Last week, Peter Catt and I worked together on a media release opposing the proposed Religious Freedom Bill. While doing so I wondered why so many Christians appeared to be afraid. The words of one of my favourite hymns kept coming to mind.
Be not afraid.
I go before you always
Come, follow me. …
I had always considered that lacking fear was one of the characteristics of being a Christian. There was this command/invitation of Jesus, that I had taken seriously, even literally (Mt 14:27, Mt 17:7, Mt 28:10, Jn 6:20, Jn 14:27). This was not to say that I haven’t been scared in following Jesus at times. I have after all faced a hostile protest by builders’ contractors over a development, argued from the bar in the environment court and even faced Zed Seselja in a Senate inquiry. Yet my fear at those times seemed a minor thing to what conservative Christians seem to be experiencing most of the time.
I wondered what was happening.
As often happens when you wonder, (especially if you are a big reader like I am), a text comes along that is helpful. On this occasion, it was the editorial of the latest edition of The Fourth R by Art Dewey of the Westar Institute. In it he comments on the fear experienced by Moses as he approaches the burning bush and how the combination of both fear and fascination was a typical way ancient writers expressed an encounter with the holy. When Moses takes off his shoes this is a sign that he is crossing a border onto holy ground. Dewey makes the point that what God says next would have been the strangest part of this ancient story for these ancient peoples.
“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry against their taskmasters.”
“When ancient peoples were conquered by others, they became “lost.” Many were simply wiped out in battle; others dissolved away as slaves. Some lucky few intermarried with the winners. But in all these cases, the fate of a captive people was extinction and erasure. Indeed, as the ancients would see it: our god has beaten your god. There was nothing more to say.
And yet, this is where the story proceeds. This story is remarkable because God of the enslaved refuses to remain silent; because this God continues to remember. The entire narrative of the Exodus in all its many layers over the centuries comes out of this subversive declaration. Moreover, this memory of a God who remembers slaves continues to be etched out in the oracles of Amos and the other prophets of Israel who would not forget that the mindful God of Exodus could not forget the widow and the orphan in the days of later opulence and power.”
It occurred to me that in following Jesus we continually step over the border of the sacred, and in doing so, step into the ongoing liberating work of God. While there is a strangeness in crossing borders and at times great suffering, there is also the presence of Jesus. More commonly, people come to us who have crossed borders. This is more confronting because we don’t control the crossing, but it is no less an opportunity for grace; for meeting the liberating God.
One of the dangers of conservative Christianity is that it can quickly become a cult which cuts itself off from other people. When this happens the God of Christianity is reduced to being a local god of this particular tribe. God’s inclusivity is forgotten and walls are built to exclude others who might challenge the tribe’s narrow understanding of God. There are strict rules about who is in and who is out. Over time, because there are so few visitors, the tribe becomes ever more fearful of outsiders. They are a threat rather than an opportunity of grace. Because of the lack of real interaction with the outside world, they have an inflated sense of their own virtue and importance. However, being human they fail even by their own standards. On these occasions they often blame their failings on the outsiders who are mysteriously influencing them. As an example, some conservative Roman Catholic clerics have blamed clerical child sexual abuse on the permissive society of the 1960s.
Such groups are rife for manipulation by the powerful. This is because the powerful like being exclusive too. That is how they keep their power, status and wealth. They build walls to keep others out. They build walls so that others can’t see how they have accumulated their wealth. They intuitively understand cultic Christianity and offer themselves as strong leaders who will look after the cult and protect the beliefs of the local god, for example on gender issues. They know how to flatter, as well as to stoke fears of the outsider. For the rich and powerful, the outsider is nearly always a threat, as they are likely to steal their money or not take seriously their status. Further the wealthy and powerful rarely take responsibility for their actions and know well how to project their failings onto others. They know therefore how to promote all the faults and none of the virtues of cultic Christianity.
For conservative Christians who fall into this trap, fear increases. In part it is fuelled by the rich and powerful in order to win their votes and their support. In part it is encouraged by their isolation and lack of practice in really relating to others. However, at a deeper level, it is because they have come close to the sacred boundary, but then have erected a wall. At some level, they know that the wall will not hold against the sacred. It is upon them. The more they try to defend, the more they are defenceless, the sillier they look, even as their power increases. No wonder they feel afraid.
One of the tragedies of our age is that there are so many like this. They are almost impossible to communicate with. They see every approach as an attack, because the façade they have built is so fragile. Remove one bit and the whole comes tumbling down. It is tragic that they helped Trump and the Republicans be elected in the USA and the Liberal National Coalition here in Australia. Both administrations want to build walls that keep the other out, while building an increasingly inequitable society that effectively oppresses the widow and the orphan.
Progressive Christians can have a special role in Australia over the next few years by showing that we have conquered fear. Perhaps we can even help conservatives conquer their fears and enjoy a greater freedom. Our God is not a narrow tribal one. Our God both transcends the universe and our understanding. Our God loves and is present in the stranger who comes to us. It is an exciting and dangerous journey, but do not fear. Emmanuel.
Len Baglow, Policy Advocate and member of the management committee of A Progressive Christian Voice Australia