Category Archives: Ethics

God and refugees

At Albury Bible Church, we hosted a meal with discussion – called Serious Eating – on the topic of God and Refugees.

The format included a short talk, about five minutes, as a thought-starter. Then, on each table, there was a menu for further discussion. For a lighter conversation, you would choose the entree. For more depth and difficulty, go for the main course.

I had a request to write up what I said. So here it is, expended from my brief written notes to make some sense on its own.

There’s a refugee problem right now. For example, quoting last week’s news, 10,000 people every day are fleeing Mosul. The stories we hear on the news are heart-breaking.

We care because of our common humanity. Common humanity is a biblical idea, but now so widely accepted we do not think of it as a ‘God idea’. But that’s OK, because there’s more to say about God and refugees.

When he was a child, Jesus became a refugee. In Matthew 2:12-15 we hear about the real risk to Jesus’ life. Herod then murdered of Bethlehem’s boys, and Matthew 2:18 could describe the TV shot of any modern refugee mothers in grief.

Furthermore, the Bible’s confronting message is that we all are refugees – though of another kind. We are refugees from God, running away not because he is bad but because we are. The way people respond to modern refugees does show positive humanity in compassion, but it also demonstrates our dark and evil side. As individuals and as a nation, we are far from perfect.

The real mind flip about God and refugees brings together these two points, about Jesus and about us. Jesus became a refugee to save refugees. We see this on the cross.

Jesus died as a Jewish man executed by the Roman empire – typical political oppression. Jesus’ death was also spiritually oppressive: his own national leaders abandoned him, as did the empire, and his disciples. Even God the Father was silent when Jesus called.

In his death, Jesus became the most excluded man in history. He said this was in order to include us with God. Jesus became the oppressed outsider to welcome outsiders to God. Romans 5:6 fits the idea that Jesus became a refugee to welcome refugees.

So to understand God and refugees, we need to take seriously God’s works to offer us salvation. Do we know and trust Jesus? All refugees have basic needs. Forgiveness is our basic need before God!

Within this huge overarching good news story, it’s clear also that God is all for refugee care. By looking at Jesus’ own cross-shaped love, we see the principles for refugee care – it is service that’s difficult, costly, patient, and not selfish.

What does that mean for you and me? I don’t think there are direct biblical political policies to apply to the world. I don’t see there’s a ‘Christian politics’ – but there should be action. Inaction and apathy just don’t fit what we see of God’s passionate love for the helpless.

Not all desires are equal

Not all desires are the same.

Kind of obvious? Yes! But important in a world whose ethical arguments depend so much on desire. What rights rule today, in the western world? The right to self-determination, to self-expression, and to self-definition. Desire is all-knowing.

If I will it then it is OK. (The usual illogical caveat that follows is as long as it hurts no one.) And more than OK, if I will it then it’s morally required. Desires reign.

Proverbs 6 shows how false that is. The back end of the chapter warns at length about giving in to the desire for illicit sex: don’t go to the strange woman, the adulteress, your neighbour’s wife.

But in the flow of the argument, there’s comment about stealing food. Why? Have a look at these verses (29-32).

So [burned] is he who goes in to his neighbour’s wife;
    none who touches her will go unpunished.
People do not despise a thief if he steals
    to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,
but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold;
    he will give all the goods of his house.
He who commits adultery lacks sense;
    he who does it destroys himself.

In the middle of warning against adultery, here is a hungry thief. He steals out of poverty and hunger. His desire for food is reasonable. We understand, and we don’t despise him for his crime. But we still punish him.

Theft remains theft, even when driven by the understandable desire for food.

But the point is not that the thief will still receive punishment. Not ‘the thief gets punishment, so too will the adulterer’.

The point is this: theft driven by hunger (though wrong) makes sense, but adultery is just plain stupid. Adultery is always self-harm.

He who commits adultery lacks sense;
    he who does it destroys himself.

Proverbs compares two desires here – the desire for food, the desire for sex. The comparison is in the realm of wrongdoing (stealing and adultery). And the comparison tells us to treat different desires differently.

Now there are lots of ways we need to heed this point. It’s pretty plain that there’s a trendiness in pushing for same-sex marriage. And it would be easy for me to go there (‘just because two people desire sex with each other does not mean it is good, or needs state validation’).

But I’d prefer us to see that ethical difference between desires applies all over the place. Perhaps I – and maybe you too? – need to consider where I err in this matter?

We might think of:

  • Any sexual desire outside of committed, life-long marriage
  • The desire to enjoy alcohol
  • Longing to see more of the world
  • The desire to succeed in your chosen employment
  • The longing for a successful ministry
  • A desire to be well thought-of
  • The desire for physical or mental health, for self or a loved one

And on and on we could go. Again and again, I believe, our desires take us. Then our reasons and arguments follow along to justify what we want.

So let’s remember that our desires can take us into error. Even the good desire for food can go feral. Jesus (in the final verse quoted below) said to desire first what is truly first – God’s kingdom.

The desire of the righteous ends only in good;
the expectation of the wicked in wrath. (Proverbs 11:23)

Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire;
he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)

 


 

Don’t do good

If you find something good to do, please do not do it. It could be an awful mistake.

I’ll give you an example: would you stand up to protect someone’s privacy, especially their medical privacy? I certainly consider medical privacy a good thing!

But try out this report:

Dr Mourik said he would not invite the protesters [to a forum] because “they are not interested in women’s privacy”.

“They believe protection of the baby’s life is worth invading people’s privacy over,” he said.

Mourik wants to move protesters away from the Albury clinic that completes abortions, to protect privacy. Those protesters, without breaking any law, believe something as petty as protection of the baby’s life. How foolish!

If we automatically move to protect privacy we might thereby support killing babies in the womb. To support one good can destroy another good. Which one would you choose?

There are plenty of cases when good things compete, and only one good can succeed. Freedom is good, but we judge some crimes require imprisonment. Opioid drugs are powerfully helpful, but we agree that their distribution needs strong restriction. Speech creates culture, but we know the need for anti-libel laws. Good versus good, and the best should prevail.

There’s a second place in which good is a bad idea, and this is much more common. We shouldn’t do good when we can do better. This is not when good competes, but when goods compare.

For example, you find two charities working in a famine zone, but which do you choose? If their main difference is how much goes on administration and advertising (25% versus 10%), I’d say go for the latter. They’re both good, and they don’t cancel one another out, but one is better.

Comparison and choice of the better seems to be behind Paul not taking Mark on mission with him (Acts 15:38). The choice of what is best time management is every Christians’ duty (Ephesians 5:16, Colossians 4:5). And doing the better thing, even when painful, is fatherly – for both human and divine parents (Hebrews 12:10).

Tragically, so many fellow citizens frantically chase a good that is far from the best. And Christians are as affected as any other group!

Instead of peace with God and love for neighbour we choose: comfortable housing, a career path, educational or sporting ‘success’ as our kids’ priority, travel, and all the temporary things of this world.

So here’s my advice: When you find a good, do not do it, but consider instead what is best. Make best use of the time, because the days are evil.


 

 

Quick review: Honk if you are Jesus

Honk If You Are JesusHonk If You Are Jesus by Peter Goldsworthy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Very disappointing! A book written by rote, it seems.

I greatly enjoyed Goldsworthy’s Maestro, so had been looking forward to Honk if you are Jesus. I can’t see how it’s the same author.

‘Honk’ is entirely predictable. Every plot turn is telescoped. And the characters! Awful examples of mere types, barely encompassing even two dimensions. There is a lonely-brilliant-cynical woman professor, a fat-gay-epicurean diva, a nagging mum, a two-faced televangelist, a scruffy-brilliant-geneticist, a trophy wife … And these are the filled-out characters!

All this is a pity. Firstly, because I’m convinced Goldsworthy can write. Secondly, because he’s nodded towards a whole library full of fascinating topics.

The story touches on: private tertiary institutions, the decline (or not?) of religion in Australia, genetics, the nature of scientific enquiry, the personality-driven nature of ‘objective’ progress , and the ethics of interference.

These wonderful ingredients, however, are poorly articulated. ‘Honk’ made me feel like it was a neat colour-by-numbers book (#1, make medical expert a cynic with nagging mum, etc).

There is one exception – the last chapter is SO MUCH better than the rest of the book. It has shade and nuance, it’s more reflective, and it hints at (not yells out) a surprising plot twist. The whole book could have been like this!

As a Christian, it’s kind of encouraging to see how poorly this book is written. There’s pressure, both subtle and direct, that tells Christians to butt out of these big topics. I hear the message that Christianity has nothing worthwhile to say about abortion, genetic engineering, medical funding decisions, etc. This book reminds me that so many Christians, simply by being interested in these things, already have a more thought-out point of view than our neighbours who float along with current popular opinion.

So, if you have an idea, speak up! Test it out. Measure the idea by the gospel of Jesus. See how to explain it to a general audience, with varied points of view. And, respectfully, speak. In other words, ‘Honk if you know Jesus.’

View all my reviews

 


 

It’s easy to change the laws

Shall we just ‘change the law’ to fix want we want to regarding marriage, theft, lies …? Here’s a snippet from Utopia on just this question. (Written in 1516, books like this deflate the modern boast that we’re dealing with ‘new things’, and cannot learn from those old thinkers.)

But if one shall say, that by that law we are only forbid to kill any except when the laws of the land allow of it, upon the same grounds, laws may be made, in some cases, to allow of adultery and perjury: for God having taken from us the right of disposing either of our own or of other people’s lives, if it is pretended that the mutual consent of men in making laws can authorise man-slaughter in cases in which God has given us no example, that it frees people from the obligation of the divine law, and so makes murder a lawful action, what is this but to give a preference to human laws before the divine?

The existence of a written law, fully complied with, does by no means guarantee justice or truth. It’s interesting when people agree in law-making, but not convincing.


 

Does ‘love’ equal ‘good’?

In Australia, it is beyond argument to say, ‘Love is good.’

If we love, we must be permitted to love to the utmost. Those who place an impediment to love are nothing but mean-spirited misanthropes. It’s easy to create slogans for the modern view of love.

Love must be free.

All love is real love.

Keep your hate away from my love.

[Between drafting this post and publishing it, I saw the perfect T-shirt. It said Do what you love.]

My automatic tendency is to agree with these ideas. After all, it’s none of my business, is it? If that’s ‘your thing’ but not mine, surely we can co-exists peacefully. In other words: Yes, I am an insider to the modern Australian culture.

God’s word breaks through such silly sentiment. Not all love is good. And the major love of many Australians is a deadly poison. There is a love we are to oppose! Such love is a risk in churches. And a danger to the wider community.

Here are some of the warnings:

A faithful man will abound with blessings, but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.
(Proverbs 28:20)

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24)

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:10)

For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. (James 1:11)

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. … You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence.  (See the whole of James 5:1-7)

So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.  (To the church of Laodicea, Revelation 3:16-17)

Loving money is awfully dangerous. It makes for the tragedy of turning away from Jesus with sadness (remember the rich ruler of Mark 10). It makes our eyes blind to needy humans we could help (remember the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16).

Love of money is far from neutral. It switches mastery. Instead of us mastering money to serve others, money masters us to serve self.

‘Love’ equals ‘good’. No!
With this example of money, it’s easy to see that love is not enough explanation for action. Quite the contrary, in fact. Love’s danger is that it can blind us to the wrongs inhabiting our own hearts. Love might lead us – willingly, eagerly – along a path of destruction. The modern cries (and T-shirts!) tell us to freely flow along the river of our passion. With real wisdom, the Bible urges us instead to pause, and practise humble self-awareness.

It’s not Follow your love. Much more it’s Beware your loves.

 


 

Responding is teaching

Who of you fathers, if his son says, “Hey moron, give me a drink”, would not give him a clip round the ear?

If my children were as rude to me as the above imaginary comment, there would certainly be a ‘serious father-child moment’!

I admit I’ve twisted what Jesus said (see Luke 11:11-13, Matthew 7:9-11). But the above is what I thought after overhearing the following exchange:

Daughter: “[Screech, moan, whine, fake tears. Accusingly pointed finger.]”
Mum: “Well you stood up. He can sit there if he wants.”

That is, there was a conversation where whining behaviour counted as words. And both participants behaved as if this communication was perfectly normal.

How does such a pattern become normal? It’s not normal when the whinger whinges. It becomes normal when the responder responds normally. The reply determines where the conversation will go. In my mind, the power in conversations lies with the person who replies.

That power can be used poorly, or with great effect. When my kids grunt at me, obviously thirsty or hungry, I could choose simply to give them what they want. My power of reply teaches, ‘It’s OK when you grunt – keep doing it.’ You can guess what they will do next time hunger strikes.

Or I could choose to say, ‘I will not get that for you until you use words.’

How I respond teaches what is acceptable. Responding is teaching.

Sometimes this raises a difficult dilemma. The perfect illustration of this is in Proverbs 26:4-5. Both pieces of wisdom are true, but you may only choose one way in a given situation. Nevertheless, the principle holds: responding is teaching.

Where this works out extends to many places. It’s not simply a parent and child pattern. It’s also:

  • How we listen to the boss at work
  • How we treat the referee or umpire
  • The active or passive response we make to advertising
  • Our tone of voice to the teacher
  • The learned dynamics of a Bible study group
  • The way we gain attention (or reward people) in churches
  • How we behave when driving

To go again to the book of Proverbs:

To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,
and a word in season, how good it is!
(Proverbs 15:23)

So now the power is in your hands. How will you respond?

 


 

 

 

Taking refuge

Yesterday Australia and Papua New Guinea announced an agreement for processing refugees who arrive in Australian waters by boat, but have no visa. Yesterday also, my social media streams overflowed with people outraged and embarrassed and who – in so many ways – were able to position themselves in the best possible light.

My social media skills fail me here, because I don’t know how to sum up my thoughts in no more than 140 characters. This post is my effort to think a bit more clearly about the whole refugee issue.

Here are some points about which I am pretty certain.

  1. Refugees need refuge
    This is basic, a foundation. Like most foundations, it’s not always at the centre of comment. Yet it needs the occasional reinforcement. I think Australia is well-placed to provide refuge for people in great need. And what an astonishing thing that the world has refugee conventions, workers dedicated to refugee care, international law, … Even though they don’t work perfectly, I thank God for these.
  2. Boat trips to Australia are unnecessarily dangerous
    SIEV-X is a famous example of tragedy in dangerous seas, but not an isolated one. I write ‘unnecessarily’ because there’s always danger, and I assume many people in flight have already been through much that is unsafe. Yet it would be good to eliminate this risk.
  3. Refugee camps hold people too long
    In my region, Albury-Wodonga, hundreds of Bhutanese refugees have been resettled after up to 20 years in camps. At first, I was incredulous at such a delay. An often-linked article this week says that asylum-seekers in Indonesia may wait 20-30 years for settlement in a third country. Wouldn’t it be good to see substantial change in this figure!
  4. I don’t know
    I don’t know international law. I don’t know how to formulate national policy. I don’t know what it’s like for the navy, customs and quarantine to implement boat policy. I have no insight into the motives of prime minister, opposition leader or others who speak up. I am the definition of ‘all care but no responsibility’ – the perfect place from which to pontificate.

So what?

  • So … I feel unable to form an opinion about the Australia-PNG agreement. It might be good. It might be bad. It could be both good and bad.
  • So … I’m not going to blame ‘the politicians’. We’re all involved: electors, media, politicians, employers, unions – everyone. The problem is not them, the problem is us.
  • So … I suggest we truly talk to those who have influence on refugee policy. Enquire and listen, then communicate. There’s the local federal parliamentarian. No doubt there are others, too. A good topic to keep raising: that Australia continue its humanitarian refugee intake.

Those who read the Bible have plenty of reason to sympathise with refugees. The Israelites, after Passover, we taught to remember that they were once aliens (Exodus 23:9). Jesus’ family fled to Egypt away from Herodian danger (Matthew 2:13-15). And Christians are people named as travellers and exiles who received needed mercy (1 Peter 2:9-12).

None of these verses make resolution of the refugee problem easy. Nor do they give us direct insight into policy. But they all spur Christians to compassion, mercy and the openness of love.

 


 

Sex talk

Song of Songs 4 is very clearly a poem of intense sensuality. It is a wonderful example of a man’s pleasure in his wife.

The man starts at the top and moves downward. He does not reach her feet. There’s something about her middle that he enjoys! It’s sensitive and tender sex talk. (Her words of invitation in the second half of Song 4:16 indicate how welcome she found his words.)

When I spoke on this passage at church, I explained what I think are five types of sex talk. I thought I would repeat them for a blog readership.

Not
The first type of sex talk is non talk. Avoidance, embarrassment, and red faces.

The Bible, however, does not shy away from sex. There’s the beauty of Song of Songs. There’s affirmation of marriage and warnings against immorality. It openly admits awful sexual failure: David’s adultery with Bathsheba (leading to murder, 2 Samuel 11); the rape of Tamar by David’s son Amnon (2 Samuel 13); etc.

In short, God is in favour of sex talk. If we neglect it, we’re not caring for the whole person.

Direct
There are two kinds of direct sex talk.

The first is, typically, medical or educational. For example, sex education at home, or asking for pastoral help for sexual dysfunction.

This talk is direct because it openly names the anatomy and sexual behaviours. And it is a direct type of talk that is necessary.

The second type of direct talk is far less helpful. This direct communication is the porn ethos. It reveals all and leaves nothing to the imagination. We are meant to see, and to desire to see again. The lights are glaring, the cameras capture every angle, and instant replay is expected.

Unfortunately, this ethos can infect our speech and thoughts. It might be crude jokes. It could be offensive abuse between sports teams. Or it might be speaking of sex as if it involves hardware, not people: screw, bang, poke, …

This is a long way from the tenderness of Song of Songs. It’s selfish in getting sex, or getting noticed. Sex that should be part of a life-long covenant relationship is reduced to a bodily function. It’s not healthy direct talk.

Indirect
Again, this type of talk has two expressions.

The first kind of indirect sex talk is innuendo and smuttiness. While not being explicit, it twists vast swathes of normal conversation into sexual reference. Normal words become codes for bodily parts, or for sexual activity. It’s Benny Hill, Carry On Eye Rolling, Nudge Nudge Wink Wink. Often accompanies by supressed giggles and knowing looks, it also creates an in group who know the codes and need to look to each other for constant affirmation (‘that’s a reference to breasts – see, I am still with you’). Necessary? Useful? No.

The second type of indirect sex talk is precisely that of Song of Songs. It’s honest about sex and refers to a real person, one’s spouse. Yet it remains sensitive to honour that spouse and enjoy all his or her qualities. It does not hide sensuality, yet without treating sex like a forensic examination. Being poetic, I believe it opens up our appreciation for sex instead of narrowing it down to a few brute physical facts.

To gain a feel for this poetic opening of reality, read through the Song of Songs and consider how the senses are evoked. The lovers not only see one another, but also hear, touch, smell and taste. Then read again and consider where the drama of their love is played: house and city, forest and field, plains and mountain. All of nature is their playground.

So, learning from the Bible’s pattern, there’s good sex talk and damaging sex talk. Have I missed any other categories? Let me know in the comments below. We all can learn how to better employ language in this significant area of living as God’s creatures.

 


 

Good-bad or good-better

You have a decision. You want to choose something good. But what will you call the option you don’t choose?

There are two ways of viewing this choice. Both are helpful, in the right place. I think one has come to dominate our thinking, unhelpfully. What I call good-bad thinking has taken over. I want to keep it, but also hold on to good-better thinking.

Good-bad

Good-bad thinking is just as the words suggest. We choose what is good, and what we reject is bad. I choose to drive at the speed limit (good!) – and choose not to fly through the red light (that would be bad).

Politics and election advertising communicates is always good-bad. Choose Party A, we’re good. Reject Party Z, they’re bad.

Unfortunately, the good-bad division has become a reflex way to think. It’s automatic. It’s so deeply-held that, when we say one thing, our listeners hear two things.

We say, ‘Evolution fails to explain all reality’ and people hear, ‘We reject science.’
We say, ‘Same-sex relationships are not marriage’ and people hear, ‘I hate gay people.’
We say, ‘Evangelism is of utmost importance’ and people hear, ‘Don’t bother caring for the poor.’
We say, ‘Don’t legalise euthanasia’ and people hear, ‘We don’t care about suffering.’

We did not say that second thing, yet it becomes the centre of the discussion argument.

Good-better

Some decisions – perhaps even the most important decisions – are good-better decisions. There might be two options, both of which have appeal. There might be a large distinction between choices, or the merest hint of a difference – and yet a decision has to be made.

Good-better thinking admits that life can be messy. The non-preferred option might simply be a lower priority, or less clear, or slightly more difficult. A single man might have a couple of ‘just friends’ he could ask to the end of year formal – and feels bad because he does not want to offend one. Because of the expense, a church has to decide between new PA system or new heating. A family has to consider moving away from family for a job, or staying close with uncertain work prospects.

There are plenty of times in life when decisions are both messy and unavoidable.

At such times, it hurts people if we slip back into good-bad. All that does is stick the knife into someone who is already sore! ‘If you move away you’re abandoning family.’ ‘If you put the PA system in you’re ignoring the old folk who feel the cold.’ ‘You asked Grace to the formal because who haven’t forgiven Pearl making that joke about you.’

So what?

My advice – my advice to myself – is to listen better. Do a James 1:19. Be quick to listen, be intent on truly hearing what is actually said. Do not rush into implications, therefores and hasty conclusions. Keep a lid on the righteous (!) anger but hasten to understand. That surely is the better thing to do.