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Straight Ahead

Thursday, 30 September 2021  | David Griffin


The late Australian National University professor of history Manning Clarke once curtly dismissed evangelical Christians as life-denying straighteners. The son of an evangelical pastor, Clarke’s disdain of the straighteners is common amongst self-identifying enlargers.

Yet despite Clarke, we are called to walk straight in Israel’s Law, History and Wisdom. Law: ‘You shall be careful therefore to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left’ (Deuteronomy 5:32, 17:11, 20; 28:14). History: ‘Do not turn from (the Law) to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success …’ (Joshua 1:7, and 23:6). Wisdom: ‘Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you … Do not swerve to the right or left’ (Proverbs 4:25-27). And finally Jesus (Matthew 7:13-14): ‘Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction and those who enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few’.

Let me yank the language of left and right out of the biblical context and into our modern life. Ever since the National Assembly of the French Revolutionary Government in 1789, the right and left have taken on specific political significance. Seated to the right of the assembly’s chairman were those more disposed to traditional values, while the more radical sat on his left. From this literal description has come the conceptual political polarity we have today. It is into this context that I want to creatively apply the biblical concept mentioned above.

Evangelical Stockholm Syndrome?

Political loyalty is more often a tribal loyalty of the heart rather than a rational decision. Prime Minister Keating once implied that the electoral battle is for the middle ground because those who are rusted on party loyalist voters would always vote for their party no matter what. I think he was right. Swinging voters are the most rational for they vote on matters of policy and the leader’s character, instead of tribal loyalty.

Those who ideologically identify the political left or right with the ways of God are likely victims of a theological version of the Stockholm Syndrome. The Stockholm Syndrome describes that condition where kidnap victims come to love or sympathise with their kidnappers. We see this when Christians support public policies that diminish or attack Christian values because the policies are part of their party’s platform. Such practices are defended as acts of Christian love, or by appealing to the wider social good. Captive to alien voices, such Christians naively expect to be repaid with congratulations from those who would despise them. Such public praise, when it does occur, usually masks private mockery and derision.

During my final pastorate in an educated Labor stronghold there was a small but definite sense of foreboding that I was a Liberal Party hack. Mentioning a local ACL event drew deep criticism from a progressive. Yet in my previous church, in a Liberal voting community, I was a criticised by flag wavers and businessmen for what they perceived to be my Labor agenda. It taught me a lot.

The Alpha and the Omega

Let me at this point recast the language of left and right as progressive and conservative. It was Prime Minister Rudd who first put the term ‘progressive’ into our contemporary political lexicon with his Kevin 07 campaign. It has come to mean moral, enlightened, enlarging and expansive, whereas ‘conservative’ has become a pejorative, like Clarke’s ‘straighteners’. This is unfortunate. It is certainly historically untrue. For example, homosexual marriage is described as progressive, yet the only other pro-homosexual cultures were certain elements of pre-Christian Greece and, even earlier, some pre-Israelite cities near the Dead Sea, Sodom and Gomorrah. Looking so far backwards – two to four thousand years - is certainly not progressive. At best it is antiquarian, at worst it is regressive.

Be that as it may, the conservative vision is ostensibly from the present to the past. The progressive vision is ostensibly from the present to the future. Both visions are rooted in time. The moral high ground is claimed when a group arrogantly deems itself to be ‘on the right side of history’. Conservatives believe that the past really does matter, and culturally universal beliefs and practices that have lasted millennia ought not to be despised. The conservative has a classical mindset. Progressives believe that the best is yet to be and that many traditions are neither rational nor fair, but mere social conventions that prevent disempowered people from full human flourishing. The progressive has a non-classical mindset.

Theological history enables us to resolve this tension. John’s Apocalypse is helpful. It commences theologically by describing God the Father (patrology): ‘Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come’ (1:4). This is a reference to God the Father, who Was (past) and who Is (present) and who is To Come (future). Here time is theologised. God the Father spans human history, stands outside human history and is not conditioned by human history. He is the Creator of time and the Sustainer of history. He owns the past, the present and the future.

Revelation concludes Christologically with the ascended and ruling Christ declaring, ‘I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end’ (22:12). God the Son is the Alpha, the first, so also the beginning (past). He is also the Omega, the last, and so also the end (future). Here time is christologised. God the Son spans human history, stands outside human history and is not conditioned by human history. He is the Inaugurator of time and history, and the goal of history and time. He owns the past and the future, and so by implication owns the present.

In theological (patrological) terms, conservatives look from the Is to the Was and tend to ignore the To Come. Progressives look from the Is to the To Come and tend to ignore the Was. In Christological terms, conservatives look back to the Alpha but ignore the Omega. Progressives look forward to the Omega but lose sight of the Alpha. Both are deficient.

The take-away here is that we know more about what history means, and what is good and right, through God the Father, and through his Son, and through the Spirit, than in any other way. God announces a new and better way to his exiled people: ‘See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare’ (Isaiah 42:9). But he also says ‘look [back] to Abraham your father, and to Sarah, who gave your birth’ (51:2). The past exodus from Egypt becomes the basis for the coming new exodus from Babylon, fulfilled ultimately in Jesus’ own return from Egyptian exile (Matt. 2:13-16, citing Hos. 11:1).

It is understandable that younger people with their life project ahead of them want to create a better world and so readily call themselves progressives. At some point most believe that their parents are uselessly racist, sexist, pan-phobic and so on infinitum. The small handful of phobias that infest the undergraduate campus constitutes their total sum of moral evil. And it is understandable that most mature people, having lived their life, spent their energy, won and lost their battles, now wish to enjoy a modicum of rest from the strife of life and enjoy what they have. So generalised generational perspectives are understandable, although not invariable. Both perspectives are themselves generated by time – for one it is the time that stretches a long way ahead of them, for the other it is the time that stretches a long way behind them – and both suffer a Christological lack. The young need to be reminded that they are not inventing a new world through their vitalistic Herculean power. Utopian dreams always become nightmares. And the old need to be reminded that they did not create a new world in their passionate youth which is now being dismantled. Utopian memories are self-delusional. Both attitudes exhibit the moral flaw of hubris that brought to ruin the Greek gods and that displaces God as the Lord of history. Far better is the psalmist’s confession, ‘My times are in your hands’ (Psalm 31:15).

The Theological Virtues

The theological virtues are of greater value than either progressive equality or conservative liberty. Faith, hope and love embrace the whole of history - past, present and future. Faith is directed backwards to Christ’s historical work. By faith we are justified. Love is focussed on the present, towards both God and our enemy or neighbour before us. By love we are sanctified. Hope looks to the future resurrection and new world to be brought in by Christ. In hope we are glorified. Faith is past focussed, love is present focussed, hope is future focussed, based in God himself.

Anti-Clericalism and the Disappearance of the Left

Despite what I have said about the problems of both the conservative and progressive visions, let me at this point take aim particularly at the progressive side, for the left has replaced conservatives as the Western moral establishment. It is also anti-clerical and hostile to traditional values and to the church. The arts and media industries are significantly responsible here, for they shape public rhetoric and are more hostile towards Christian faith than most professions. Sex and money remain their driving forces. Yet one of the left’s rhetorical successes is how it has convinced us that it does not exist. By masking itself as normative, it now implies that all disagreement expresses the far right. Disagreement has become morally loathsome and subject to lawfare.

For example, when Hungary recently strengthened its marriage law as between one man and one woman, Euro News described it as right wing. Yet about 80% of the nations of the world still retain that definition, including the far-left communist states of China, Vietnam, Myanmar, North Korea and Cuba.

Do Not Be Deceived

We can keep from being blanched into a boring conformity by unashamedly holding to Christ. He is the eternal Son of God, the Alpha and the Omega. He is not the materialistic, romanticised or eroticised welcomer of greed and lasciviousness. He will keep us in faith, hope and love, and thus walking straight, victimised by neither left or right. Paul writes that in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. And then, ‘I tell you this so that no one will deceive you by fine-sounding arguments’ (Col. 2:4, NIV). ‘You shall be careful therefore to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.’

 

David Griffin is a Baptist Pastor enjoying retirement at Vincentia, Jervis Bay, NSW. His interests include social philosophy, ethics and the Bible.


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