Saturday, November 18, 2017

After the SSM Party is Over: Troubles and Opportunities Ahead

This week Australia received the very unsurprising news that a majority of those who voted in the postal-survey supported Same Sex Marriage.  Four out of five people voted, and of those who voted, three out of five voted 'yes'.  No-one could say Australians are united on the SSM marriage issue, but it is clear that parliament must soon modify our marriage laws to degender marriage.  In Australia's political system even 55% support from voters is considered a landslide.  The 61.6% is being hailed as a crushing victory.

For some this feels like the end of a long hard struggle. Many feel relief and joy. Yet I sense it is the beginning of a long and complex journey for Australians. Events yet to unfold will prove arduous.  Although many have asserted that this change will only affect a small number of Australians, and they are relieved to have the issue of SSM resolved, I see this as but a milestone in a much longer process of degendering institutions, uprooting heteronormativity and destandardising family structures.  This longer trend will affect everyone.  There are some who are actively and intentionally committed to seek this ultimate destination, but many, perhaps most, are sleepwalking towards it.  It seems that only in several decades will the mainstream look back on the outcomes, not of SSM per se, but of the longer-term process of degendering and denormalising, and be able to evaluate its impact on the well-being of our nation.

How will churches fare in the journey ahead?  I believe they will gradually split into groups which retain theological heteronormativity and those who reject it.  Some will stand apart from social changes, and some will go with the flow.  The Bible is undoubtedly a deeply heteronormative text, so Christians who reject heteronomativity will need to be the ones with a more flexible and liberal approach to the Bible,  which grants them license to interpret scripture using more personal, creative, reader-driven interpretations.   I believe this form of Christianity will ultimately prove to be unsustainable,  because it is not sustainable to follow such an idiosyncratic hermeneutic and at the same time make the kind of claim for transcendent authority that justifies the considerable personal cost of religious observance, a cost that can only increase in the years ahead. (It will also be hard for Christian groups which chose more creative theological paths to maintain a robust theological core: their theologies will become more diffuse.) In Australia my own Anglican church will split into two along this fault-line, as is already happening in other places, such as the US, Canada and Scotland.  Of course this split will not happen without grief.  It will be painful, but it will be inevitable.

I don't believe it is in the church's true interest to claim or be perceived to claim a position of privilege in society.  A church that relies on privilege becomes spiritually weak. Privilege is not the life-blood of Christianity: it is poison in its veins. The gospel of Jesus should be disruptive and subversive to be authentically the gospel.

One of the consequences of the public degendering of marriage and the family will be that church will become more distinct from the mainstream, and more obviously subversive in relation to society's norms.  This will make Christian discipleship more costly, and there is the potential for increasing persecution, which is already apparent to those who care to look.  (This is not an observation about SSM specifically, but about the deeper trends in Western nations.)  One reader of The Australian, Stephen C discerned this trend already at the higher echelons of the corporate world, citing the Qantas chairman, Alan Joyce as an example:
“Corporations are highly-structured, hierarchical social systems that do not tolerate diversity or dissent. Those who try to operate outside the box assigned to them in the structure are ostracised, and those who defy the prevailing view, or who fail to participate in the emotional drama of the day are treated punitively. People are respected according to their position in the ‘food chain’. The prevailing social climate is best described as a form of soap opera.
Christianity is in effect forbidden in the corporate world. Not only is it not tolerated, it would be a form of career suicide to be openly Christian. There is no question Christianity will be persecuted throughout the West, because it is incompatible with corporate Groupthink. The West is rushing headlong into a totalitarian nightmare, because the corporate mentality rules all the power structures.”  
How far Stephen C's nightmare progresses remains to be seen.  As prescient as his reflections may prove to be – and Christians should never be surprised by persecution – I am more interested in the growing opportunities to present the radical message of Jesus Christ by standing apart from the Groupthink.  Many individuals already have a growing sense of unease about the totalitarian trend. They are conscious of the wreckage that it can inflict, and are seeking a different way.  We are seeing them come into churches.  This is a season for Christians to be bold, not clinging to old privileges, but defining themselves in a way which presents Jesus' radical yet timeless message of grace and truth.

Jesus called his disciples to be different, like salt in food, and not blandly the same as the world around them.  He said that salt that loses its distinct flavour is worthless and should be thrown out and trodden underfoot  (Matthew 5:13).  In relation to marriage, the challenge ahead for churches is not to uphold 'traditional marriage', as if the gospel were some conservative political project, but to offer a radically Biblical understanding of marriage which is divergent from and challenges changeable social norms.  I regret the Western trend to degender marriage and family, but am grateful for and excited by new opportunities emerging to offer a distinctly Christian understanding of marriage which reflects the radical values of Jesus Christ.

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