Wednesday, July 28, 2010

ABC religion editor sinks his own boat in vent against Christian lobby

By Peter Hallett
ACV editor

Religion and Ethics editor for ABC Online, Scott Stephens, brings into question the validity of his own position when he condemns the Australian Christian Lobby, saying it should not even exist. If it should not exist, then by the same logic, neither should a Religion and Ethics editor on ABC Online.

In Stephen's July 19 post, which Australian Christian Voter previously highlighted as a way to encourage engagement and debate,  he rightly says that there is no such thing as a uniform Christian vote 'given the sheer diversity of conviction, belief and moral sensibility that is represented across churches in this country'.

But he wrongly concludes that this means an organisation such as Australian Christian Lobby should not exist. The two ideas do not necessarily follow and if they did, how could the ABC justify having just one Religion and Ethics portal for such a diverse community. The argument is unsustainable.

Surely a healthy response to a diverse Christian community would be a range of Christian forums for considering political, social and spiritual realities in our nation. Just as the ABC's online faith and religion portal provides such a forum, so too the Australian Christian Lobby (with which I have no affiliation), and, in some small way, ACV.

Stephens writes: 'the only "lobby" that the church ought to posses is its ability to persuade by holding out and modelling a radically hospitable, just and generous form of sociality - a microcosm, if you like, of a properly constituted and harmonious civil society'.

This sounds very much like he is saying Christians (at least those with whom he disagrees) should let their grassroots actions speak for them rather than engaging in the political process which often involves the less solid, more deceptive world of words and ideas.

But as Scott Stephens is doing that very thing - engaging as a Christian online in a world of words, ideas and political debate - it seems that there is one rule for himself (and those he identifies with) and another rule for the rest of us.

He criticises Pentecostal leaders for their lack of real engagement but writes off as irrelevant their attempts to do just that. He says that ACL is somehow predominantly representing the Pentecostal vote when clearly a far broader range of churches engage with ACL, as seen by the group of leaders and churches assembled for Make it Count.

I should say that there are some very good points in his post, things that we need to hear. The church should be a 'radically hospitable, just and generous form of sociality' and, as he also writes, we are in trouble if the church's political engagement is nothing more than being 'desperate to retain what is left of its dwindling political and cultural influence'.

But as usual, when someone seeks to impose their own metanarrative on the way things are, they find that a lack of omniscience, and good, old-fashioned objectivity, lets them down.

A more constructive approach may have been to highlight areas of concern within the approach of ACL and others without feeling the need to scathingly dismiss their right to exist.

This smacked of personal retribution, the blurring of lines between valuable comment on church and society and a personal journey of hurt and disappointment. There was also an intellectual conceit that was saying, 'you people simply aren't clever enough to participate in this process.' 

And that would be right to a degree - by and large Christians are naive of political realities, and many churches on the evangelical and Pentecostal side of church life have been far more focused on building the kinds of communities Stephens admires than delving into the political and cultural life of our nation.

But the thing missed by Stephens is that this is changing and ACL is one of the early manifestations of a new willingness to engage. Hillsong, while mercilessly critiqued by Stephens, is I believe (again with no affiliation) desperately seeking to grow in the wisdom, genuineness and scope of its engagement with Australian society, while remaining unapologetic about being a large, contemporary church.

Come on Scott, this is the 21st Century, the era of 'and/also' not 'either/or'. Let's lay down the paradigm of blame and stereotype and find ways to bring Christian diversity together in a healthy and respectful way. Just because a forum is 'online' doesn't mean it should treat people as faceless, nameless caricatures.

1 comment:

  1. Having just re-read this after a gap of a few years, it definitely deserved a comment or two? Even some rage? Oh well, perhaps we all crawled back into our churches...