Lessons from the SSM Debate

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” A great slogan for an old movie that begs the question as to whether it is still safe to wade into debate on social issues. A week on from the survey result that has paved the way for gay marriage in Australia, we are already seeing a public attack on foundational social values such as the right to freedom of speech.

Until recently, WordPress imposed a rainbow banner on its websites (such as this one, which led to a short-term blogging embargo.) Despite the design only being seen by those actually ‘logged in,’ it was a unwelcome intrusion which imposed a politicised stance that contravened and disrespected the views of a sizeable number of Australians.

In excess of one third of voters opposed a change to the definition of marriage, a stance often bizarrely branded as disrespectful. Most who held such a position simply did so for reasons that were not based upon prejudice or malice. Widespread commentary revealed that many (including myself) simply cited reasoned, and surely reasonable, beliefs in the traditional nature of marriage.

Allegations of a divisive and bitter campaign from both sides appealed, in part, to a very small number of attacks from fringe ‘No’-voting individuals. In reality, many of those against a change in the definition of marriage were irrationally vilified and attacked as being hurtful or hateful people from the perspective of some so strongly convinced in the rightness of their campaign for change as to respond emotively, even aggressively.

The result was far from reflecting an even contest of two opinions. The absence of a ‘level playing field’ has revealed three important observations most concerning in a society like ours that purports to be maturing toward better relational and social health.

1. Media bias is more alarmingly prevalent and potent than ever.

The sixty-one per cent of ‘Yes’ votes in the Australian same-sex marriage survey was largely conditioned by the Australian media who led the chorus of indignation against virtually all opponents of change. Heavily biased commentary was inevitable and surely only the most seasoned journalists dare express a conservative view on almost any issue today without some fear of reprisal.

One journalist brave enough to speak out this week rightly stated that: “To be accepted, to be part of the ‘in-crowd,’ one needs to believe in a new deity: the secular religion of same-sex marriage.” Sad, but true.

Another instead made the ludicrous call for freedom from religion as if to justify both the undermining of the right to free speech and the denigration of Christian influence that has long championed the cause of justice, welfare and social betterment that has enriched this nation. This logic seems to suit the cause of those believing progress to be allied to atheism, in a simplistic misrepresentation of the ‘separation of church and state’ which actually seeks to stop free speech being undermined by political activists and idealogues.

2. Churches are in greater need of true unity than ever.

As leader of a regional network of churches representing different traditions, I am well aware of the varied perspectives and priorities of communities that need to make their unique difference with limited resources. Though ‘singing from the same hymn sheet,’ so to speak, not-for-profit entities face significant challenges in meeting what can, at times, be a bottomless pit of expectations. This, and the reluctance to be drawn into healthy dialogue over differences or challenges, often hampers an ability and availability to enact collective change.

Nevertheless, unity will come not from compromise or from any one church’s cause or event to which all-comers are invited, but only as people willingly lay aside the right to individualism in the interests of interdependence. This will require a commitment to alignment even where there is not always agreement. Does not divine blessing follow purposeful unity, rather than precede it?

While the preaching of the Gospel or prayer naturally surrenders to a God who can indeed bring revival, our faith without accompanying works is dead. New Testament Christians are themselves a walking revival of personal transformation and multiple spotfires can coalesce into a blaze of community betterment.

Spirit-empowered mission is then optimised as the one Church of Jesus across the nation ultimately pursues shared ownership of the Gospel’s power in action. This is not a task to be self-determined, avoided, or even deferred to adjunct groups. Even my conservative values, or another’s more liberal ones, surely must be subordinated to the compelling need to promote and demonstrate core biblical truths clearly, concisely and with conviction.

Where do we find today’s prophetic church offering a collective, loving and impacting voice for these values with the sort of unified and undefiled outworking that is jointly owned by major denominational and network leaders? A commitment of yieldedness to a bigger vision than our own is a tough call as much as it is a tough task.

The same-sex marriage debate has, however, exposed the widening crack of a flawed pride in localised, even personalised, autonomy. This can surely no longer be papered over with mere good will and prayerfulness.

3. Personal attacks show the need for better engagement with others than ever. 

We live in dangerous times where some are already pushing for the removal of any same-sex marriage exemptions. To somehow believe that freedom from discrimination is a greater right than freedom of speech forgets that unwelcome discrimination needs careful definition, given that it is often not too far removed in substance from the many daily choices we all make which assert our own interests over those of others.

Clarifying positions needs clear-headed and cool responses, though, as hostilities potentially escalate. Christians. in particular, need to remember that debate is not the supreme right, rather our privilege in advocating the cause of Christ needs kingdom values to prevail in our daily interactions with others.

Ad hominem attacks become so emotional and personal in nature that they deprive most people of the value of listening to each other in a way that sharpens reason, showcases love and creates trust. Though some churches or other organisations have contributed to the erosion of such trust, sensible discussion still needs to be had, whatever the issues we face. Emotion may seem to win debates, but will seldom ever settle them. Emotion in debates also sadly shifts the playing field when rational engagement is undermined and poorly expressed sentiments are seized upon.

We surely become a better, less fearful and more tolerant and diverse society, not when we simply promote more strongly the values that align to our own convictions, but when we also more intentionally engage with the people and perspectives that we might not always initially embrace.

When Christians do this well, they create better opportunities to present the Jesus of the Gospels and to be best known for what they promote rather than what they oppose.

After all, when faced with the prospects of being increasingly marginalised, this surely becomes more important to Christians than ever.



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