activity?

Should pastors who provide crisis counselling free of charge to community members lose their tax benefits because they spend the majority of their working week caring for the needs of church members?

Weakening the communities that provide these services and potentially causing financial hardship for religious workers who invest their time in such worthy causes, in addition to their pastoral duties, will have an effect on the provision of these services in Australian communities.

At best, Harris is ignorant about the mechanics of how churches and other religious groups might operate when providing these services to the community. At worst, his prejudice against “supernatural beliefs” may mean he is intentionally disregarding the negative social impacts, in order to promote his more important agenda of diminishing the social status of religion.

5. In light of the previous three points, neither a majority in an opinion poll, nor the abuses of particular groups should result in the government making blanket changes to the tax status of religious institutions in Australia.

Australians who oppose the retention of special tax status for religious institutions need better information about why the government has historically allowed them to enjoy such a status and what it would look like in practice for all of them to endure a massive, overnight shake-up to their relationship with the tax system. If they were to understand the real blow to freedom of religion and community services that would come about, I doubt so many would be found supporting it.

While the same sex marriage debate runs hot and horror stories of child sexual abuse fill the news weekly – I’m not surprised that many Australians favour churches in particular being brought down to size. When Harris paints his picture of groups he deems unworthy of any special tax status there is undoubted resonance – even for me. I’m concerned about the attitude towards wealth in the Catholic Church and in certain megachurches; the fraudulent activities of Scientology and the harmful manipulation of cultic groups.

But taking away the tax status of all religious groups due to the questionable behaviour of certain groups is not unlike targeting all members of one race or religion based on the crimes of a minority element from within that group. Every system will have downsides and loopholes. Scientology is undoubtedly one of the downsides to accepting freedom of religion as a core tenet. But I for one would rather live in a society where every citizen is free to choose their own form of religious expression (including the really bad ones), rather than one where the government dictates particular creedal requirements for a religious institution to be recognised as such.

Leaving all such groups free to operate without tax burdens is one way to promote a better kind of society.

From Death to Life

For the last few years, I’ve usually tried to pen one or more reflective poems during the Paschal season and share them with friends on Facebook. This year I found myself with little time to compose anything, as I spent the long weekend at an Easter Convention with Helen, where we shared with brothers and sisters from a range of church backgrounds about our plans to serve in Japan as missionaries.

However, only a few days after we commemorated Christ’s death and celebrated His resurrection, I found myself turning to poetry to express my feelings in the cruel face of death. The week following Easter, we lost a close family member suddenly and unexpectedly. It was a shocking intrusion into our lives and was a very surreal experience to have, when the glories of the resurrection were so freshly in our hearts and minds. It will be a long and hard journey forward for us from this time on, but we have been helped greatly by the Spirit of God at work through God’s people – reminding us of the truths we need to hold onto during this dark time.

It’s the second time in less than 12 months that death has taken away one of our close relatives. This time around I am thankful that on this occasion I have more solid grounds for confidence that this particular harsh assault of death will soon be undone by the power of Christ’s resurrection. And so this poem, though less specific to the events of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection than usual, has become my out-of-time reflection on death and resurrection life for this year.

FROM DEATH TO LIFE

When the darkness covers light
When the day is lost to night
When all the world’s cruelty seems to unite
Where may we find some deep respite?

When joy is sudd’nly gone
When life is brut’lly torn
When all have stopped to weep and mourn
Shall midnight ever yield to dawn?

When a beloved one is taken
When our world is pierced and shaken
When we hold onto the vain hope that we still might be mistaken
How can we know we’re not forsaken?

When we’ve blackest grief to bear
When gloom clouds the very air
When we offer each and every feeble prayer
Will you let us know that you are there?

When we face the road ahead
When it’s harder now to tread
When we may wish it was another person walking it instead
Can we look to one who’s risen from the dead?

Yes! When flowers bloom again
When there’s no more tears and pain
When the star of life grows bright until it ne’er more shall wane
Then we’ll see we haven’t hoped in vain

When the dead in Christ shall rise
When they fill azure skies
When an endless, glorious joy our King supplies
We’ll see her smile, through brand new eyes