Whilst I have been a Christian all my life, and held and continue to hold leadership positions in my denomination for over 30 years in various capacities, much of the wonder of the cycles of the Christian year have alluded me.
I have often struggled to do the giving up things for Lent, and as a kid, I never had the Advent Calendar.
Both of these are periods of waiting and preparation.
This year, I have had a much greater sense of waiting during Advent than ever before in my life, but more about that latter.
Earlier on Christmas morning, my Facebook posts have been more political than they have ever been.
It was intriguing at my own Church this morning, for the Christmas Day celebration, our Minister chose for the children’s talk the book, “Jesus was a refugee” by Andrew McDonough.
He was getting political.
In the context of Australia, where our successive Governments have hidden people who seek refugee status in Australia, are taken on the high seas, and then moved to third countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea. There they are hidden from the Australian population at extraordinary cost, level without the medical and humanitarian support that Australia can provide. They wallow away therewith increasing mental and physical health issues, many contemplating suicide.
During the service I posted on Facebook that our Prime Minister and Minister responsible for Border Force should be sitting on the carpet steps of our church with the children, to be reminded that the person they so willingly call upon for religious political advantage, became a refuge. Yet if Jesus were to be a boat person approaching Australia, he would be rejected and sent away, and placed within an abusing system.
We should be reminded of what the Bible tells us around Herod attempt to destroy God’s child:
Matthew 2:13-15 : (13) Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (14) Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, (15) and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” (NRSV)
There are so many people in the world whose lives are being destroyed by political leaders in our world, famine, war and many other attempts to remove people based on their skin colour, their religion, their gender or sexual orientation.
Yet today, it is our Christian leaders here in Australia, the USA and many other countries who are rejecting these refugees, many of whom are refugees because of past policies of the very same countries.
Our Minister went on to describe what he doesn’t like about Christmas, one of the three being “the baby”.
It seems our thinking was in synch today.
Earlier in the day, on my personal FaceBook account, I had published a political commentary, calling for us to focus more on who Jesus became and stood for, rather than the nicety of the birth.
Many of Australia’s major religions are mirroring the United States of America with a call for special religious freedom, which I call religious privilege.
In the Midnight Christmas Eve Mass, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney continues his theme that religion in Australia, in particular, Christianity, needs special protection by the State. In his homily he comments:
“One freedom endangered at the moment is freedom of conscience and belief. Around the world devastatingly high numbers of people are dead, damaged or displaced for their faith every year because some people want to homogenise human beings, control them, and use power, even violence, to do so.
No-one dies for their faith here in Australia, thank God, but we are not immune to threats to religious liberty. A year ago there were promises of new measures to ensure that freedom is protected in this country; a year later and all we’ve had are more promises… Meanwhile, discrimination against people of faith has become more acceptable in some quarters. There have been moves to undermine the Sacrament of Confession, to defund Catholic schools, to charge an Archbishop with discrimination for teaching about marriage, to deny faith-based institutions the right to choose what kind of community they will be. Tonight, as we join the angels in our carols, both glorifying God and pacifying people, some are demanding we choose between the two. Some want us to put the Christ-child away with the Christmas decorations, so He has no claim on the year ahead.” (source: https://www.sydneycatholic.org/homilies/2018/homily-for-the-midnight-mass-of-the-nativity-of-the-lord/ referenced 25 December 2018).
What is sad, is the misrepresentation of facts for Christianity to move under the protection of the State. Whilst he notes that no one in Australia is dying for their religion, many people in Australia have died because of who they are, and the church rejects, as an example, LGBTIQ people. In Australia’s history, as recently as early 2000s, LGBTIQ people have been murdered for simply being who they are. LGTBIQ people are actively discriminated in Australian society. The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney conveniently ignores this.
For clarity, the reference to undermining the Sacrament of Confession is a move by some State Governments in Australia to require Priests to report people who sexually abuse children even if advised of this during confession. This is consistent with the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. Many religious organisations have failed to fully own, repent and respond to the thousands of children in Australia and even more internationally, who have been sexually and physically abused by religious people.
For further clarity, let’s explore the conversation on defunding Catholic Schools and discrimination on marriage and denying faith-based organisations the right to choose what type of community they want to be. So what is the context here? In 2017 the people of Australia, after the first public vote in Australia’s history on a matter of social and civil rights (all prior restoration of rights have been simply dealt with by Parliament), which was abusive, the people of Australia requested, by a significant majority of voters, that Parliament amend the Marriage Act to allow two people to marry. Embedded in the modification of the Marriage Act were protections for Ministers of Religion not to have to marry two people (as distinct from a man and a women), even if their denomination requires them to, and also protects religious organisations from having to hold weddings of two people on their property.
To appease the conservative right of the Australian Government, the then Prime Minister Turnbull agreed to an inquiry into Religious Freedom. The inquiry was held in secret, the report provided to the Government in May 2018, but only officially released in December 2018 under pressure. The release was forced due to the Government having to call a by-election for the former Prime Minister’s seat when the report’s recommendations were leaked.
These recommendations laid bare to the Australian public that religious schools had special powers to discriminate against LGBTIQ students and teachers.
The students and parents of many of these schools and society, in general, reacted with dismay, not realising that our Governments had provided these special religious privileges to religious and other non-government schools. Whilst the inquiry recommendation was aimed at reducing the level of discrimination, the public became aware that discrimination existed, would continue and do not approve.
The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney and other Sydney religious leaders have for months been calling for special religious privileges that allow their organisation’s special rights to discrimination that no other organisations, public or private. have the right to in Australia. The call for cutting of funding for Catholic Schools is based in that context. If Catholic Schools want the right to discriminate, should they not use their own wealth, rather than be dependent on State funding of their schools?
Yet the man whose birth we recall today didn’t want special religious privileges.
In fact, he came to challenge, not only the government of the day but also the religious leaders about the core message of God, which we hear in the interchange between Jesus and the lawyer in Luke’s narrative (10:25-28):
“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”” (NRSV)
There are no exclusions or exemptions in this interchange between Jesus and the lawyer. If there was anyone you think Jesus would be clear about any exemptions or exclusions it would be a lawyer, but there isn’t any.
The fight around religious privilege (aka freedom), is not about some nice general principle. It is very targeted. Just as the Ruddock Inquiry was, it is how religious organisations are to obtain special privileges to discriminate against LGBTIQ people. Yet Jesus, having created many opportunities to enunciate who should be excluded, never does.
Jesus is very political.
He overturns the tables at the temple. To me, the message to the two Archbishops of Sydney is you don’t need special religious privileges, what you need is to reflect on the nature of Jesus, his message of love and inclusion. Be prepared to present your arguments for discrimination. You no longer have the automatic right for your opinions to be maintained as fact and consequential legislation in our society. When the Catholic Church continues to call LGBTIQ people intrinsically disordered, in spite of all the evidence, medical and psychological, you are forcing an ideology that is out of step with knowledge and good values. When some of our major Churches in Australia continue to support and fund “gay conversion therapy”, when society knows that you can’t pray away red hair for black hair, or pray away brown eyes for blue eyes, you also can’t pray away someone innate sexual orientation.
Just as society’s acceptance of religious organisations has diminished due to their response to child sexual abuse, they are no longer tolerating the abuse of LGBTIQ people through “pray away the gay therapies”. Yes, you can dye your hair, or put in contact lenses to make your eye blue. At the end of the day, your red hair roots will reappear, and you can’t keep contact lenses in forever and the brown eyes will become visible again. Many people have tried to suppress the sexual orientation to become acceptable to religious people, but at the end that ends up often at best with severe mental health issues, and unfortunately at worse suicide.
Jesus talked about looking after those that are hungry and thirsty, strangers, sick, in prison. These political statements of Jesus are still very real today. Our political economic structure in the west has created enormous wealth for a few and poverty, hunger and thirst for so many around the world at an increasing rate.
Governments are being sued in the USA because the private prison providers don’t have enough prisoners, and here in Australia, I expect in the upcoming NSW State election, we will have many demands for putting more and more people in prison, with no support at all, which will lead to an increase in the perpetual cycle of poverty for them and their extended families, at greater cost to our society.
In the USA and Australia, the conservative side of politics, the same that focus on their “Christian Values” are usually the very ones that want to dismantle national health care for the sick in our countries.
So today, Christmas Day, if wish to sing the joyful carols celebrating the birth of Christ, please do so, but in your other hand, have the rest of the story.
This child is immediately a refugee.
This child grows rapidly to disrupt religion and politics of the day.
If we are to celebrate the birth of Christ, then we must be ready to challenge the religious and the political rulers of the day using the issues and values of the Christ.
I started by talking about this Advent has been the first Christmas when I have had the sense of waiting.
The birth of Jesus today hasn’t ended my waiting. My denomination in the middle of the year, after so many years, decades of debate, prayer, talking, listening, decided that there is a valid theological position to allow two persons to marry. As a concession to those who struggled with this, the Church decided that it would allow two parallel doctrines of marriage, identical in all material ways, with one key difference, one uses the terms a man and a women, and the other two people. No minister was forced to use either, and no parish was forced to allow the marriage of two persons on their properties.
Unfortunately, a number of the conservative presbyteries are using a historically never used part of the church’s constitution to suspend this decision, and in my mind, their arguments are built on lies. Their position is about power. Yes, Jesus was and is a very powerful individual, but his central teaching was inclusion and love. He regularly challenges the abuse of power. The next chapter in the misuse of the church’s constitution is in early January 2019, that is what I am waiting for.
This advent I have heard about waiting, and it has forced me to think more deeply than ever about what this birth of Jesus is all about, the birth is the start of a radical journey.
Jesus was a radical, he was inclusive, he spoke of love, he challenged the religious rulers and the political rulers of the day.
If you admire the baby Jesus, then you are called into his radical inclusion, his radical love and his racial challenge of all those that stand in the way of these two elements of what we are called to; Love God, Love One Another.
We are not receiving a child, we are about to hear about an agitator, we are about to hear about the offending of the religious and the political rulers, offending so much that he was hung on a cross.
With this gentle meek and mild Child, we are all called to be Jesus’ agitators.