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Hard and Soft Coercion - part 2

Tuesday, 4 February 2014  | Steve McAlpine

Well, it had to happen. I was unfriended on Facebook by a long-term friend—the French friend, as it happens, whom I mentioned in part 1 of this article, who struggled with my traditional Christian perspectives on sexual ethics, and who had suggested that such views could and should lead to dismissal in Australian Government departments (his in particular). What was so galling about this ou resoux sociaux was that it was over a minor matter, not related to sexual ethics at all.  He questioned why I, inherently good and kind as I am, would stoop to believing such nonsense as theism.  My reply, bien sur, was that my understanding of the gospel was that I was inherently neither good nor kind but, by contrast, was inherently selfish and sinful, and that it was the goodness and kindness of Jesus that made me what I am. And that was it. Jeu, set et match.

Dialogue between Christianity and secularism, even across the ether, and increasingly, especially across the ether, is thinner, more polarized—and more polarizing—than ever. We are in danger of playing a zero-sum game.  Even our tolerance is less about the other person and more about ourselves, because being seen to be tolerant is more important than the actual practice.  Each week, it seems, the media throws up yet another subject in which a piece of Christian tradition is publicly battered to and fro, like a slightly out of reach pinata at a four-year-old’s birthday party at which the sugar quotient has been abnormally high.

So when Greens Senator Richard di Natale recently said he would move to have the practice of saying The Lord’s Prayer at the start of each sitting day of Parliament ended due to it being an anachronism, the response from both the Government Leader of the Senate, Eric Abetz, and the Australian Christian Lobby was swift.  Both responded by stating that the prayer was part of Australia’s cultural heritage, a heritage that allowed liberal democracy to flourish.  ACL Managing Director Lyle Shelton went on to say:

When people talk of separation of church and state it does not imply that Christian and/or religious ideas or world views do not have a place in the public square.


The irony being, of course, that he would get no argument from Senator di Natale on that point, who stated:

We are here to represent everybody. We're here to represent people of all faiths… [and] people who don't have a strong religious faith.


Senator di Natale does not appear to be advocating parliamentary secularism as much as parliamentary pluralism, in which, much like the US Congress, different faiths are given the opportunities to lead the prayers, as long, of course, as the flag-focused god of civil religion is not disturbed by the proceedings.  And, of course, the finer points of the ACL’s argument—not least of all that it was the Christian faith that led to liberal democracy, not Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or even the Dreamtime—is lost in the ensuing argument.

So how does this inform our discussion of hard and soft coercion?  In part one we explored how the soft coercion of popular culture has sidelined the Christian framework at an emotional and existential level, and opened up, in its wake, the possibility of hard coercion, such as legal challenges to Christian freedoms. Narrative terminologies that, employed over time and which seep into the collective unconscious, enervating the Christian public reality, may well be followed up by propositional terminologies that legislate against any such public reaffirmation of this reality.  Could this happen? Only time will tell.

So what to do in the meantime?  Get angry?  It would appear that many Christians do, if the blogs, letters and online discussions are any indication. Meanwhile, others who have access to the vehicles of public discourse are working the ever-dwindling reservoir, aware at all times that 'Christian peak oil' is some way behind them, but committed to salvaging what they can for the future.  Whilst this is admirable, they are, statistically speaking, representing a shrinking minority of the Australian electorate.  Besides all that, the use of a non-extemporary prayer is becoming an anachronism in public worship, never mind Parliament. Senator di Natale has put his finger on something. If The Lord’s Prayer is rarely recited in the average evangelical church in Australia any more, why the concern over its obsolescence in the nation’s centre of secular power?   

So if neither anger nor hard coercion is the answer, what is?  Using The Lord’s Prayer as example, perhaps it is time to let soft coercion do its work within the church, and reignite a plausible alternative narrative that is both emotionally satisfying and attractive, neither acquiescing to the cultural zeitgeist, nor attempting to impose hard coercion on those for whom the Christian framework is foreign.

This is yet more obvious when we consider the central character of the prayer itself: a heavenly Father who is also a universal and all-powerful King.  The Lord’s Prayer, contrary to Senator Abetz’ and the ACL’s assertion, is fundamentally neither a reminder nor remnant of liberal democracy, even if it bore such fruit.  It is, above all else, a reassertion that God rules and that he brooks no rival.  His immanence cannot be disentangled from his transcendence.  The desire of the church in reciting this prayer is that God's kingdom should rule and reign on earth, reflecting the reality of the as-yet-unseen heavenly realm.  This is the covenant God of Exodus 6:7 who states, “I will take you as my own people and I will be your God.”  Such bold and personal immanence is too claustrophobic for the political world of back-room deals and factionalism.  And such transcendence is too much of an irritant for those for whom power is an end in itself.

Liberal democracy is contractual, an arrangement that, if the government (more-or-less) keeps its end of the bargain, results in us permitting it another four years.  Yet such a quid pro quo relationship is anathema to God, and indicative of idolatry.  But might we suggest that the church in our country has bought into this model?  That God can somehow be tweaked and cajoled by our vested interests?  So we choose pastors and leaders on the basis of whether or not they are capable of taking us to the promised land of numerical growth, influence and drawing power.  Or we sniff the winds of the cultural opinion polls, and decide that certain theological truths are too hard to stomach, too bald and obvious, so they require a certain smoothing or spinning in order to lift God’s ratings. 

To deliberately live against this framework within Christian community takes some doing, not least of all because this contractual arrangement is our marinade. Yet, in my experience, when people become Christian, this biggest challenge is paradoxically their greatest delight.  To be so intimately loved by this God transforms voters into worshippers, customers into servants.  A church that holds these twin truths about God in tension is repellently attractive. It is neither safe enough to casually dip in and out of, nor obnoxious enough to disdain or avoid.  If, as Mr Beaver says of Aslan, “He is not safe, but he is good”, then what is true of this projection of our King, should also be true in some sense of his subjects.

Let me conclude by showing how this can outwork in two areas of Christian community that can stand in striking contrast to our surrounding culture, using The Lord’s Prayer as example.

Firstly, to ask our heavenly Father for “our daily bread” signals the presence of a community that is liberated from the constant drive for more, the continual worry about the future, and the craven desire to be judged according to its possessions.  It is simple and profound.  It bypasses the anger and despair loop that many Australians feel towards their government when it fails to deliver on its promise of the good life that most feel they are rightfully owed. If any mantra were to be chanted at the start of each sitting day of Parliament that better reflected the desire of our nation, perhaps the vision statement of Target would suit: “Every Australian has the right to look good and feel good about the way they dress and live”. That would be more accurate.  By contrast “give us this day our daily bread” is not about rights. When rights are unrealised, anger is the result. The simple act of putting our our empty hands and asking a loving Father for daily provision is liberating and sweet, and is, I suggest, an integral component to the apostle’s request: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

Of course the antithesis of all that our political system represents is summed up in this: “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Political parties are there to punish and reward; to catalogue the sin of others whilst fudging on their own; to hold grudges for several electoral cycles; to view vengeance as theirs and not the Lord’s.  And as such, this is simply the sum of the parts of our wider culture.  A quid pro quo government is created in the image of a quid pro quo people.  For a community to break this particular loop is to exist at the extreme end of counter culture.  No left-wing Green movement, no right-wing Tea Party has this level of cruciform radicalism at its core. 

The glee with which former ALP Federal member Craig Thompson’s demise was documented, and the relentless pressure he found himself under during the dying days of the previous Parliament, simply betrays the fact that dogs love nothing more than the taste of dog. Thompson didn’t fall from grace, because grace was never on offer, and a community almost absent of grace is well on the road to hell. What a pity it would be, if people fleeing from the wreckage of the culture, looking for a place of refuge and safety, turned up on our church doorsteps and found that The Lord’s Prayer reflected our communal reality no more and no less than it does in our nation’s seat of temporal power. To where else could they turn?  And perhaps that’s a conversation the practicing Christian, Senator Abetz, might like to have with the lasped Catholic, Senator di Natale. 

Steve McAlpine pastors a church plant in the traditional blue collar town of Midland, on the edge of Perth’s eastern hills. His wife Jill runs a clinical psychology practice in the town, and they both enjoy running the trails through the foothills. Steve is running a workshop series on mission and evangelism beginning in late February - details here.


Warren Hodge
February 12, 2014, 10:13AM
So if our 'quid pro quo' government (or parliament) has really been created in the image of this 'quid pro quo' people, then if it is not to remain an anachronism, the Jesus followers in our churches will need to live out the "Lord's Prayer" in authentic ways, in the hope that it will catch on in reality (not just be read for cultural heritage's sake).

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