How Islam Points to Jesus

For some in the West, Islam is a synonym for terrorism and oppression. Others seem to believe that Muslims deserve a free pass, and special immunity from criticism.

I’ll admit upfront that I’m biased too. I love my Muslim friends, and I have a deeper interest in Islam than any other world faith outside my own. For me, Islam is an acronym for I Sincerely Love All Muslims.

Christians are sometimes known for their fear of other religions. But what if we got over ourselves and asked what we can learn from Islam—and how it might point people to Jesus?

Origins and Influence

It all began with Muhammad ibn Abdullah, born in Mecca in 570AD, five centuries after Jesus. Arabia was dry, hot, and full of warring tribes. Jews and Christian cults were scattered around, but most people were polytheists, and once a year they’d flood to Mecca to worship their gods.

As a travelling merchant, Muhammad sat around campfires at night hearing many religious ideas, and the idolatry troubled him. He would often retreat to a cave near Mecca for spiritual insight. One day there, a supernatural being appeared and spoke to him. He was so alarmed that he ran home to his wife, convinced he was demonised or insane.

“Muhammad sat around campfires at night hearing many religious ideas.”

But with the help of a scholar, Muhammad concluded that he’d met the angel Gabriel, and that he was called to be a prophet. For the next two decades until his death, he received 114 messages—today making up the chapters of the Qur’an.

His theme was this: only one of Mecca’s hundreds of gods was the true God, and all the others were false idols. That didn’t go down too well—so fleeing persecution, Muhammad moved to the city of Medina.

Here the people liked him and his message about the oneness of God. They embraced him as their prophet and political ruler. It was 622AD; Islam was born.

“Muhammad would often retreat to a cave for spiritual insight.”

The people of Mecca kept troubling Muhammad until eventually, with an army of 10,000, he marched on the city. The powerless Meccans were quick to convert to Islam.

Throughout his life, Muhammad lead 66 battles, married 11 times, and was heralded as a great military leader and God’s final and greatest prophet.

Within a hundred years of his death, Islam spread as far as Turkey, France and India. Fourteen centuries later there are 50 Muslim-majority nations, and Islam is the world’s second biggest religion with 1.8 billion followers.

The Heart of Islam

Islam is built on a single idea: submission to Allah—this is what the word Islam means. Muslims practice the Five Pillars of Islam in the hope that Allah will accept them into paradise:

1. Creed. There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. If you recite this in the presence of another Muslim and believe it, you become a Muslim.

2. Prayers. At five set times a day, faithful Muslims pray facing the city of Mecca. This involves a ritual washing, set postures and recited prayers. The Friday noon prayer is held in local mosques where a sermon is preached.

3. Fasting. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims aren’t allowed to eat or drink while the sun is up. Night time is for feasting; and celebrations are especially big at the end of this month—a time when Allah is more likely to hear and answer prayers.

4. Alms. This religious tax of up to 5% helps feed the poor, support war efforts, and spread the message of Islam around the world.

5. Pilgrimage. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must visit the city of Mecca once in their life. Here, pilgrims take part in many rituals: they wear special garments, circle a shrine called the Kaaba, and spend an evening on a hill outside the city where they hope their sins will be washed away.

Jihad is sometimes considered a sixth pillar. Jihad means struggle, and while some point to the days of Muhammad and think of this in military terms, most Muslims today consider jihad an internal struggle against sin.

Along with these practices there are Five Pillars of Faith which every Muslim must embrace:

1. God. Allah has 99 beautiful names. (His hundredth name is unknown). Allah is unique, and it’s blasphemy to equate any person with him; certainly, he is too lofty and majestic to have a son. Allah is our master, and we are his servants. He knows us, but we can’t know him.

2. Angels. These include jinn or genies, but most important are the two angels that sit on every person’s right and left shoulder, recording our good and bad deeds for a final day of reckoning.

3. Prophets. Moses, Abraham, David and many other Bible characters are prophets in Islam—Jesus is especially honoured as a prophet. But Islam’s final and greatest prophet is Muhammad. He’s the model for all Muslims to imitate.

4. Books. The Torah, Psalms and Gospels are holy books in Islam. In fact, Jews and Christians are considered people of the book. But the most holy book is the Qur’an. Muslims believe it was given because the other books were corrupted.

5. Judgment Day. Like Muhammad, Allah is a good businessman. On judgment day, he will weigh our good and bad deeds on a scale to see whether we deserve hell or paradise. But even then Allah is still sovereign, and his mercy is what will determine our destiny.

Muhammad and Jesus

Christians have much to learn from Islam. In a world of apathy, Muhammad led with uncompromising conviction, and he had a reverence for God that the western church desperately needs to recapture. And the cultures Muhammad has shaped are among the most respectful and hospitable on the planet.

What about Muhammad’s claims? Private visions are difficult to verify—but the Qur’an does help us build bridges with Muslims since it speaks so often of ‘Isa al-Masih or Jesus the Messiah. In fact Jesus is referred to 93 times in the Qur’an—four times more often than Muhammad himself!

“Christians have much to learn from Islam.”

The Qur’an says that Jesus was born of a virgin; that he was a healer and miracle worker who raised the dead; and that he will intercede for us on judgment day. These things are not said of Muhammad. In fact, while the Qur’an mentions Muhammad’s sins, it calls Jesus sinless—and even gives him titles like Spirit and Word of God.

Actually, this is what the Bible taught all along. There’s no theological reason for Muslims to believe the Bible has been corrupted: God can protect his books. And there’s no historical reason either: 25,000 manuscripts spanning from the second century AD are almost identical to today’s Bibles. How could forgers have edited so many documents—and no modern scholar notice?

“God can protect his books.”

The Word of God didn’t come to Jesus in a private vision. Jesus is the Word of God. His life was the message, and it was lived out in public where it could be tested by history.

Like Muhammad, Jesus called people to turn from their idols and follow the true God. The people of Jerusalem persecuted him for this. But unlike Muhammad, Jesus didn’t flee. He willingly submitted to the plan of God. That evening he was crucified on a hill outside the city—where he washed our sins away.

Because of this, our destiny no longer hangs in the balance between the good and bad deeds that we do. God has shown us mercy once for all in Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s guarantee that we’ll also be raised up to paradise.

“Jesus is the Word of God. His life was the message.”

Because of Jesus, God hears our prayers any time of the year. Because of him, we can win our internal struggle against sin. Most of all, because of Jesus, we can know God and the great love he has for us.

It is wrong for any human to equate themselves with God. But what if God equated himself with us? What if the greatest act of God’s majesty was to become one of us, and make himself personally known? What if God’s hundredth name is ‘Isa al-Masih?

“Because of Jesus, we can know God and the great love he has for us.”

Today there’s a wind in the house of Islam. In countries still shut to the gospel, Jesus is appearing to thousands of Muslims in dreams and supernatural visions. And many more are coming to faith in open nations through the love of Christian friends.

Muslims around the world today are discovering that Jesus is more than a prophet—and that following him is the true path of submission to God.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to support my blog, please like it, leave a comment, and most importantly, share it on social media. To get new posts directly by email, scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe.

Check out the rest of this series:

Buddhism  |  Islam  |  Hinduism  |  Atheism  |  Judaism  |  Pluralism

Sources

Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2004, 177-217.

Masri, Fouad. Bridges: Connecting Christians With Muslims (DVD). Indianapolis, IN: Crescent Project, 2008.

Why We Love to Hate Ourselves on Anzac Day

This week we celebrate Anzac Day. For some, it’s a day of national pride. For others, it’s a chance to mourn our nation’s injustices. So which should it be?

And why is our civilisation so divided over this? For most majority-world nations, on days of remembrance there is no remorse or introspection, just gratitude and pageantry.

But in places like Australia, we’re severely bipolar on this issue. We’re looking in the mirror trying to work out if we’re heroes or villains.

We’re even asking if our civilisation is worth defending—or if we’ve completely lost our way.

“Truth be told, every nation is guilty of great injustices.”

Some say it’s because the story of the (Christian) West is one to be ashamed of. While I agree that we’ve got big sins to repent of, that actually misses the point.

North Korea have murdered millions of their own, but where is their public self-reflection? Tell me the last time a leader in the Middle East apologised for evil committed under their watch.

Truth be told, every nation is guilty of great injustices. Oddly, only western nations seem sorry for it. What’s going on there?

Self-critique runs deep in western societies. And it’s a value that’s been profoundly shaped by our Judaeo-Christian heritage.

“Jesus has been sidelined, but his values still haunt us.”

Rewind all the way back to the Old Testament prophets, and see Isaiah, Daniel and Amos declaring love poems over the Jewish people—and in the same breath, threatening divine punishment if they don’t repent of their wickedness.

Or go back to the first century, and see Jesus embrace some people while rebuking others—not on the basis of race, gender or status, but their heart-posture towards God and other people.

See the early church struggle, not against their Roman oppressors, but against the sin in their own hearts.

“Self-critique runs deep in western societies.”

Since then, western civilisation is guilty of some horrific injustices—some that sadly continue today. What makes us unique though isn’t our guilt, but the voices in our society that can see it and name it for what it is.

We now live in a very post-Christian world. Jesus has been sidelined, but his values still haunt us. Our self-critique on Anzac Day is proof of this.

“We need introspection, but we also need Jesus.”

But this is where things get messy. When the teachings of Jesus are divorced from his grace, introspection turns to self-loathing.

On an personal level, it can get very dark, very quick. The West’s mental health crisis is testament to this.

On a political level, it leads to extreme polarisation. Conservatives use national holidays to beat people with their flag-waving pride. Progressives tweet their fake humility, apologising for the sins of conservatives.

“When the teachings of Jesus are divorced from his grace, introspection turns to self-loathing.”

We need introspection, but we also need Jesus. Jesus didn’t just call out our sin. He also died for it. He’s the ultimate Anzac, laying down his life defending his friends. Forgiving our evil and injustice; reconciling us back to God. That’s grace.

Only when Jesus’ teachings and his grace go together can we celebrate national holidays with the right balance of humility and thankfulness. Only then can our self-loathing (personal and political) be swallowed up in the love of God.

“Jesus is the ultimate Anzac, laying down his life defending his friends.”

I think our civilisation is still worth defending. Countless migrants fleeing repression across the seas to settle in the Great Southland seem to think so too.

So let’s celebrate Australia, and be grateful for the Diggers’ sacrifice. And then let’s use what they’ve given us to bless the world.

Surely that’s the way to follow Jesus in this moment, and get our civilisation back on track. Lest we forget what they fought and died for.

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It’s Time for Revolution

500th anniversaries don’t come around too often. This week, though, is a big deal for western civilisation—or at least it should be. Today marks the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation.

October 31st, 1517 was the day Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, unleashing a revolution that transformed Europe and helped usher in the modern world.

“This week is a big deal for western civilisation.”

So much that we love and take for granted in the West is a legacy of this event. Personal freedoms, universal education, modern scienceglobal languages, the nation state, and even democracy itself owe a massive debt to the reformers—radical followers of Jesus.

To us this sounds odd because we’ve been told that religion and reason are in conflict; that the world can only progress as faith retreats. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Today’s world is dizzyingly advanced. But as I’ve recently written, our Judeo-Christian heritage is being quickly abandoned, and rushing into the vacuum are anxieties, terrorism, widening inequality, slavery on a scale never seen in history, and alarming social polarisation.

“So much that we love and take for granted in the West is a legacy of the Reformation.”

It was also into a bleak situation (the Dark Ages no less) that the reformers spoke. Post tenebras lux—“After darkness, light”—was their rallying cry.

Three convictions drove them. These convictions turned their world upside down. I’m convinced they could do the same for ours. So what were they?

1. Sola Scriptura

In Luther’s day, a corrupt church was selling heaven’s forgiveness for cash. The construction of St. Peter’s Basilica was being bankrolled by gullible peasants.

Medieval superstition had devoured truth. God’s Word was hidden in monasteries, shrouded in tradition, and uttered only in Latin. The answer of the reformers was Sola Scriptura—back to the Word of God.

“It was into a bleak situation that the reformers spoke.”

“I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more of the Scriptures than the pope,” said men like Tyndale. And true to their word, they translated the Bible into the languages of the people, reawakening the hearts and minds of a continent.

Today truth has been swallowed by relativism. Now, for example, we’re told that something can be true for you but not for me; that absolute truth doesn’t exist; and that we should question everything.

But why do so few stop to question this? Or to ask if such nonsense is absolutely true? It’s time we stood up and said relativism isn’t true for me even if the befuddled intelligentsia believe it.

“Today truth has been swallowed by relativism.”

Little wonder superstition has returned. Mysticism is in full flower once more in western nations. People are desperate for something real to anchor their lives to. And in this truth vacuum, too many are satisfied with the horoscopes of human speculation, and gimmick-spirituality imported for mass markets.

Today the Bible is more available than ever, but it’s out of fashion and soiled by centuries of slung mud. Still it speaks. God is there, and he is not silent. He has spoken, and his Word remains a sure foundation we can build our lives on.

2. The Priesthood of All Believers

The reformers also rediscovered the priesthood of all believers: we no longer need priests to stand between us and God, mediating forgiveness and blessing. Jesus has opened the way for each of us to be priests, to know God for ourselves and relate to him personally. And that is possible because every person is made in his image.

Today we enjoy individual liberty and human rights, and they arose from these distinctly Christian beliefs. Now everyone cries “equality!” But do they know where this idea came from? More to the point, do they actually mean it?

Many preach tolerance, but only tolerate views they agree with. They tell us don’t judge the morality of others, but condemn anyone too puritanical for their liking. They say that all ethnicities, genders and orientations are equal, but then divide and rank us by who feels the most offended and deserves the biggest megaphone. That’s not equality—and it’s sowing division, not unity.

“Individual liberty and human rights arose from distinctly Christian beliefs.”

Here’s the awkward truth: in our heads, we think of evolution as true and Genesis as a myth. So survival of the fittest must be largely to blame for the racial and gender inequality we have today.

But in our hearts we can’t accept that. No one admits it in polite company, but deep down we still want to believe Genesis and the reformers: that male and female were made equally in God’s image; that no tribe or nation is any less qualified as priests unto God.

If our hearts and heads remain divided as they are, the door stays open to manipulation. When it’s convenient, the culture-makers will preach equality. But when they don’t get their way, they’ll act like some people are more equal than others, and oppress anyone who dares dissent.

It’s time to clear away the dust. The dignity and equality of every person is truly true—but only if the reformers were right. Can we, unashamed, share their convictions once more? Or are we on our way back to tyranny?

3. Sola Fide

Luther’s greatest discovery, the core idea that drove his revolution, was Sola Fide—by faith alone. God’s approval doesn’t come to us through good deeds or religious observance. Jesus won our forgiveness and freedom at the cross. Now it’s a free gift for everyone who believes.

This is dangerous. Fear and control, which religious leaders relied on for millennia to coerce good behaviour, are now powerless. The individual conscience is subject to God alone, and now we must trust that good deeds flow from hearts of gratitude to him, not external threats of judgment.

“God’s approval doesn’t come through good deeds or religious observance.”

It’s also offensive. In every religious system, humans ascend to God through strict obedience, sage insights, or single-minded devotion, and so we get the glory. In the gospel, people contribute nothing. God descends to us, clothes himself in flesh, and achieves salvation on our behalf. We get the gift, but God alone gets the glory.

Finally, it’s liberating—the most liberating news in the world. No longer are we haunted by guilt, bound by addiction, or straining for perfection. God meets us in our weakness, and covers every failure with his grace and everlasting love.

Sola Scriptura, The Priesthood of All Believers, and Sola Fide could change the world once more.

The time has come for another revolution.

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Are We Returning to the Dark Ages?

It’s almost an absurd question. Smartphones have put the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. Passenger jets fly us to the other side of the planet in a day. Soon AI will relieve us from all of life’s humdrum tasks.

But in just the space of a few decades, phenomena like slavery, anxiety, mysticism and terror have made alarming comebacks. Are these omens of a new Dark Age? Even as we accumulate the relics of a supermodern world, are the vision, values and humanity that brought us here fading to black?

“Slavery, anxiety, mysticism and terror have made alarming comebacks.”

History’s single greatest lesson is that we don’t learn from history—or in the words of another well-known maxim, those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.

So join me on a time-travelling adventure through the Middle Ages, and let’s see if anything looks familiar.

Passivity and Mysticism

In the medieval world, superstition was rife. Truth wasn’t discovered by the courageous common man; it was dispensed by the church and those wielding power.

Thanks to reformation and renaissance, we have universal literacy. But while generations past treasured this, today’s culture of whatever shrugs it off with apathy. Education systems soften us; university degrees are becoming commodified, mass produced, and shoddy.

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

Beneath this decline in serious learning lay the crumbling ruins of a Judeo-Christian worldview. We could have restored their foundations, but instead we chose an experiment. Breeding modernism with mysticism, we’ve created a strange beast.

Now alternative everything has gone mainstream, all backed by its own “literature”. Truth can be validated by empiricism, politics or passion—depending on which tickles your fancy. The humanities have seen this for decades; now watch it rise in the sciences too.

Political correctness and its bizarre new morality pose as Pope for our brave new world. Too many are gullibly persuaded by this upstart authority; too few are willing to speak out for fear they’ll be branded with a phobia.

Widening Inequality

Happily, the modern world has set us free from the rule of princes and feudal lords. Each of us has a vote—and along with it, rights, liberties and opportunities never dreamt of by the peasants of a past age.

And while liberal democracy is by far the best system devised, its founding fathers handed it on to us with sobering words. America’s second president John Adams said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself,”—and, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

“Today, one percent of the world’s population owns half the world’s wealth.”

Could it be that we’re experiencing the “any other” he warned of? Consider the widening gap of inequality. A shrinking number of banks and businesses rule the global economy, paying little to no tax. One percent of the world’s population owns half the world’s wealth. Many are now convinced that class mobility is just a dream.

When so much power is held by so few, and when political influence is up for sale to the highest bidder, our vision grows dull and it’s hard to tell businessman from kings, and feudalism from freedom.

Pessimism, Fear and Brutality

The Middle Ages have been called dark because they were a period of cultural and economic decline that eclipsed the glory of Rome. Europe’s idealism gave way to angst, fear of the outside world, and centuries of bloody crusades.

There are remarkable parallels today. Our technology might be advancing, but in other ways we’re going backwards. We’re obsessed with trivia, airbrushed porn, and the cult of celebrity. Popular tastes in music are vulgar. Even hipster nostalgia is growing kitsch.

“Like the medievals, we’ve got little new to say but we’re desperate to defend it.”

Crass arts pepper every age, but what passes as art today raises eyebrows for its grotesqueness as much as its creativity. If you don’t believe me, take a walk through a modern museum.

Like the medievals, we’ve got little new to say but we’re desperate to defend it. It’s us versus them, with ideological borders replacing the old geographical ones. Now the enemy shares our cul-de-sac, but we wouldn’t know it because we’ve never met. Online algorithms have created parallel left-and-right societies where we reinforce our own dogmas and hoist the drawbridge of our minds.

“We’ve enslaved more people than the abolitionists ever set free.”

If the last year is anything to go on, it’s a small step from social fragmentation to cruel violence and rioting in the streets. Maybe these crusades will end after another election. Or maybe they’re just the beginning.

It will all depend on our collective conscience: is it truly wrong to hurt our fellow man? We’ve been desensitised from years of terrorism on the nightly news and Hollywood’s glorified brutality. If that weren’t enough, we’ve murdered millions of the unborn, and enslaved more people than the abolitionists ever set free—all for cheap trinkets and virtual pleasure.

Tyranny Beckons

This is not what the pioneers of the free world dreamed of. They warned us that democracy only works if its people are inwardly restrained by their own morals and manners. As these slip away, will we the people at last prefer tyranny to chaos?

Patrick Henry, another US founding father, said, “It is when people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.” I’m not ready for 1984 just yet. Our civilisation is fading like the dusk, but it’s still the freest on earth, and that makes it worth fighting for.

“Democracy only works if its people are inwardly restrained.”

This month the western hemisphere celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—the social and spiritual revolution that jolted us out of the Dark Ages and into the modern world.

Call me dramatic, but I think it’s time we had another one.

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We’re Not Debating Same-Sex Marriage—We Just Think We Are

Part 3 of 3

It’s still a fortnight until Australia votes, but the topic is already hot and has been for weeks. Who said Australians don’t care about politics?

Both sides have offered compelling arguments. In a recent blog, I tried to navigate these and champion a response that looks like Jesus, where principles are valued, and people are too. (Have a read of it here).

I received many warm words of feedback, from both sides. And I had to trash a lot of scathing remarks, also from both sides.

“Who said Australians don’t care about politics?”

In the end, I advocated for marriage as Jesus defines it, so naturally my harshest critics were on the yes side. And their words continue to ring in my ears.

So I’ve done some digging, and underneath their assumptions I made a surprising discovery. The debate we’re having isn’t really about same-sex marriage. It’s about other things entirely. Most surprising of all is that no one seems to notice.

“People are searching for themselves in race, politics, religion, sexuality.”

It’s not that the debate has gone off-topic. These other conversations need to be had. In fact they’re so important that if you can sway me on these, I’ll vote yes too.

So what is Australia really debating behind the same-sex marriage question? What would I need to be convinced of to throw my weight behind the yes campaign?

1. A person’s sexuality is their identity

Headlines collect like dark clouds on the horizon. Tyrants, riots, terrorism. The nightly news flickers its endless memes of a world filled with orphans, lost and scrambling for identity.

People are searching for themselves in race, politics, religion, and sexuality. All of these contribute to our sense of self—but to build an entire identity on any of them is to seal the fate of our own disillusionment.

“The nightly news flickers its endless memes of a world filled with orphans.”

The reason is simple. You can’t know who you are until you know whose you are. I am deeply known and loved by the One who created me. I don’t know a more solid ground where I camp my worth, and even begin to work out who I am.

I get it. Voting no can seem like a frontal assault on someone’s identity. But to any who feel that way, I want to plead with you that you are loved, and you are so much more than your sexuality.

2. This vote is a referendum on people’s humanity

It’s for the same reason that I refuse to see a no vote as a statement that anyone is subhuman. Framing the debate this way helps the yes cause—but it does terrible damage to those it’s trying to protect.

To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus offered a caring, if complex, response: safety from her would-be executioners, and a life-changing commission. Go and sin no more.

“You are loved, and you are so much more than your sexuality.”

God knows, the church has a long way to go before it looks like Jesus in this scene. Still, the Saviour’s point is clear: someone’s lifestyle isn’t to be confused with their humanity.

Vote yes or no this September, but remember the vote is about marriage, not people’s status as human beings. We’re all made in the image of God, and that’s a truth no survey can change.

3. Religion should stay out of politics

If religion should stay out of politics, then as a Christian, I should abstain from this vote altogether. But then so should everyone else.

To think the public square is religiously neutral is to commit insanity. Everyone’s beliefs influence their political views—this is just as true for the secular humanist as for the devoutly religious.

“To think the public square is religiously neutral is to commit insanity.”

Separation of church and state is about letting the government and the church both influence society for good, without either thinking they are the other. It’s not about a religion-free society. (A few communist states tried that last century and it didn’t turn out so well).

If you’re a Christian and you feel terrible about imposing your view on the rest of society—in this or any other vote—take comfort. If you don’t like the result of the postal vote, the rest of society will have imposed its view on you.

4. Less Christian influence in society is a good thing

The inquisition, the crusades and priestly abuses shock us all. The church has many apologies to make and a lot of trust to regain.

But for decades now this narrative has drowned out all else. You wouldn’t know it, but the role of Christianity in shaping our science, medicine, education, technology, democracy, reason and yes, equality, was nothing short of monumental.

“The commentariat has told us to disdain our Christian heritage.”

If all the church did through history was interrogate, kill and abuse, I’d be the first to jump ship. But I’ve done my homework. If the West divorces itself from the legacy of Jesus, we’ll only know what we had once it’s gone.

Even atheist Richard Dawkins has his reservations. This avowed critic of the church has “mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse.”

The commentariat has told us to disdain our Christian heritage. But most of us don’t even know what that is. And we abandon it at our peril.

5. Marriage is just about love between two people

I’ve heard that this vote is just about two people who love each other—it’s not about kids or broader society. But if this vote is about marriage, then by definition it’s about both kids and society, because all three are unbreakably linked.

Not all married couples have children. But marriage has and always will play a crucial role in raising the next generation. That’s why the government has such a vested interest in it.

Can any combination of genders parent? I’ll leave that to the experts. But to isolate marriage from all other relationships is to misunderstand it completely.

6. Ultimate fulfilment is found in sex

It’s not just porn saying that a life without sex isn’t worth living. The entertainment industry has preached that sermon for a hundred years, and no one questions it.

But we should. Many who are sexually fulfilled are miserable. And many who are celibate are more than satisfied. Jesus was. (And yes, he was a flesh and blood human).

“Many who are sexually fulfilled are miserable.”

Sex is a beautiful gift from God, but like all of his good gifts, we tend to carve an idol out of it. The thing with idols is they promise you the world, taking you to the highest of heights, only to push you off the edge and let you plummet.

Jesus will never do that. He came to give life, and life abundant. What can’t truly be said of sex can always be said of him. In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11).

I will vote yes next month if anyone can convince me these six points are true. Until then, let’s keep not debating same-sex marriage.

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Read the rest of the series on Same-Sex Marriage:  PART 1  |  PART 2  |  PART 3

The Compelling Case For and Against Same-Sex Marriage

Part 2 of 3

Over the next two months, Australians will be asked by postal vote whether they believe federal law should be changed so that same-sex couples can marry.

Like most Australians, I’m concerned that any public debate around this issue is conducted with respect, given that this isn’t merely an “issue”. We’re discussing real peoples’ lives and loves.

My social pipes are already choked with views for and against, but I’m heartened: what I’ve seen so far has been overwhelmingly civil with little evidence of the homophobic Australia I’ve heard exists. Maybe I just have a lot of polite friends.

“This isn’t merely an “issue”. We’re discussing real peoples’ lives and loves.”

As a Christian, I’ve given a lot of thought to this subject. Jesus told us to love God with all our minds, and I assume he says what he means and means what he says. As such, I refuse to vote either “yes” or “no” without considering both sides. And there are compelling arguments either way you look.

Here I have summarised what I see as the three strongest reasons both for and against followers of Jesus voting to change the definition of marriage. You’ll have to keep reading to the end to find out where I land. (Scroll to the bottom now if you’re closed-minded and can only think in black and white).

For #1 | It’s not the church’s place to tell society what to do

I agree. The church once had a privileged position in the West, and while I’m convinced this enabled Jesus’ teachings to impact the world for unspeakable good (check out my series on How Jesus Shaped the West), sadly that status also seduced Christians into grave abuses of power.

Doubtless, those abuses are a big reason for the church’s waning influence on culture. That influence has been a huge loss, and it’s enough to destroy anyone’s faith completely—but only if we’ve confused Christendom with the Kingdom. Christendom has fallen, but God’s Kingdom has never ceased to be in our midst.

“The early church turned the world upside down.”

When I look back in history, the Christians I find most inspiring didn’t occupy halls of power; they spoke with a marginal but powerfully prophetic voice. In short, the Christians who impress me most looked most like Jesus.

Christianity has once again been driven to the margins of society. So it’s time to stop modelling our conduct on the Holy Roman Empire and instead, take our cues from the early church.

“Christendom has fallen, but God’s Kingdom has never ceased to be in our midst.”

For those first 300 years, the church didn’t speak with an air of entitlement. They didn’t legislate or pontificate the moral choices of their secular counterparts. But they did turn the world upside down. And they did it from their knees.

For #2 | Many same-sex relationships outshine straight marriages

The other day I saw a cartoon depicting three weddings. The first was an overnight Las Vegas fling; the second was a couple who had divorced and remarried on repeat; and the third was a loving same-sex couple. The caption read, “Guess which kind of marriage religious people are against?”

It was convicting. In many ways, the church has lost its moral authority, not only by dropping our standards on what marriage should look like, but by making people who sin differently to us feel like they’re in some ugly category all on their own. It’s hypocrisy at its worst.

“In many ways, the church has lost its moral authority.”

Happily, those cartooned examples of heterosexual marriage are the exception rather than the rule, but the illustrator has a really good point. If so much already passes for marriage that shouldn’t, isn’t it unfair to stand in the way of marriage for same-sex couples who set a far better example of love and commitment?

For #3 | Jesus showed the greatest love to the most marginalised

Jesus was a divisive figure. His claim to be God offended everyone. But in particular, he was disliked by progressives for his stuffy moral values, and by conservatives for keeping company with sex workers, white collar criminals, and blue collar dropouts.

Which is a sobering reminder to me as a follower of Jesus that if everyone who thinks I’m a jerk is further left than I am, then I’m probably so far right that I’m wrong.

“Jesus was known as a friend of the marginalised.”

If my convictions about sex are christian but my behaviour isn’t, then I’ve sawed off the branch I’m sitting on. And I must take responsibility when people quote Gandhi, saying, “I like your Christ but I do not like your Christians.”

On the contrary, in my conduct I should look something like Jesus. Religious people were often upset with him, but he was known as a friend of the marginalised. He opposed the proud, but to the humble he showed grace and unexpected love.

“If everyone who thinks I’m a jerk is further left than I am, then I’m probably so far right that I’m wrong.”

Which means that in 2017, I’m more like Jesus if I’m misunderstood as endorsing same-sex marriage than if I’m misunderstood as hating LGBT Australians. I hope I’m not misunderstood at all—but if I err in this way, may I err on the side of love.

Every human being is made in the image of God and has inestimable worth: any convictions I have about sex must come second to that.

So am I voting yes? Well there are a few things I haven’t mentioned yet.

Against #1 | Social moods are an unstable foundation for legal change

Every definition of marriage discriminates. I’m confused by the term “marriage equality” because even if Australia passes it, certain people will still be excluded—namely children and those already married.

I’m not trying to incite fear; I’m not suggesting same-sex marriage will lead to pederastic or polyamorous marriage; I’m not drawing moral equivalence between any of these camps; I’m not assuming any overlap in their agendas.

I’m simply pointing out that zeitgeist is a shaky reason to tamper with a very ancient institution. Those who would like children to marry, or marriage to include three or more members, are today rightly considered odd—even dangerous. But they also make their case in terms of human rights, discrimination, and love.

Zeitgeist, n. the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history.

I’m not fearful that such arrangements are “coming next”. But in seeking to be like Jesus, I care about my civilisation, and I’m concerned about us breaking our moral compass.

If feelings of love and attraction are the overriding rationale for same-sex marriage, then at best, in the future we will be guilty of unfair discrimination towards other “marriage” configurations where those same feelings are present. At worst, we will have convinced ourselves that this, too, is progress.

It seems so unlikely. But as we’ve seen with the current debate, social moods change quickly, even on a global scale.

Against #2 | The rights of adults shouldn’t trump those of children

Many who marry don’t want to have children. Some who want to have children can’t. Medical advances and adoption provide choices—including for same-sex couples. But none of these scenarios annul one simple observation.

The human race will only progress towards its unfolding history through the bonding of male and female. Marriage has existed through time and culture to honour and protect this profoundly unique reality.

“The human race will only progress towards its unfolding history through the bonding of male and female.”

Same-sex couples now raise families—and many do a better job than married heterosexuals. But to call such a union marriage is for me and many others a definitional oxymoron (kind of like a square circle or a married bachelor), for the simple fact that it lacks the most basic attribute (and therefore potential) of marriage.

To others, this might all sound like semantics. But if marriage is this destiny-shaping institution that same-sex couples want access to, and same-sex marriage enters the fray, there is another considerable problem.

Every child conceived in such a family will be deprived in advance of one of their biological parents. Their natural-born right (recognised even by the U.N.) to be brought up by their mum and dad will have been taken away before they ever got a say in the matter.

“It may be no one’s intention to turn kids into commodities, but the result is the same.”

Irresponsible dads can inflict the same wound, as can sexual abuse, or the death of a parent. But we universally acknowledge these as unwanted scenarios. To enshrine same-sex marriage in law is to bless this absence and call it desirable—in our society’s bedrock institution, no less.

It may be no one’s intention to turn kids into commodities, but the result is the same—all because the rights of adults have been put before the rights of children. To me, that doesn’t seem much like Jesus.

(And ironically, while our society fights for equal representation of the sexes in every sphere of life, same-sex marriages will lack that too).

Against #3 | Human histories and cultures aren’t so easily dismissed

You might have noticed that I’m yet to quote Scripture in discussing the against case. That’s because I don’t assume everyone reading this views the Bible as a legitimate authority.

Jesus certainly did quote Genesis to teach that marriage is between a man and a woman—and considering he was a Jew in first century Israel, if he was radical in approving of same-sex relationships, we’d need radical evidence for it. And that does seem to be missing from the gospel accounts.

I don’t expect much praise for it, but even in my convictions on human sexuality, I hope to be like Jesus. (I’ve written about the views that Jesus and other biblical authors held on sexuality here).

“Jesus taught that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

But whether it’s Judaism or Christianity; Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism; cults or schisms or other isms, almost every human culture through almost all of human history has understood marriage to be the union of sexually complementary spouses.

This deep history is why I’m shocked that classical marriage is now being framed as controversial, or even intolerant. (I have a few thoughts on this unusual new morality). Those who believe in it are only agreeing with almost every one of the tens of billions of people who have ever lived.

Traditional doesn’t always equal true. But I pay attention to what cultures have done en masse from the dawn of civilisation to the present. And as a Christian, Jesus’ views on sexuality must be my views on sexuality.

How I’ll Vote on Same-Sex Marriage

When I look at the relationships Jesus had, what strikes me most of all is his ability, in the words of John Dickson, to flex both the muscle of ethical conviction and the muscle of compassion. To profoundly disagree with people, yet befriend and love them all the same.

As I weigh up my options, I’m struck that a vote for same-sex marriage won’t allow me the opportunity to flex both of those muscles. To do this—to be like Jesus—I have only one option: I must vote for the ideal of marriage that Jesus upheld.

When I cast my vote, like in any election, I’ll vote not as a representative of the institutional church, but as me. Sure, I’m a Christian, but my conscience and opinion counts like any other Australian. And I’ll also vote with humility, aware of the past failures of many who said they represented Christ.

“I’ll vote not as a representative of the institutional church, but as me.”

If that doesn’t sound progressive enough, consider C. S. Lewis: “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

~

If the opinion polls are right, by November same-sex marriage will be law in Australia. The media pack, led by the ABC, seems to have all but ensured that. (I tend to think the media is at its best when it’s trying to inform, rather than form public opinion—especially when it’s taxpayer funded).

In the midst of this, some of us need reminding that if same-sex marriage does pass as law, the sun will actually rise the next day and life will go on as usual.

If I’m honest, in the years to come, I’m concerned about what that might look like for my freedoms, particularly as a pastor. But what concerns me more in the present is being the kind of voice and hands and feet that society will miss—and wish they hadn’t suppressed—if it ever comes to that.

“If I err, may I err on the side of love.”

There’s no point in winning the battle but losing the war. I don’t want to go down fighting. I want to go down loving. In that too, I want to be like Jesus.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

Read the rest of the series on Same-Sex Marriage:  PART 1  |  PART 2  |  PART 3

Secrets of the Spice Islands

Part 2: Nutmeg

What if I told you that New York City owed its fame and fortune to a tiny, forgotten island in the backwaters of Indonesia?

Today the Big Apple tops bucket lists. It’s the centre of global trade. With an iconic skyline and nicknames like Capital of the World and Centre of the Universe, no wonder Manhattan is home to some of the world’s hottest real estate.

But five hundred years ago, every one of the these accolades belonged to Pulau Rhun—a tropical island where money grew on trees. Hidden away in the remote Banda Sea, this palm-studded paradise and three neighbouring isles produced Earth’s only supply of nutmeg.

“A small sack of nutmeg could fetch a London manor.”

Like its cousin the clove, this mysterious nut—thrice wrapped in a hard shell, red webbing and tart flesh—was bling for Europe’s well-to-do. It flavoured food and spiced wine, but was also hailed as a cure for infertility and The Plague. As such, a small sack of nutmeg could fetch a London manor.

It was a scramble as empires like Spain and Portugal sunk fortunes, men and ships into the spice race. Out of the fray rose the Dutch, with a business proposal that would change the course of history.

The VOC (or Dutch East India Company) was founded, promising private investors a share in unthinkable wealth. The only catch was that they help fund dubious high-seas treasure hunts on creaky ships that may never return.

So it was that in one foul swoop, the VOC created the world’s first corporate logo, pioneered transnational commerce, and single-handedly invented the stock market.

In 2017, the screens of Times Square and Wall Street shine bright with names like Apple and Microsoft. But with profits eight times their size, the VOC still stands unrivalled as the most successful business venture in all of history.

But let us return to Rhun. Here in the shade of scented nutmeg groves, a faithful band of Englishmen traded spice with friendly locals. To their delight, the island’s treacherous reefs and cannoned forts had kept the Dutch at bay for decades.

To the Dutch, however, this was an infuriating curse. Rhun was the only piece of real estate that stood between them and their ultimate reward: a worldwide monopoly on spice.

“Empires like Spain and Portugal sunk fortunes, men and ships into the spice race.”

In London, King James (of KJV fame) was so pleased with this turn of events that he traded his title for a new one: “King of England, Scotland, Wales and Pullorun”.

But it was no secret that VOC ships were everywhere and The Company’s influence grew. Soon the English found themselves outnumbered, outsmarted and outgunned. Tragically their slice of fortune fell to Dutch control.

And so Rhun’s fate would be decided at the negotiating tables of Europe. Determined to secure all of the planet’s nutmeg, the Dutch compelled England to unconditionally surrender Rhun. To sweeten the deal, they’d throw in an obscure island in the Americas known as New Amsterdam.

Little did any of them know that a few centuries later, New Amsterdam would reinvent itself as the world’s most famous metropolis.

Today, the residents of Banda still harvest nutmeg as they did generations ago. And in a delicious twist, their spice shaped another global icon. Nutmeg, it turns out, is one of Coca-Cola’s famed “secret ingredients”.

But while high-flying corporates sip Coke in Manhattan, and Banda’s farmers patiently tend to their nutmeg crops, they all remain blissfully ignorant of one thing: New York City was bought for a little island called Rhun.

Well could we label this the most incredible trade in history. Almost. For there is one transaction that trumps even this. And that is the exchange of a God, wrapped in flesh, whose death bought his creatures everlasting life.

“What he asks of us is costly: an unconditionally surrendered life.”

At his word, roaring seas are calmed, planets turn and trees sprout forth. Yet he has his eyes set on us. We humans are his joy and crown. Far be it from us to be our maker’s only masterpiece that resists his perfect will.

Yes, what he asks of us is costly: an unconditionally surrendered life. But he’s proven his great love and his unfailing commitment to us: he unconditionally surrendered his.

Let the tale of New York keep you from any foolish exchange. And at the same time, let it assure you that for all who trade wisely, the best is yet to come.

The promise stands. No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

How Jesus Shaped the West: Morality

Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Morality.

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Not far from where I live, I’ve heard of a bustling Christmas market that draws big crowds, depicting life in first century Israel, complete with costumed characters—merchants, beggars, Roman soldiers, shepherds. Easily missed, tucked away in a back corner of the marketplace, is a young, shabbily-dressed couple laying their newborn in an animal’s feeding trough.

Isn’t this a perfect depiction of the first Christmas—and almost every Christmas since? Somewhere among the leg hams and frantic shopping and scattered wrapping paper is a God trying to get our attention. But his humility means that all but the most attentive hearts could celebrate the season and still miss his appearing.

The baby born that first Christmas night became a man who utterly reshaped the world. But in 2016, so much ideology and distraction has meant that we’re almost entirely unaware of Jesus’ influence on the West.

“God’s humility means that all but the most attentive hearts could celebrate the season and still miss his appearing.”

Some might interpret this series I’ve written as religious posturing or Christian triumphalism. In truth, it’s none of that. My desire has been to show that ideas really do have consequences, and that Jesus and his teachings have had an unfathomable impact on the world. Far from being an outdated superstition, Christianity has shaped our civilisation and our lives for the better.

It is no coincidence that the nations with the deepest Christian roots are also the safest to live in. Transparency International publishes a global corruption index that year after year finds the least corrupt countries to be those most shaped by Jesus.

“Far from being an outdated superstition, Christianity has shaped our civilisation and our lives for the better.”

But stories speak louder than statistics, so in considering how Jesus transforms the morality of nations, hear the story of John Wesley.

In seventeenth century England, faith and morality had collapsed. Millions of slaves were being shipped to America as England, France and Spain fought for monopoly of the slave trade.

Financial greed was rife. Laws were being manipulated to favour the ruling classes, sharply dividing the rich and poor. If you stole a sheep, snared a rabbit or picked a pocket, you could be hung as thousands gather to watch—or worse—shipped off to a strange faraway land called Australia.

“Millions of English people had never set foot in a school. The Bible was a closed book.”

Three quarters of children died before their fifth birthday. Unwanted newborns were left in the streets to die. Gin had overtaken beer as the national beverage, and alcoholism was destroying families, and leading to violence, prostitution and murder.

Gloveless boxing had become a favourite sport for men and women, and it drew massive crowds. Pornography was freely available. As soon as a theatre opened it would be surrounded by brothels. Men were known to sell their wives at cattle auctions.

Up and down the coastline of the British Isles, ships were lured onto rocks by false signals so they could be plundered, and the sailors were left to drown.

“Millions of slaves were being shipped to America as England, France and Spain fought for monopoly of the slave trade.”

Millions of English people had never set foot in a school. The Bible was a closed book.

Enter John Wesley.

He’d studied at Oxford and was ordained as a priest. After reading the Bible and searching his heart, he realised he was a Christian in name only. At the age of 34 he put his faith in Jesus. Of that moment he wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine.”

This changed his life. He started sharing his faith in workhouses, prisons, and any church that would welcome him. Encouraged by his friend George Whitfield, he preached his first open-air sermon in April, 1739. The Great Awakening, a movement that was about to transform Europe and America, was born.

Wesley and other revivalists endured three decades of public abuse and violence. Drunken mobs attacked them as they spoke. Bulls were driven into their captivated crowds, and musical instruments were played nearby to drown out their preaching. When struck by rocks, Wesley would wipe away the blood and keep on preaching.

“He started sharing his faith in workhouses, prisons, and any church that would welcome him.”

But never once did he lose his temper. His desire was to point his nation to Jesus, and reclaim England from corruption, believing that when people get saved, their societies change.

Slowly the teachings of Jesus began to take root in people’s minds. His enemies were disarmed and won to Christ. Soldiers, miners, smugglers, fishermen, men, women and children would remove their hats, kneel down and were emotionally overcome as Wesley pointed them to God’s grace.

To teach and disciple the thousands coming to faith, Wesley established hundreds of faith communities across Britain, Scotland and Ireland. He was unstoppable. He got up at four each morning and preached his first sermon at five. By the end of his life he’d prepared and preached 45,000 sermons, written 300 books, and also a commentary on every verse of the Bible—while travelling a quarter of a million miles on horseback in rain, hail and shine.

“Wesley was unstoppable.”

He’d published his thoughts condemning the slave trade, and the last letter he wrote was to Wilberforce, who continued the fight. He opened medical dispensaries and vocational training for the unemployed, and raised money to feed and clothe prisoners, the helpless and the aged.

He died at the age of 88, and no coach was needed for his funeral because he’d arranged for six unemployed people to be paid a pound each to carry his body to the grave.

Directly influenced by Wesley and other revivalists, missionary societies were formed, stirring up hundreds of thousands of Christian young men and women to go to the furthest parts of the world, often at great personal cost.

“In the last decade of his life, Wesley was the most loved figure in Britain.”

Slavery was abolished. Prisons were reformed. Industrial workers were given rights. The Salvation Army was founded, along with George Muller’s orphanages, the YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and the RSPCA.

In the last decade of his life, Wesley was the most loved figure in Britain. He’d helped purge his nation’s soul of filth and bring it back from the brink of death.

The power of the Great Awakening wasn’t merely the threat that God’s watching, so you shouldn’t do bad things. Islam also teaches this, but in Islam, Allah is too majestic to enter dirty stables or filthy hearts.

“Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

The Great Awakening was powerful because Jesus does what no other God can do. He fills people with his Spirit and turns their lives around. As we take our sins to him, and receive his forgiveness and grace, we’re cleaned up and made new. And our world is transformed.

Over and over, and in countless ways, Jesus has shaped the West. This Christmas, in perhaps the subtlest of ways, God is trying to get your attention. Don’t miss him. Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.

osl

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I have been indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.

How Jesus Shaped the West: Equality

equality

Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Equality.

* * *

Last year, two young women aged 15 and 23 were gang raped in a rural town and paraded naked through the main street. This was the “punishment” handed to them by an all-male, unelected village council. Their crime? Their brother eloped with a neighbouring girl who came from a higher caste than theirs.

Violence against women is a global epidemic, not just limited to India’s untouchables. The statistics are gut-wrenching.

One in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence. 98% of those trafficked for sex are female. Worldwide, 200 million women and girls are demographically “missing”—they’ve been murdered or have died through mistreatment, and their story has been lost.

“In the West, equality is part of the air we breathe.”

This is all part of a bigger picture of inequality. Across the globe, people are being abused and marginalised based purely on their culture, ethnicity, beliefs, political allegiance, gender or sexual expression. It’s enough to overwhelm us.

Aren’t we all for equality? Don’t we all stand for universal human rights?

The sobering, even shocking, answer to these questions is actually no.

In the West, equality is part of the air we breathe. We yearn for it, our civilisation sets the pace for it, and when we as westerners are treated unfairly, we appeal to equality as a fixed, universal axiom. But strange as this may sound, the idea that every human being has equal and inherent value is entirely foreign to many we share the planet with.

“If karma rules the cosmos, minorities deserve whatever misery they’re suffering.”

The village justice described above is a case in point. While Ghandi fought for reform of the caste system, ancient Hindu beliefs don’t disappear overnight.

Much of Indian society is still built on the conviction that people have been created precisely unequal, and that your caste was determined by your actions in a previous life. Untouchables are so inferior to the other five castes, says Hindu tradition, that cows, monkeys and rats have greater dignity.

To us this is unthinkable, and must be challenged. But for many in Indian society, to challenge this or to dream otherwise is to rebel against karma. In fact, even to help the poor is to curse them further by preventing them from paying off their karmic debt.

“Inequality has been the norm in most cultures for most of history.”

Such inequality isn’t unique to India. The epicentre of child marriage, death penalties for homosexuals, and forced female genital mutilation is the Middle-East and North Africa—the heartland of Islam.

If your blood has started to boil, I trust that it’s because of the injustices I’ve described, not my geographical honesty. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Am I promoting inequality by making these observations? In fact I am—if we’re discussing the equality of worldviews. Let me be clear: not all beliefs are created equal.

But all people are created equal. And it is exactly this conviction that compels me. I must blow the whistle on any worldview that denies basic human equality and thereby fosters oppression.

The simple reality is that inequality has been the norm in most cultures for most of history. Mesopotamian creation myths held that the king was created in the image of the primary god, while the poor and the slaves were created in the image of an inferior god.

The ancient Greco-Roman world knew nothing of equality. Infanticide was commonplace. Plato had extremely elitist—even fascist—political views. Aristotle believed in natural slaves. In fact in the ancient world it was slaves that enabled the elite to pursue philosophy at all.

“If the world’s ‘races’ are descended from ape-like ancestors then we are by definition unequal.”

Equality is a modern idea that came to us through the Renaissance. And while Renaissance writers are famous for quoting ancient Greeks and Romans, there was only one place they could go to establish a high view of humanity. And that place was Jesus.

From his parable of the ninety-nine sheep abandoned while one was searched for, to his teachings about the Creator knowing the number of hairs on our heads, to his charge for costly, practical love to “the least of these,” this peasant carpenter from Galilee stubbornly insisted that every life matters.

Jesus inspired his fanatic disciple Paul to write that “there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male now female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” To Paul, even a priest-class that’s closer to God must be a defunct concept if “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace.”

“Equality is a thoroughly Christian conviction—one so ingrained in the Western psyche that we’ve forgotten where it came from.”

If the world’s “races” are variously descended from ape-like ancestors then we are by definition unequal. If karma rules the cosmos, minorities deserve whatever misery they’re suffering. If truth is relative, then tomorrow some of us might wake up more equal than others.

But if God created human beings—male and female—in his own image, then we possess non-negotiable dignity and perfectly equal standing in the universe. In fact if God became one of us, far from violating his majesty (as Islam teaches) the incarnation would be the ultimate affirmation of our value and worth as humans.

The second sentence of the U.S. Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But this is not true. All people are created equal—yes! But this is not a self-evident truth, if we take historical and contemporary facts seriously. Equality is a thoroughly Christian conviction—one so ingrained in the Western psyche that we’ve forgotten where it came from.

“If God created human beings—male and female—in his own image, then we possess non-negotiable dignity and perfectly equal standing in the universe.”

It came from Jesus. This conviction that each of us possess inherent worth, share equal value, and deserve unprejudiced treatment has birthed the human rights movement, shaped national constitutions, and utterly transformed Western ethics.

Long may it drive us to keep fighting for equality where it does not yet exist. God knows, around the world there is much still to be done. But may we never forget or disdain its origin. After all, there is no ground more level than at the foot of the cross.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Morality.

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.

How Jesus Shaped the West: Liberty

Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Liberty.

* * *

In three weeks’ time, either Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton will be the U.S. President. Both possibilities are frightening. All but their diehard supporters agree that these are the two least worthy candidates in living memory.

Disturbingly, the West has even begun to ask itself if democracy is broken—and if so, what our other options are.

Trump might represent all that is wrong with America, and Clinton, all that is wrong with the political establishment. But we give them too much credit if we think they’re big enough to break democracy, or if they somehow represent its demise.

“Western democracy has checks and balances that ensure we’ll all live through bad elections to see a brighter day.”

Democracy is a hardy plant, and it has endured centuries far more difficult than the current one. Take heart: in four years’ time, any regrettable decision America makes can be reversed.

Let’s take a moment to be thankful that in the West, we’re no longer ruled by kings and popes, aristocratic senators, or the mob majority. We the people get to choose our leader.

And bear in mind that it’s actually not our leader that governs us. Every democratic nation is ruled by something with an authority higher than any ruler: its constitution. This unique system is known as “the rule of law”.

“We give Trump and Clinton too much credit if we think they’re big enough to break democracy.”

Our leaders don’t tell us how to live. We send representatives to a parliament, who speak for us to shape the law—and it is this law that we are governed by.

We also have judges who are independent of government, so that even if it wanted to, our government couldn’t take our rights or property away.

These are revolutionary ideas—enjoyed by very few in history—and not to be cast aside so readily.  On them we’ve built the freest, safest, wealthiest and most generous societies on earth.

“We’re no longer ruled by kings and popes, aristocratic senators, or the mob majority. We the people get to choose our leader.”

Have you ever considered how we came to inherit such amazing liberty?

Actually, modern democracy has almost nothing to do with ancient Greece. Yes, Greek city states had a form of democracy—but one that never lasted beyond a few decades, when mob rule again won the day.

Consider that Alexander the Great exported Greece’s language, art, literature and culture to the world—but never its democracy. The Greeks knew their democracies had failed.

“Underlying modern democracy is Christian theology’s unique tension between dignity and depravity.”

Modern democracy has deeply Christian roots. The rule of law for example was plagiarised from ancient Israel. Inspired by God’s covenant with Israel which enshrined the Ten Commandments, Christians in England wrote the Magna Carta, their first constitution. And turning a millennium of monarchy on its head, in 1215, a council of barons bound King John by oaths before God to uphold it.

On Europe’s mainland, the Bible was being translated into the language of the people, fuelling the engine of mass literacy. Commoners who once knew nothing about law or government were now discussing politics—and reading and writing books about it. The idea of a government of the people, for the people, by the people spread like wildfire.

“Our opportunity, prosperity and liberty remain the ambition of the rest of the world.”

Three books known as the Trilogy of Freedom* emerged during this time that triggered the revolution from medieval to modern government.

The first of these, inspired by the seventy elders Moses appointed over Israel, gave rise to the concept of representative parliament. The second—highlighting the partnership between kings and prophets in leading Israel—birthed the idea of an independent judiciary to protect human rights. The third used Josiah’s reign in Israel to establish that a nation’s leader is the first among equals.

Lex Rex, which is now considered one of the greatest influences on modern government, was a book that summarised this trilogy—and it was written by Samuel Rutherford, a theologian and pastor.

“Modern democracy has deeply Christian roots.”

Underlying all these ideas is Christian theology’s unique tension between dignity and depravity. Being made in God’s image, we all possess an equal and priceless dignity. And having fallen from our state of perfection, tooth and nail we must guard ourselves from our own warped depravity.

In 1573, the world’s first fully-formed democracy sprang up in Protestant Scotland. Soon modern democracies were appearing throughout Europe and into America. Fast forward to 2016, and democracy is the favoured form of government on the planet, with 85% of the world’s nations aspiring to it.

“On these ideas we’ve built the freest, safest, wealthiest and most generous societies on earth.”

Yes, this year democracy may have delivered us regrettable candidates like Trump and Clinton. As a system, it is far from perfect. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

But maybe the character of 2016’s candidates says more about current tides of culture than it does about this project called democracy.

Because of Jesus, the democracy of the United States, like the rest of the West, has checks and balances that ensure we’ll all live through bad elections to see a brighter day. Meanwhile, our opportunity, prosperity and liberty will remain the ambition of the rest of the world.

Don’t dig a grave for democracy yet. Step back, regain some perspective, and thank Jesus for inspiring the men and women who thought, fought and bled for our freedom.

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Equality.

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

* Francogallia by Francois Hotman, The Right of Magistrates by Theodore Beza, and Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos by Philippe du Plessis-Mornay

In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.