Archive for the Discipleship Category

Someone said,

The opposite of faith is not doubt. It’s cowardice.

If you are not already reading Byron Smith’s blog, then do.

And then go and read this gem in Eternity magazine by John Cook, committed Christian and author of the completely brilliant skeptical science.

For the church to turn a blind eye to the injustice of climate change is to turn our back on God’s heart for the poor.

Cutting down our fossil fuel pollution has become part of the mandate to love our neighbours. We must pray and campaign for justice in a changing climate. We need to support action on climate change and look to reduce our carbon footprint.

The Royal Society has just published a collection of papers exploring the likelihood, and likely impacts of the world warming by 4°C above pre-industrial average temperatures by the end of the century.

The papers are available for free browsing and download here.

They are, as you can no doubt imagine, sobering reading. Critical take-home messages are:

1) The continued rise in greenhouse gas emissions and lack of commitment of most governments to make serious and sustained reductions in emissions means that there is very little likelihood of limiting global temperature increase to 2°C above the pre-industrial average. On current trends, our children and grandchildren will be living in a world that is, at best, 3° or 4°C hotter than that (and higher temperatures can’t be ruled out).

Despite high-level statements to the contrary, there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2° C. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2° C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2° C now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change.

2) There is an enormous gap between what would seem to be any rational response to the risks involved, and the commitments made by most governments. Simply put, on current policy commitments (and these are merely pledges, not concrete action) we face a 50:50 chance of exceeding a 3.5°C temperature rise before the end of the century.

3) The longer we delay significant and sustained cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, the more likely that higher temperature rises will be unavoidable. Earlier reductions are more effective for limiting likely temperature increases than later and even more drastic cuts.

4) Adapting to a warmer world will not simply be a matter of adjusting to slightly warmer weather – drinking a bit more and staying out of the sun. There will be significant shifts in rainfall patterns, sea level rise, impacts on agricultural viability and sustainability of fresh water supply that will negatively affect and even fundamentally transform or undermine aspects of our societies and economies.

The potential severity of impacts and the behavioural, institutional, societal and economic challenges involved in coping with these impacts argue for renewed efforts to reduce emissions, using all available mechanisms, to minimize the chances of high-end climate change.

It would be great to see these renewed efforts, and all available mechanisms being put to the task, but when the politicians I elect are indifferent or hostile to meaningful action, when my own actions demonstrate my fundamental lack of concern, I wonder what answer I’Il be able to give to my children, to the world’s vulnerable poor, and to the Creator, when I’m asked, “How did you let this happen?”

Two years of dal bhaat. Sometimes spicy, thick and rich, served on fresh rice, sometimes stretched out and watery, with small stones and seeds to crack the teeth among the rice. Always something for small Australian boys to complain about. Always something to give thanks for.

Two years of adjusting to a new soundscape. Bells and conch horns before dawn. Dogs and the neighbour’s rooster at all hours.  The clash and strum and cry of fruit-vendors, and blanket-vendors, and empty-bottle-collectors, and jangling-segment-of-gas-stove vendors. The horns of vehicles, and the ironic hum of the diesel generator that powers the offices of the hydropower company we live next door to.

Two years of new eye-candy (including those hard, bitter candies that you have an aunt who once gave you them and she is nobody’s favourite aunt). The riot of colour that is any group of Nepali women out walking: kurta surwal and scarf sets in lime green and electric pink, floral pastels matched with bold block colours, deep blues and browns and purples, the red saris and bracelets of married women and the red sindur powder in the part of the hair. The pipal trees and streetside shrines decked with string and streaked with years of vermillion and rice and the petals of flowers, every morning further smeared with an unceasing devotion. The ugliness of new apartments and the ramshackle wood-and-brick beauty of Newari terraces with low doorways to collect the forehead, and tight turns of stairways for knees and elbows. Piles of sometime-to-be-collected garbage by the roadside and at the chowks. The extravagant hills and mountains that crowd in close – the whole country outrageously rucked and folded and raised up.

Two years of struggling, and loving to struggle, and being too tired to struggle, to express ourselves in a language not our own, or to make ourselves known to people we’ve only just met. Of missing the people who know us without us having to say a word, and missing green and spacious places. Of receiving invitations into people’s homes and lives. Of singing new (to us) songs to the Lord. Of wondering who we are, and finding out something new in answer.

Two years of knowing ourselves to be part of something beautiful. Occasionally bureaucratic, sometimes boring, or even too-too-busy. But conversations, and training, and meetings, and classes, and workshops, and rallies, and writing, and reporting, and travel, and chia, that somehow add up to something that might just contribute to restoring people’s dignity, or holding authorities accountable, or inviting children into their own futures.

Two years of serving because that’s what life is for.

* While, strictly speaking, it has not been two years of an uninterrupted supply of any one thing, these are some of the things that have lodged themselves deep in our cells.

Byron Smith is writing a 3 part blog series on Ecology and the Gospel. Reviewing the catalogue of contemporary environmental horrors – Climate change. Biodiversity loss and habitat destruction. Resource depletion. Desertification. Overfishing. Ocean acidification… – he asks:

Is concern about such matters a distraction from the gospel or even a dangerous false agenda proposed by pantheist environmentalists?

The whole thing is worth reading, but I particularly liked Byron’s way of articulating part of every generation’s “greatest moral question” as,

whether we will love our neighbour as ourselves, or love ourselves to the harm of our neighbour.

I think that pretty much sums up for me the profound connection between our ecological and inter-personal ethics. Greenhouse gas emissions from our carbon-intensive economies and lifestyles are crowding the shared sky of our global village and warming the Earth, doing measurable harm to our poorest global neighbours.

A few years ago I fronted a DVD – Climate of Change – produced by TEAR Australia, looking at the impacts of climate change on Bangladesh, and also at the extraordinary community development work of HEED Bangladesh that is helping build community capacity and resilience in the face of climate change. And right now in my work with United Mission to Nepal, we are seeing the impacts of climate change in Nepal and working with poor communities to help them adapt.

Indifference, ignorance, and indulgence should not be options for Christians, but – sadly – they seem to be the default options for most of us most of the time. Our lifestyles, our worship, and our political discourse bear very little evidence that we take creation, new creation, and an other-centred ecological ethic seriously.

Or do you have, and are you part of, a story of change and hope?

The end of the year (and decade) abounds in lists. My list of lists includes:

59 alternative ways to celebrate a buy-nothing-Christmas.

Best hundred books of the decade.

Worst List Ever.

I’ll be writing my own soon for sure.

And if you’re after inspiration and challenge this list of top 10 individual protests is a must-read. Some, like Gandhi and Rosa Parks, you’ll know of and some – like Zackie Achmat and Vedran Smailovic – you may not know of. I hadn’t heard of every protest on the list, and was glad to be enlightened.

After writing my last post on doing good to all, which was sparked by this post at The Sola Panel, I wondered about a few other dynamics that seem to be at work in the way evangelicals often think about these things. There is this theoretical concern that evangelism should always retain primacy over social concern, which can combine with a boundary-riding kind of groupthink to be multiply counterproductive – not only do we fail to do the good that is right there to do, but we fail even to take up the evangelistic opportunities that could arise. Let me give you some examples of what I mean:

I used to be involved in a tutoring program in Sydney, helping Sudanese refugees develop English literacy and make progress on their school work. It was a real joy for me, and when one of the students and a friend, Akur – who had hardly been to school in Sudan, or in the refugee camps where she had lived – passed her HSC, I was almost inexpressibly happy. At the time, I was also working for TEAR Australia, developing campaign and advocacy resources about refugee and asylum-seeker issues. So I would share about the tutoring work as an example of one practical way that Christians could be involved to support refugees and asylum-seekers. A theological student at Moore College (the evangelical Anglican college in Sydney) was interested in being involved but couldn’t come all the way out to Parramatta where we tutored.

No problem, I said, the Ashfield Migrant Resource Centre was setting up a tutoring and homework program in Sydney’s inner-west, he could be part of that. Later he told me that he wouldn’t join the MRC’s program, and didn’t feel comfortable promoting it to his fellow theological students, because it was run under the auspices of an organisation that was not Christian, working with other tutors who are not Christian. And he didn’t think that he would be allowed to share his faith under those circumstances.

I asked him whether he wanted to help kids learn or wanted to evangelise? “Ideally both,” he said. “OK,” I said, “so what better place could you ask for to do both, than in a place where you are working alongside tutors and migrant resource workers who have the same heart to care for refugees? Where else could you more naturally share about who you are and why you are involved?” Sadly, he wasn’t convinced.* But it struck me that his desire to keep evangelism (albeit in a safe, clubby, enabling Christian environment) ahead of doing good (in some abstract theoretical construct in which these two things are always and only opposing goods in a zero-sum game – the more you do of one, the less you do of the other) actually prevented him from doing either.

A second incident occurred at around the same when we were organising a large-scale awareness-raising and education event for congregations and church leaders about refugee and asylum-seeker issues. We wanted to counter the fear and demonisation that seemed to be directed at asylum-seekers, to offer Biblical reflections on strangers and migrants, and to provide practical ways that congregations could be involved to support them. We had workshops lead by people from Anglicare, Migrant Resource Centre, Pendle Hill Church of Christ, Jesuit Refugee Service, and others, giving really great practical ways for people to get involved – from tutoring, to community settlement support, to visiting asylum-seekers in detention.

When setting up the day, we wanted a couple of keynote speakers. We invited a Bible college lecturer to speak about the Bible’s picture of the place of strangers and migrants. We also invited the Director of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) to talk about government policy on refugees and asylum-seekers. I didn’t know two people more qualified to give the talks that they gave, and on the day both were passionate, clear and direct.

However, when I spoke with someone in the social issues executive committee of the Anglican Church to get their involvement in helping promote this event to congregations and ministers I was told that they wouldn’t be involved. The Refugee Council director, I was told, was not a Christian and in some meetings with Christian agencies involved with refugees, had been dismissive or rude, so they didn’t feel they could work together.

“OK,” I said,* “but the RCOA director is the best qualified person to talk about these issues, to explain government policy and give suggestions for ways the current laws and policies should change. She’s not going to be talking about faith or religious issues. We’ve got a Moore college lecturer to do that. So I don’t understand what the concern is.”

“We just don’t feel that she has any respect for Christians.”

“But RCOA director has agreed to come and is the best person on the topic to speak at this event. An event that was organised by Christians. For Christians.”

I didn’t convince her.

Frustrated, as we walked away from the meeting, I told the person from the social issues executive that I thought evangelicals were in danger of being like the priests and levites in the story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan. The kind of people who have the right theology, the right doctrine and the right worship, but who fail to do the right thing when they have the chance.

She didn’t take that particularly well and reminded me that there were a lot of congregations doing good things to help people in need – a fact I hadn’t forgotten. But I thought then, and still think now, that yet another opportunity to witness to the goodness and grace of God to somebody who was (in her view) hostile to Christianity had been missed, and with it the opportunity to encourage and equip congregations to practically minister to the needs of refugees and asylum-seekers.

*Conversation abbreviated, but this was its gist to the best of my recollection – more likely than not, though, I’ve remembered my words in the best possible light.

This postWe must focus on the Christian poor – at the Sola Panel (Sydney’s reformed Anglican online discussion shop) promulgates the notion that Christians ought to focus more on, or give a higher priority to, their care for other Christians – in some sort of distinction from or opposition to their care for others outside the family of faith. I’ve heard others (including lecturers at respected Evangelical theological institutions) arguing the same case. Personally, I don’t have much time for the argument.

Insofar as it’s a restatement of the Biblical truth that we should care for our brothers and sisters in faith just as if they were our brothers and sisters (and especially when they are behaving towards us just like our brothers and  sisters often do – siblings, you know who I’m talking about) and we should care for all others as we are able, then I’m for it. Insofar as it is used to make any other point and to call for some sort of (renewed) bias towards believers (in distinction to those outside the faith) in contemporary Christian ethics and behaviour, then I think it’s rubbish.

It’s got some (but only some) Scriptural warrant – and massively overplays a few verses while steadfastly refusing to engage with the Scriptural evidence that points in another direction.

It depends on positing some sort of zero-sum trade-off between caring for Christians and caring for others that has no sound logical basis nor grounding in reality.

Insofar as it is theologically coherent (and as with its exegetical base it has some coherence, but only some) I find it aberrant to the point of being heretical.

And, as for the practical outworking of the argument – when its application is given any real hard edges I find it about as unappealing as naked bigotry.

I find the notion confused and confusing; the people I’ve heard getting most worked up about it don’t want to stop caring for the non-Christian poor altogether (or at least they say they don’t) – they just want (they claim) to focus on or prioritise care for the Christian poor.

At this point the notion gets a bit vague and its advocates tend to get a little sketchy in its defence. It’s not that they don’t have some Scriptural evidence to support them. They do have some (but only some). But they certainly don’t seem to take the whole Bible witness on the matter into account, and even the bits they do enjoy quoting don’t give any concrete guidance on what this would actually mean in practice. It’s left to posts like Andrew’s to suggest that you give only (or mostly) to Christian NGOs that work only (or mostly) with and for other Christians. Which isn’t something I recall reading in the Bible.

Conversations on the topic tend to run something like:

“I just think there’s a clear priority in Scripture in favour of the Christian poor.”

“Which means that we shouldn’t care for poor people who aren’t Christians?”

“No, of course it doesn’t mean that. The Bible clearly tells us we should do good to all. But especially to the family of faith.”

“So, does that mean we should care less for poor people who aren’t Christians than we care for believers?”

“Not exactly. But we should have a priority for other believers.”

“A priority in the sense of giving more time or money or effort to care for them?”

“Yes. We can’t give to everyone at all times. So we have to focus on other Christians.”

“But don’t you think that the people who are trying to “do good to all” will also be helping other Christians out when they get the chance? So, aren’t they doing exactly what Galatians 6:10 asks them to do?”

“Well, maybe. But it’s a matter of priorities.”

“They shouldn’t be helping non-Christians so much?”

“No, but…”

The title of Andrew Barry’s post – “We must focus on the Christian poor” – sounds like a call to arms and his article (as these arguments always seem to) starts with Galatians 6:10:

So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

In defence of his position, Andrew puts forward four reasons he says Christians should focus on “the Christian poor”:

  • It preserves theological truths as the grounds for generosity. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ (i.e. it is particularly Christian to give to other Christians with whom we have no other relationship than calling on the same Father). At least in rhetoric, Muslims have a much more global sense of brotherhood and looking after each other than we do. It should be the other way around.
  • It follows the pattern of the Scriptures (as has been shown above).
  • It helps ensure that giving to the poor does not become a public relations activity to give us a hearing for the gospel!!!! We should do good because it is good. Our public generosity to outsiders should be an overflow of the way we look after our own, not a outward sham to make ourselves look good.
  • And yet, it shows the whole world that we are Christ’s disciples. The missing words from the verse above were “if you have love for one another”.

I’ll look at argument 2 first, and say straight away that it doesn’t follow the pattern of Scripture, but rather a selective sample of texts Andrew marshals in its support. Sure we need to understand what it means (both in Paul’s rhetoric and in reality) to do good especially to other Christians, but grammatically I can’t work out how the second clause can be used to overpower the clear sense of the dominant clause as Andrew seems to do. We are to do good to all.

Paul’s language about caring for others is far more inclusive than Andrew acknowledges. This is the same Paul who said that God’s abundant blessing was

so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)

and who commended the same Corinthians for the generosity of their sharing with “them” (poor Christians in Jerusalem) “and with all others“. He regarded extending hospitality to strangers as part of the Christian life, and instructed the Christians in Rome, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”

Now you might argue that this universal and inclusive language – every good work, sharing with all others, showing hospitality to strangers and caring for enemies – still applies only (or primarily) to Christians, including Christian strangers and enemies. But, frankly, that seems weird to me.

Jesus taught that an ethic worthy of God’s Kingdom was one that had God’s indiscriminate love at its heart:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

As for argument two, that it “preserves theological truths as the grounds for generosity”, I guess you can see where the Scriptures I’m quoting might suggest some other theological truths that ought to be taken into account. I really don’t know what to do with the Muslim envy in that section, but maybe framing it as a competition, and telling people that right now Muslims are better than Christian (at least “in rhetoric”) in caring for other believers, is good for rebuking and rallying the evangelical troops who have been helping too many non-Christians.

Fundamentally, though, I think Christian generosity is a response to an encounter with God, whose generosity knows no bounds. A God who – as we meet him in Jesus – loves the world to death and beyond. Jesus gave his life not just for his friends but for his enemies, and while we were still enemies. At the heart of God we find indiscriminate, self-giving love. So the most basic ethical commitment that Christians have is to do good to all, for that is in line with the character of God. How that will look for each Christian community and person will vary according to your context, but it’s clear that we all are called to do good to all (including Christians).

In his third argument, Andrew seems to be imputing bad motives to his implicit interlocuters, suggesting that those who show “public generosity to others” do it as a PR exercise or an “outward sham to look good to others”. Now, maybe there are people whose work is all for show and there’s certainly always a danger that people become motivated by the approval of others. But I don’t think that danger is averted by not doing good to others until and unless we have (in some unspecified way) first shown priority to Christians. Perhaps caring for others with only whatever dregs of time, energy, emotion and money we have left after caring for other believers could even become a PR exercise, effectively saying, “Want our help? Convert!”

Frankly, too, it’s never an either-or situation. I have yet to meet anyone whose commitment to caring for people made them unable to care for Christians. I have yet to meet a Christian who was the kind of person who would share a dollar with a stranger on the street and who wouldn’t also share that dollar with a brother or sister in need.

Finally, Andrew argues that giving priority to caring for the Christian poor will show that we are Jesus’ disciples. One of the commenters on his thread has pointed to Matthew 5:16 (“Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to the your Father in heaven”) which I think is to the point. More importantly, however, there are some fundamental differences in what being a disciple in 1st Century Galatia and 21st Century Australia actually entails. Paul was writing to a small, beleaguered sect in the provinces of the Roman Empire. It’s remarkable that he would tell them to care for others at all, let alone tell them to care for all others.

This is the kind of ethic that led a rather peeved, pagan Emperor Julian a few centuries later to complain, “The godless Galileans [Christians] care not only for their own poor, but for ours also”. Christian generosity and social concern was one of the factors, according to Julian’s letters to a pagan high priest in Galatia, that was leading to the abandonment of the temples and worship of the old gods. To argue that 21st Century Australian Christians ought to retreat into a sub-Christian sectarianism is not only to retreat from the Scripture’s clear vision, but also from God’s work in history.

So I say, rejoice whenever you have the opportunity to do good. Do good to all. Give without asking in return. Love, as you have been loved. That’s life.

If you’ve never read – or think you’ve read – the book of Jonah before, you’ll find challenging reflections here and here

If you’ve never read/think you’ve read Paul before, you’ll find challenging reflections here

George Monbiot has a provocative article linking to a study of population and greenhouse emissions.

The study’s abstract says:

It emphasizes that it is not the growth in (urban or rural) populations that drives the growth in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but rather, the growth in consumers and in their levels of consumption. A significant proportion of the world’s urban (and rural) populations have consumption levels that are so low that they contribute little or nothing to such emissions… it is misleading to see population growth as the driver of climate change.

Monbiot makes the further good point that:

Many of the emissions for which poorer countries are blamed should in fairness belong to the developed nations. Gas flaring by companies exporting oil from Nigeria, for instance, has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa put together. Even deforestation in poor countries is driven mostly by commercial operations delivering timber, meat and animal feed to rich consumers. The rural poor do far less harm.

To which we might also add many of China’s exports which are driven by the consumer desires of people in wealthy nations. As Stephen Colbert said to the Chinese Ambassador, “Your great country makes our happy meals possible.”

Monbiot uses the rest of his article to have a go at billionaires, and especially billionaire yacht owners and ask “Where’s Class War when you need it?” which I think is a bit of a wrong turn. I have no problem with condemning the absolutely outrageous excesses of the ultra-rich. But I – along with most of Monbiot’s Guardian readers – already live in an unsustainable way and don’t need to be enabled with self-righteous anger at others. I also need to have a long, hard look at my own consumption. Sadly, my lifestyle has much more in common with the ultra-rich than it does with the world’s poor.

Updated @ 5:04 pm 30/9/09

The perfect picture to illustrate Monbiot’s article comes from P.A.P. blog: (footnote reads “With our new 2 for 1 offer including choice of wine”)

eat the rich