Puritans vs Pharisees

Puritans and Pharisees can both get a pretty bad wrap from Christians and non-Christians alike. Stereotypes affect how we (mis)understand both groups and each term easily becomes a dismissive or derogatory label, rather than a word that helps us understand members of these two religious movements in their historical context.

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Pharisees [1]
But “Pharisee” deserves to be a negative byword due to Jesus’ evaluation of Pharisaism in the New Testament. It would be better if people used Pharisee specifically, rather than as a way of condemning anyone who is stricter on some point of ethics or theology than the speaker; and it would be more helpful if Christians understood what the main issues Jesus criticised in the Pharisees actually were – but there is such a thing as a “Pharisaic” outlook on life and it isn’t positive.

“Puritans” on the other hand get a bad wrap because they’ve been caricatured for centuries by people who disagree with their views on theology and their approach to the Christian life. The name itself is pejorative and meant to conjure the idea of someone who thinks they’re “holier-than-thou” and a restorer of “true religion.” But the dull and dour, no frills/no fun, legalistically strict Puritan is more a portrait drawn by their enemies (often enemies of the gospel) and often doesn’t reflect who they really were.

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Puritan Pilgrims in New England

The Puritan is not in fact the Pharisee of 16th and 17th century England and America. Both may have shared a superficially similar emphasis on purity of religion and holiness of life – but the Pharisee on the pages of the New Testament and the Puritans of the still-fairly-young Protestant movement were fundamentally opposite to one another.

So what’s the main point of difference between the two? Well, generally speaking, for the Pharisee, outward displays of strict religious observance were where they placed all too much emphasis. The way they looked in front of others and the way they separated or distinguished themselves from “sinners” was often the key aspect of their daily devotion.

In perhaps the most famous denunciation of the Pharisees in the Bible (see Matthew 23), Jesus targets their desire for religious prestige before others (vv. 5-12); their selective, partial and unbalanced obedience to God’s commands (vv. 1-2 & 16-24); and their hypocritical inward corruption beneath their positive outward image (vv. 25-28). In the crescendo (vv. 29-39) Jesus effectively charges them with hatred of God, because of how they’re no different from their fathers who killed God’s messengers (and indeed they soon expressed their wicked rejection of God by conspiring to have His Son executed).

So when we use the name Pharisee as a negative label (by no means something we should do lightly!) we ought to use it to describe someone who is like an actor that dresses up as a “religious person” and performs for the approval of men and women, but who underneath is a different person (in other words a hypocrite). The Pharisee looks upright, especially in comparison to the more obvious “sinners”, but at heart he’s morally corrupt, unwilling to submit to God and in fact harbours hatred towards the true God and his servants.

Puritans at their best were anti-Pharisees. While they did believe outward behaviour and separation from certain kinds of sin (and sinners) were important (but for different reasons as we’ll see), they took Jesus’ warnings against the Pharisaic attitude very seriously. They held that godliness (which is properly understood as the right, personal, heart attitude towards God, as He reveals Himself to us) was essential for the Christian life and that anything done for God or man that was for outward show – rather than from the heart – was not only useless, but evil and dishonouring towards the King of Glory.

Consider these strong words from Thomas Watson, the Puritan I’m focusing my research on:
“To have only a name, and make a show of godliness, is odious to God and man.
The hypocrite is abhorred by all. Wicked men hate him because he makes a show, and God hates him because he only makes a show. The wicked hate him because he has so much as a mask of godliness, and God hates him because he has no more…The wicked hate the hypocrite because he is almost a Christian, and God hates him because he is only almost one.”

Being a religious hypocrite like the Pharisees, basically makes you a double loser!

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Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686)

Watson also echoed Jesus’ attacks on the Pharisees’ failure to deal with their sinful hearts or obey God inwardly as well as outwardly:
He who fears God—dares not sin secretly. A hypocrite may forbear [avoid] gross sin because of the shame—but not clandestine, secret sin. He is like one who shuts up his shop windows—but follows his trade within doors. But a man fearing God dares not sin, though he could walk invisibly, and no eye see him.”

On the Pharisaic attitude towards God, he offers:
Hypocrites obey God grudgingly, and against their will; they do good but not willingly. Cain brought his sacrifice—but not his heart. It is a true rule—what the heart does not do, is not done,” and “Hypocrites take God’s name in vain: their religion is a lie; they seem to honour God—but they do not love him; their hearts go after their lusts.”

Finally, he summarises well the goal of Pharisaic religion, versus the kind of faith he was promoting himself:
The hypocrite makes use of religion, only [in the way] the fisherman [uses] his net, to catch preferment. He serves God for applause – hypocrites look not at God’s glory, but vain glory. They serve God rather to save their credit, than to save their souls…[but] an upright heart makes the glory of God his centre.”

The Puritans condemned religious hypocrites so heavily (Watson calls them “doubly damned” in hell) that they could scarcely afford to be found guilty of the same crime themselves! And so while people may accuse Puritans of being legalistic (generally a misconception, but space won’t permit a detailed defense here), they were not at all like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. The main difference was that the Pharisees for the most part ignored Jesus’ charge of hypocrisy and selective obedience, whereas the Puritans listened to those same words and made every effort to deal with their inner corruption through repentance and faith, so that they might truly obey God from the heart by following Jesus instead of wanting to see him dead.

[1] Waiting For The Word TISSOT pharisees enraged (CC BY 2.0) flickr

 

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Voting for Life (in Australia)

While the issue of abortion became live this week in Queensland, due to Rob Pyne’s private members bill (which in its current form, simply repeals everything in the Criminal Code that relates to intentionally procuring a miscarriage: i.e. doing something to cause an abortion), we also find ourselves in the opening days of a long federal election campaign.

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Passage of this bill is something we must stop [1]
Irrespective of whether the law changes or not, the Queensland government’s wafer thin margin in parliament means that we could also go to the polls in a state election within the next 12 months as well. That means, at least once and possibly twice, many of us will vote for a candidate or party with positions on a wide range of issues that affect our community and the welfare of our nation.

In the past, while I was serving as a local church pastor, I wrote several articles outlining some principles to think about when voting for a candidate or party in any given election (you can read them here). While in that position, I felt it was not beneficial for me to be seen to be telling people in my pastoral care (i.e. church members) that they should vote for a particular party. Things can get messy when churches and Christian leaders tie themselves too closely to one brand of politics and I wanted to avoid mishaps in that area.

However, my convictions about the seriousness of fighting for the right to life of all people conceived within our borders, along with an increasing sense of bleakness about the quality of public life in Australia has led me to make this plea to anyone who will read what I have to say about voting in any upcoming elections.

I urge all Christians not to vote for any candidate or political party who advocates the destruction of unborn babies via abortion procedures, as something that is beneficial or morally acceptable.

God created humanity in His image (Gen 1:26-27) and charged men and women to be fruitful and multiply and exercise authority over creation under God’s ultimate rule (Gen 1:28). Each one of us is here today because God knit us together in our mother’s womb, commencing our journey of life as a human whose ways and future are known to Him (Ps 139:13-16). The fallen human nature we each possess, as descendants of a common ancestor, is present from conception (Ps 51:5).

The Lord Jesus’ incarnation as a member of the human race began when He was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18-20) and his cousin John was able to rejoice while still in the womb in response to the presence of the unborn Jesus and his mother Mary (Luke 1:41-44). God says that to take the life of another human being is to disregard God’s inviolable image in that person and is a crime worthy of death (Gen 9:6).

What I’ve just presented is part of the picture behind our commitment to life and the seriousness of getting it wrong. While naturally someone who rejects God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus and through His apostles and prophets (brought down to us in the Scriptures) lacks this framework for seeing all life as God-given, God-reflecting, God-owned and God-protected – this is hardly a matter we can agree to disagree on.

The hard reality of abortion is that it murders children as an expression of rebellion against God and everyone who commits it must face God’s wrath as someone guilty of another’s blood. The only people who are guilty of such an act who will not personally experience eternal death as a consequence are those who recognise that Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty of their rebellion against God and blood-guilt for a human life. Abortion is deadly serious not only because children die as a consequence, but because Jesus died as part of God’s judgement on this evil.

So the principle I’m strongly advocating is that anyone who doesn’t get this – that medically destroying innocent children’s lives is a serious matter – is completely unworthy of any Christian’s vote. Full stop.

But what does that mean practically? When it comes down to it, it means I am calling for Christians not to vote for particular political parties and their candidates if the promotion of abortion is part of their policy platform. That means I have to urge my Christian brothers and sisters not to vote for specific political parties and candidates who do actually have such a position.

Thus, I’m pleading with you not to vote for the Labor Party (ALP) or the Greens at the upcoming federal election and at any subsequent state or federal polls. Both of these parties support access to pregnancy termination (abortion) as a matter of party policy. You can read their statements here and here.

Now let me deal with a couple of issues that immediately arise.

#1 I am not telling Christians to vote for the Coalition (as though it is the only other option)

There are plenty of reasons you might want to consider not voting for the Liberal Party and the re-election of a Turnbull government. Let me make it very clear that I do not support the Liberal Party as an organisation and would never join it as a member. It has principles and objectives I disagree with fairly firmly. But what I’m not prepared to do in this article is tell you not to vote for them on the basis of this issue, because the party does not have a policy for promoting abortion the same way Labor and the Greens do.

On the other hand, Malcolm Turnbull is himself pro-abortion and therefore (in my opinion) unworthy to be the Prime Minister of Australia on that basis, so some Christian voters may decide not to vote in support of a party/government that he leads. Likewise, your local candidate or member may personally support abortion as a women’s rights issue, in which case I’d urge you not to support them with your vote. But if you want to vote for a Liberal or National candidate who is pro-life, you should definitely consider supporting them – assuming there is no other issues with their character or policies that disqualifies them from your support.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pose for a photo together at Pentagon on Jan. 18, 2016. (DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Clydell Kinchen)(Released)
PM Malcolm Turnbull supports abortion

#2 What if my Labor candidate is pro-life?

Formerly I would have encouraged you to consider voting for them, but I’ve changed my mind. Here’s why. I’ve read some stuff recently from Joe Carter at the Gospel Coalition, which explains how voting works in relation to factions. We belong to electoral factions of sorts and we vote for members of factions (directly – i.e. our local MP) and leaders of factions (indirectly – i.e. who should be prime minister or premier).

To cut to the chase, if you vote for an ALP candidate who supports the rights of unborn children, you’re nevertheless voting for them to work towards the policy goals of the ALP – especially should they manage to win government. While there may be a conscience vote on certain contentious issues in which it may be helpful to have pro-life parliamentarians of all stripes present in the chamber, the reality is that in the day to day running of the country an ALP government will be working to implement their health policies, which includes ready access to abortions for women. The pro-life candidate you vote for is less likely to succeed in changing the party platform (which in this case they should be doing while in opposition, not government) and more likely to end up enabling pro-death factions within the party to promote and pursue the stated policy goals.

#3 There’s more than one issue to consider at any given election

I agree. But again, some recent reading has helped boost my confidence in calling for us to disqualify any candidate from our consideration when voting, who has any unacceptable policy positions.

You already agree with me (I think). If your local candidate said something outrageously racist, sexist or discriminatory against Christians – I don’t doubt you’d find another candidate to vote for based on that alone: never mind whether they have economic credentials or a plan for improving local facilities. If they supported a particular policy or viewpoint that made it very embarrassing to admit you voted for them to your family or colleagues, it may also have the same effect. Likewise if they managed to make it onto the ballot paper but were found to have serious character issues during the campaign, you’d probably steer clear.

All this is to say, “single-issue voting” as it’s sometimes called, is completely reasonable. It doesn’t mean only one issue matters, but rather than some matter so much that you can’t reasonably vote for a person or party who gets it wrong.

Abortion is most certainly one of these issues. Labor may have better policies than the Coalition in certain areas and they often seek to look after people and groups that don’t always fare so well under the Coalition’s economic policies. Many Christians find the Greens’ asylum seeker/immigration policies more compassionate (and therefore more desirable) than those of both major parties. I acknowledge these things. But because both the ALP and Greens would choose the death of unborn children to fulfil part of their ideological goals – neither of them should be trusted with your vote, unless those policies change.

This is not the last time I plan to write on this issue during this election campaign, or indeed the parliamentary process regarding abortion in QLD. But I do urge all Christians, this July – however you use your democratic privilege to vote, don’t cast it in favour of someone who doesn’t acknowledge the humanity of the unborn and who would be part of the political machine that enables the slaughter of thousands of them in Queensland and Australia every year.

[1] Bidgee “A stop sign in Australia” CCBY 3.0 wikimedia commons.

Fighting for Life (in Queensland)

With reports suggesting that a bill to decriminalise abortion in Queensland will be tabled in parliament tomorrow (May 10), it’s an urgent time for us to be thinking seriously about how we can be fighting for the lives of innocent, vulnerable unborn children who are conceived in this state.

While it is definitely time to write an email or letter to your local MP, expressing your concern at this issue, and while it may also be a good time to think about how you can be involved in the work of local, pro-life organisations – some recent events have made me reflect on what the most important part we play in this battle really is.

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It truly does [1]

A friend wrote to me a few weeks ago to tell me that they’d been chatting with a close friend whose partner had gotten pregnant unintentionally.  The nature of the conversation centered on the couple’s consideration of aborting the baby. My friend was able to share the value of life from a Christian perspective and encourage their friend not to think about abortion as the “best option” that many other friends were holding it out to be. In God’s mercy, this story seems to have had a happy ending and the couple have decided to embrace the life that has come about as a result of their relationship and raise him or her as part of a family together.

Even more recently, my wife has had the opportunity to chat with someone who has been under significant pressure from her partner to get an abortion. It’s a different situation: in this case there are already children on the scene and only one party in the relationship is advocating ending the life of the child. Helen was also able to faithfully share what God’s perspective is on the termination of innocent, vulnerable life and give strong encouragement and warning to choose life rather than death and all the consequences that go with it.  While we don’t know yet what the outcome will be in this case, we are praying and trusting God that this mother will be convicted that the life she is carrying is far more precious than anything she’d gain by succumbing to the pressure she’s under to dispose of it.

These two cases make me think: have we as Christians realised that the most important part we might play in the fight for the lives of the innocent and voiceless, is to be there to speak to the friend, colleague or family member who’s considering abortion? Are you and I equipped to have these conversations with people in our lives? Are we the sort of friend someone could turn to when they are facing pressure to “deal with their mistake” or get rid of an unwanted child?

I suspect that just like evangelism, many of us might feel deficient for the task. Maybe I’ll say the wrong thing. Maybe I’d just confuse the person more. Maybe I can’t get the balance right between listening sympathetically and compassionately and speaking boldly and firmly about the seriousness of the matter. These responses are understandable starting points when we consider a life and death issue like this – but they’re terrible and unacceptable finishing points for our role in this battle.

Because like the need to share the gospel with unsaved friends, it is critical that we get equipped to speak life to our friends when they’re tempted by death. We want to be able to warn them and even persuade them, when they’re considering something that will bring about God’s judgement upon them and irreversibly destroy a human life.

Life at 9 wks
Life at 9 wks [2]

So we need to think about what we believe about abortion and the value of human life and why we believe it. And while we don’t need to be articulate geniuses who can discuss the ins and outs of medical data and philosophical arguments – we should all familiarise ourselves with the compelling-enough, basic arguments for why it’s wrong to terminate a life in the womb. We should chat with each other about how these kind of conversations have gone if we’ve had them. We can learn from mistakes and ideas – as well as learning from people who are better than us at careful listening and compassionate speech, or boldly articulating the truth of God to those who are tempted by the lies of the world.

For a long time now, pro-life activists – Christian and non-Christian – have realised that while it would be fantastic to outlaw abortion as a matter of principled justice, chances are that if one side of politics passed such a law, the other side would repeal it at the first chance they get. In Queensland, the problem with the status quo is two-fold. 1. The law prohibits abortion as a criminal offence, but allows for it when there is a benefit to the personal well-being of the mother. This is a rotten status quo, because any doctor that is happy with abortion in principle can recommend one be carried out as a “therapeutic miscarriage” for almost any reason, real or contrived. 2. The conservative side of politics in Queensland has been reluctant to change the status quo either a. because some are happy for it to remain a dead issue or b. because the pro-life parliamentarians fear that any changes they make will not only be reversed by others, but that their opponents would likely use it as a pretext to fully decriminalise abortion and make it even easier to occur.

Rob Pyne MP will reportedly seek to introduce a bill decriminalising abortion in QLD tomorrow
Rob Pyne MP will reportedly seek to introduce a bill decriminalising abortion in QLD tomorrow [3]

As a result, many here (as also in the US and other parts of the world) have recognised that a significant shift in public opinion regarding abortion is needed before legislative change can ever be successfully implemented. The way to achieve that must be through education and public awareness programs, run by people dedicated to the pro-life cause.

I agree – I would love to see the criminality of abortion enforced in Queensland tomorrow and even tougher laws stopping it from happening. Lives would literally be saved. But in the long run, we can only stop abortion if we take public opinion with us, so that no government would dare defy a populace united against such an evil practice. They permit abortion to happen within our borders because we as Queenslanders let them do nothing about it.

So let’s fight the further erosion of protections for unborn children that are being proposed in parliament this week – this is a bad bill and should be stopped. But let’s also be people who are praying God would use us to stop one abortion at a time – through being in people’s lives to bear witness to the preciousness of human life. And let’s do that while we support efforts to steadily educate the people of Queensland, Australia and the world about the preciousness of life from conception and the horror of ending a defenceless life – so that one day soon we may be able to see this barbaric practice socially condemned and legally prohibited.

[1] wht_wolf9653 “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart Sign”(CC BY-SA 2.0) flickr.
[2] lunar caustic “Embryo week 9-10” (CC BY-SA 2.0) flickr.
[3] Icuraj “Robert ‘Rob’ Pyne is in his second term as Division 3 Council for Cairns Regional Council”
(CC BY-SA 2.0) wikimedia.

 

Friday Fun: Tennant the Tenth’s Top Ten Doctor Who stories

It’s been 10 years since David Tennant took on the role of the legendary Time Lord known as the Doctor in the rebooted series run of the sci-fi classic Doctor Who. Since he gave us the greatest doctor of the new series (and in my mind, probably around equal pegging with Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor for the greatest Doctor of them all) and since ABC has just finished screening re-runs of his “Tennancy”, I thought I’d break from my usual serious tone of blog topics and indulge in a Top Ten list of what I regard as his greatest stories as the Doctor. So here they are, counting down from 10 to 1.

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Honourable mentions: The Next Doctor; Planet of the Ood; Fires of Pompeii; Gridlock; Lazarus Experiment.

10. Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel

Good story with a classic monster/robot/villain, a parallel universe and a mad genius. The Cybermen were formidable and good at terrorising people and Lumic worked as an evil visionary/inventor with a fatal weakness. Tennant was a little bit James Bond too, while his allies were a bit Scooby Doo.

9. Girl in the Fireplace

I didn’t really take to the clockwork droid monsters (although their masquerade outfits were kind of cool), but Madame du Pompadour worked as a historical character really well, as did 18th century Versailles as a setting for the story. It was an effective time-travelling story with a truly tragic ending. Tennant was able to play the romantic lead in a memorable way and save the day – the horse-riding scene being a memorable one.

8. End of Time

I must admit upfront that End of Time lacks in several areas, which is why it is not higher on the list. I haven’t particularly found the new series’ take on the Master as compelling a character as he was in the classic series. As a result, I found some of the way the story played out to be lacklustre. However, there are a few things that gain it a place in the top ten. The opening is both sad and amusing as the Doctor has “gone troppo” as a way of coping with his impending death. His relationship to the Ood and particularly Ood Sigma make nice bookends to the story. The Woman in White is a genuine mystery to this day that keeps fans debating over her identity. Wilfred’s character and his relationship to the Doctor is genuinely engaging and he plays an important role in the finale. But of course, what really makes this story is the climax. The return of the Time Lords is an epic story component and everything from the trigger-tension of the climactic scene, to the moment that guarantees the Doctor’s death, to the farewell tour and the regeneration scene is, well…Brilliant, I suppose.

7. Voyage of the Damned

I quite enjoyed this special I think because of the special guest actors and the ending. Clive Swift, of Keeping Up Appearances fame was splendid as Max Copper, the tour-guide of Earth and made some genuinely funny remarks about Earthling customs to the tourists who wouldn’t have known any better. Kylie Minogue also did a good job as Astrid and her ending was a tragic experience for the Doctor. Was good to see an Aussie companion (albeit briefly) alongside the Doctor for the first time since Janet Fielding’s Tegan Jovanka during the Fifth Doctor’s run. Added comedic tension with the need to avert a collision with Buckingham Palace during the climax. Oh and Banakavalata!

6. The Doctor’s Daughter

There are probably reasons not to like this story, but I quite enjoy it. The Doctor’s emotional journey of involuntarily progenating a pretty soldier clone who he initially regards with some disdain but eventually finds a special place for in his heart was compelling. Good character exploration with the pain of the Doctor’s past and his own soldier-like ways. Jenny’s character will always be part of the Tenth Doctor’s legacy and has probably kicked loads of alien butt somewhere out there in the obscure portions of the universe – or at least in numerous fanfic spin-offs. Nice problem-solving skills from Donna too!

5. Sontaran Strategem/Poison Sky

Ok, top 5 now – serious end of town. The Sontaran story saw the welcome return of Martha Jones and featured some really cool features. The ATMOS devices played on our worst fears about the unforeseen dangers of adopting universal technology. Luke Rattigan was compelling as a socially-inept, bratty, lonely genius and had a noteworthy character trajectory. UNIT was at their bumbling, useless-without-the-Doctor, best. Clone Martha was an interesting approach. But what really made it was that this was the revived Sontarans at their best – trying to turn Earth into a clone colony, then threatening it with complete obliteration. They were fearsome, if not moronic compared to the Doctor (yet still able to successfully deceive intelligent humans with ease) and we were introduced to the hypnotic Sontaran-haka. Sontar-Ha! Sontar-Ha!

4. The Christmas Invasion

Though this post-regeneration Christmas special was kind of Doctor-lite, right upto when it counted – the plot worked as a grand entrance for Tennant to make his full debut. The almost frenetic, fresh-faced Doctor immediately began to project himself into what would become the iconic portrayal of the character for this generation. He was funny, erratic and, as it turns out, a superb swordsman. I liked the contrast of mercy and the dark, vengeful side that were on display in his interactions with both the Sycorax and then the memorable Harriet Jones. Humourous Lion King quotations and regenerative party tricks.

3. School Reunion

School Reunion is easily my favourite normal, stand alone episode of the Tennancy. Why? Well it saw the return of classic companion Sarah Jane Smith and K-9 and featured some touching moments between her and the Doctor, as well as some petty jealousy between Sarah and new companion Rose Tyler. While the Krillitane weren’t that fantastic in and of themselves, Anthony Head (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) was absolutely brilliant as their ringleader. He played the villain so well and the way in which the plot was set up to tempt the Doctor with an absolute kind of power was really enjoyable to watch. The climactic exchange between K-9 and Head was hilariously fantastic: “You BAD Dog” “Affirmative.” When the episode couldn’t have gotten any better, it also won points from me for included an 80s rock classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart” during the diner scene.

2. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday

Daleks vs. Cybermen. Enough said. The two most recurrent and indomitable enemy races to the Doctor clash in their respective attempts to conquer the Earth – and while so much more could have been done with such a scenario, it was still a wonderful piece of sci-fi history. The initial exchange between the Cybermen and the Daleks is undoubtedly one of the best dialogues (and subsequent laser fights) in Doctor Who history.
“This is not war – this is pest control.” The tragic ending was also very well done as a way of bringing the relationship of the Doctor and Rose Tyler to a sad, sad end. Catherine Tate’s random appearance, followed by a series of “What”s from Tennant is a humourous juxtaposition that might have dried a few tears.

1. The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End

The only thing better than a Dalek story is a Dalek story with Davros at the helm. In the series 4 finale we were deliciously granted a picture of a “Dalek Empire at the full height of its powers” with their creator hatching a plot to destroy reality itself. It doesn’t get much more epic than that, until you realise that the Doctor is going to be reunited with almost every conceivable companion he’s had during his tenure as they work together to try to save the world.
Top that off with the Doctor apparently finally experiencing Extermination, before partially regenerating and keeping his appearance and personality the same. Then we see his most recent companion apparently dying, before experiencing a human-Time Lord metacrisis which results in her hybridising into “the Doctor Donna”, while creating a second (albeit part-human) version of the Doctor. Everything about the ending is just superb – even though there is much tragedy for the Tenth to endure along the way. Tennant pulls it off so well and his performance in this story epitomises why he’s the greatest Doctor of this generation.

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.

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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

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:


chalkboard

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.