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Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio briefly flickered through my mind as I was considering who might be elected Pope, but quickly flickered out again. He flickered in because of persistent rumours that he was runner–up in the Conclave that elected Pope Benedict. But the rumours were doubtful, while the factors weighing against him seemed decisive.


There were three.

Firstly, at 76, he is at the upper limit of what might be considered a likely age. Too old, I thought.

Second, he is a Jesuit. There has never before been a Jesuit Pope. That in itself is not a negative factor, but the recent behaviour of some Jesuits is. In the past the Society of Jesus has produced some of the Church’s greatest thinkers and missionaries. In recent years, in the Australia and the US at least, it has declined into a kind of PC knitting circle.

If you are not sure what I mean, pay a visit to the Jesuit website eurekastreet.com.au. You might as well be reading Crikey!, or the Melbourne Anglican. Just as with those outlets, you know in advance that the position taken on any social or political issue will be that of the Labor left/Greens. An organisation that offers an encomium on the virtues of Hugo Chavez, and quotes Bertolt Brecht while doing so, has lost any capacity for rational thought.

The Jesuits in South America may be different, but while a cardinal, Pope Francis made some worrying comments about the redistribution of wealth, comments which resemble the inane demands that people who have taken risks and worked hard all their lives to produce value for others have an obligation to ‘give something back’ to people who haven’t. Popes are not infallible on matters of economics, but they may be influential.

The third and decisive factor was that he has no experience in Rome. It seemed unlikely that someone would be elected as Bishop of Rome who has little familiarity with the city and its people. Even more important, given the wide publicity given to claims of a need to reform the Curia, it seemed unlikely that someone would be elected who has no detailed knowledge of the Curia and its functions. If there really is a need for reform, Pope Francis will be in the position of having to rely for advice on the very people in need of reformation.

Having said all that, it is important to point out that Pope Francis has a wider educational background than most of his predecessors; he has a Master’s degree in chemistry, and has taught psychology and literature. He has a reputation for prayerful faithfulness and unpretentious care for others. He has resisted the temptation to lapse into the cesspool of liberation theology, and has been courageous in his opposition to some of the policies and pronouncements of Argentina’s obstreperous leftist government. For example, a few months after current Argentinian President Kristina Kirchner’s husband (her predecessor) was elected in 2003, then Cardinal Bergoglio pointed out the damage done by the “exhibitionism and strident announcements” that had come to characterise Argentinian politics.

All this suggests intelligence, humility, strength and common sense.

Maybe the cardinals know better than me after all.

My latest for Quadrant Online:

One  of the most interesting phenomena of the last weeks has been the  enthusiasm with which media pundits who have previously expressed the  opinion that the Church is dying and irrelevant have expounded upon the  importance of the right person being elected to be the new Pope. Like  liberal nuns and other anti-Catholics, most of these media persons (I  decline to call them personalities) believe the world would be a much  better place if someone was elected who had the same opinions they do.


Alas  for them, it is likely, as Philippa Martyr has pointed out in her usual  delightful style, that the next Pope will be a Catholic. Which means no  gay marriage, no women priests, no abortions.

Going  to Mass, trusting in Jesus, reading the Bible and the whole religious  thing will still be a large part of what the Church is about. It might  be interesting to spend some time talking about whether it is possible  to identify exactly where any culture is less than healthy, by noting at  which points its demands conflict with the teaching and practice of the  Church. In our case, I suspect, in the areas of gender, sexuality, and  ‘self-realisation.’ But instead I’ll stick with wondering who the next  Pope might be.

We start with a potential field of all unmarried baptised adult male Catholics. Betting website paddypower.com  offers odds of 666 to 1 on Richard Dawkins. You can also bet on Fr. Ted  at 1,000 to 1 if you are absolutely determined to lose your money.

Read the rest at Quadrant.

On the anniversary of 9/11 two US embassies are attacked. One of your ambassadors is killed and his body dragged through the streets, and you are apologising because someone, somewhere, might have hurt muslim feelings?

The muslim world hates you. They see you as the enemy. Nothing you do will appease them. They will not rest until you are subjugated, dead, or convert to islam.

This is not your fault. For heaven’s sake, stop apologising.

From Raymond Ibrahim in Frontpage Magazine:

According to several reports in the Arabic media, prominent Muslim clerics have begun to call for the demolition of Egypt’s Great Pyramids—or, in the words of Saudi Sheikh Ali bin Said al-Rabi‘i, those “symbols of paganism,” which Egypt’s Salafi party has long planned to cover with wax.    Most recently, Bahrain’s “Sheikh of Sunni Sheikhs” and President of National Unity, Abd al-Latif al-Mahmoud, called on Egypt’s new president, Muhammad Morsi, to “destroy the Pyramids and accomplish what the Sahabi Amr bin al-As could not.”

This is a reference to the Muslim Prophet Muhammad’s companion, Amr bin al-As and his Arabian tribesmen, who invaded and conquered Egypt circa 641.  Under al-As and subsequent Muslim rule, many Egyptian antiquities were destroyed as relics of infidelity.  While most Western academics argue otherwise, according to early Muslim writers, the great Library of Alexandria itself—deemed a repository of pagan knowledge contradicting the Koran—was destroyed under bin al-As’s reign and in compliance with Caliph Omar’s command …

Currently, in what the International Criminal Court is describing as a possible “war crime,” Islamic fanatics are destroying the ancient heritage of the city of Timbuktu in Mali—all to Islam’s triumphant war cry, “Allahu Akbar!”

Of course the usual idiots will deny that muslim leaders really mean what they say, and accuse those think they do of being islamophobic.

But this would not be the first time muslims have attempted to destroy the pyramids. Al-Aziz Uthman, son of the absurdly lionised kurdish adventurer Saladin, tried in the twelfth century, and succeeded in removing many of the outer casing stones. He gave up. Dismantling the pyramids was too big a task. It might not be for a determined group of present day islamists.

I often post videos of ungrateful idiots. This is a refreshing change:

Amen to the thanks to the monks of Mt Athos, and to everyone who is faithful in prayer.

I have had some doubts about the EDL – the English Defence League. But the more I hear from Tommy Robinson, the more I like him.

Some of the things to note in this video are his absolute rejection of racism, his pointing up of the double standards in policing and reporting of islamist protests (frequently violent) and any expression of any concern (no matter how mild) by ordinary people about islamism, and his statement that if we do not act now, despite the cost, future generations will never understand why we failed them.

It really is worth watching this video in full. Just ignore the poor sound quality at the beginning. It improves quickly.

An insightful and amusing article by Anthony Esolen on the banality of modern church music:

Why, when we have a trove of profound, beautiful, and poignant hymns, do we have to endure what is banal, clunky, and silly?

We have a rich treasury of hymn-poems to read, to sing, and to keep close to the heart.  Some of them are almost as old as Christianity itself. They come from Latin and Greek, from our own English, from French and German and all the languages of Europe. Some were written by saintly divines with a fine ear for poetry: John Henry Newman (“Praise to the Holiest in the Height”), Charles Wesley (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”). Many were written by the great Dr. Isaac Watts, who set the psalms to English meter and rhyme. Some rose up from an anonymous lyricist among the folk: “What Wondrous Love Is This.” Some entered our language by the skill of great translators, like John Mason Neale and Catherine Winkworth. Some were the work of pious laymen who meditated upon Scripture all their lives: so the blind Fanny Crosby gives us “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.” Just as many of our most beautiful melodies were written by the finest composers who ever lived—Bach, Handel, Haydn—so too many of our hymn lyrics were written by poets of some renown: George Herbert, Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Milton.

So why, then, why do we have verse-by-numbers lyrics posing as real poems in our hymnals? Why, when we have such a trove of the great, the profound, the beautiful, the memorable, the poignant, the splendid, do we have to endure what is banal, clunky, clumsy, dull, vague, and silly?

Sometimes the very titles of the lyrics give them away. They are like the opening sentences of badly written freshman essays. You know the grade is a B-minus before you make it to the end of the paragraph. Let me give some examples from a recent publication:

Who is This Who Breaches Borders? I don’t know—check his passport. Can a border be breached, in English? A wall can be breached; you breach it by breaking it. But you can’t break a border; you can cross it, or trespass upon it. The next lines are worse: “And subverts the social orders, / Crossing chasms that divide.” Political slang, and an absurd redundancy at the end. What, doesn’t he cross all those other chasms that unite?

One of the commenters has it exactly right:

This is not about bad music – that’s the decoy. It’s about bad theology – an at best deistic world view, more likely a fairly Unitarian Universalist type human-centred absence of belief in the supernatural.

Right.

From the Harrow Times (also via Blazing Cat Fur):

Four men who pelted eggs at young Jewish people during racially motivated attacks in Golders Green have been ordered to pay compensation to their victims.

Mohammed Khalifa, 19, Aimen Mohamed, 19, Mohammed Jawad, 21, and Haider Al-Fardan, 21, carried out the attacks as they drove in Golders Green Road on December 9.

Willesden Magistrates Court heard how on that morning, Khalifa borrowed his father’s BMW before driving the other three to Kingsbury where they bought 30 eggs.

The men then headed to Golders Green where they singled out a group of four young girls at 11.30am.

As Khalifa slowed the car down, the men shouted “oi, Jews” and “Jews” while they drove past before throwing an egg, one of which hit a girl in the face.

As the girls continued down the road, the car drove back down the road and they were subjected to more shouting, though one of them was able to memorise the number plate. They also noticed more broken eggs on the road.

Fifteen minutes later, two 14-year-old boys were walking along the same road when the group drove slowly past them.

All the car windows on the passenger side were open and as the car pulled alongside the boys, the occupants yelled abuse at them with at least one voice shouting, “you f***ing Jews”.

Mohammed Khalifa borrowed his father’s BMW. Poor bloke. With that kind of deprivation, no wonder he hates the Jews.

Just one little point. There is nothing in the report above to indicate the attacks were racially motivated. Could it be that Mohammed, Mohamed and Mohammed had something else in common?

Some thought starters from Ben Peter Terpstra’s blog Weekend Libertarian:

1. Government schools aren’t necessarily public schools. BP quotes from an article by John Stossel:

Politicians claim that education and health care are different — too important to leave to market competition. Patients and parents aren’t real consumers because they don’t have the expertise to know which hospital or school is best. That’s why they must be centrally planned by government “experts.”

They should be called government or union schools, because those are the two groups whose interests come first, and in whose ideas and values your children will be inculcated, rather than those of ordinary people – the public.

More from John Stossel:

Teachers’ hourly wages exceed what most architects, accountants and nurses make.   (Unions and government) .. constantly demand more money, but tripling spending and vastly increasing the ratio of staff to student have brought no improvement.

They claim that public education is “the great equalizer.” Rich and poor and different races mix and learn together. It’s a beautiful concept. But it is a lie. Rich parents buy homes in neighborhoods with better schools.   As a result, public — I mean, government — schools are now more racially segregated than private schools. One survey found that public schools were significantly more likely to be almost entirely white or entirely minority. Another found that at private schools, students of different races were more likely to sit together.

James Tooley spends most of his time in the poorest parts of Africa, India and China. Those countries copied America’s “free public education,” and Tooley wanted to see how that’s worked out. What he learned is that in India and China, where kids outperform American kids on tests, it’s not because they attend the government’s free schools.

Government schools are horrible. So even in the worst slums, parents try to send their kids to private, for-profit schools.   How can the world’s poorest people afford tuition? And why would they pay for what their governments offer for free?

Tooley says parents with meager resources still sacrifice to send their kids to private schools because the private owner does something that’s virtually impossible in government schools: replace teachers who do not teach. Government teachers in India and Africa have jobs for life, just like American teachers. Many sleep on the job. Some don’t even show up for work.   As a result, says Tooley, “the majority of (poor) schoolchildren are in private school.” Even small villages have as many as six private schools, “and these schools outperform government schools at a fraction of the teacher cost.”

It has never been clear to me why government needs to be involved in the delivery of medical and educational services at all, except perhaps in very small or remote communities. They don’t do a very good job of either.

2. On the religion of organic food. Quoting from an article by David Leyonhjelm in The Land:

It is assumed that organic food is free of pesticides. In fact, certain pesticides are permitted under the various organic codes and many organically grown plants produce endogenous pesticides that are chemically similar to man-made pesticides. And there are also occasional organic farmers who are forced to apply pesticides to save their crops. Not surprisingly, they don’t talk about that much.

It is assumed that organic production is better for the environment. That this is false is shown by the approach to controlling weeds. A conventional farmer will use herbicides to kill weeds and avoid disturbing the soil to conserve moisture, minimise erosion and preserve topsoil organic matter. Organic farmers are not permitted to use herbicides, so they have to use cultivation.

I remember reading somewhere that while ‘organic’ food constitutes about 5% of total food supply in the UK, it accounts for some 25% of food poisoning cases, because of the far higher incidence of highly allergenic mould and insect residues. It is all very well for cosy well-off Westerners to talk about the importance of being organic, but if everyone did as they asked, half the world would starve. Modern scientific agriculture, with its very carefully applied and non-toxic fertilisers and pesticides, allows high levels of productivity which provide affordable food for the majority of the world’s people. But I guess they don’t figure for the organophiles.

3.  On gay divorce and gay marriage; an article worth reading in full. A couple of sample paragraphs:

In the National Review, Charles C. W. Cooke writes, “In Norway, male same-sex marriages are 50 percent more likely to end in divorce than heterosexual marriages, and female same-sex marriages are an astonishing 167 percent more likely to be dissolved. In Sweden, the divorce risk for male-male partnerships is 50 percent higher than for heterosexual marriages, and the divorce risk for female partnerships is nearly double that for men.”

This is important to note, for many reasons, if one values children’s welfare. But first, and most obviously, it appears as though many gay-marriage activists don’t respect society’s time-honoured institution of marriage, period. After the honeymoon period, they fly. Within only years, many divorcing gays, in media-approved progressive nations are already beating broken straights to Splitsville.

The claim that high rates of infidelity, divorce and domestic abuse among homosexual couples don’t matter because those things happen in heterosexual relationships as well, is so dishonest as to be farcical. Rates of infidelity, violence and breakup are not just slightly higher in homosexual relationships; they are much higher. It is monstrously wrong to refuse to consider this when placing children for adoption.

Just one little note on marriage breakup. It is sometimes claimed that 50% of all marriages now end in divorce. This is (almost) true. But it is also highly misleading. Only (only! – still far too high!) one quarter to one fifth of marriages between previously unmarried heterosexual partners will end in divorce. If you and your spouse have never been married before, the chances are very good that you will be together for life. The overall figures for divorce are dragged into disproportion by serial divorcers – those who divorce and remarry more than twice.

Great.

Egypt’s Constitution should be based on the Koran and Sharia law, presidential candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood Islamist movement Mohamed Morsi said.

“The Koran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal,” Morsi said in his election speech before Cairo University students on Saturday night.

Today Egypt is close as never before to the triumph of Islam at all the state levels, he said.

Of course, now he has been elected, he will have to mellow out, right?

Every age has its own besetting heresy. Looking back – at Arianism or Montanism, for example – it is clear that these sprang out of the way society was structured at the time, and the way people understood themselves and their purpose in that society.

Heretics occasionally realise they have departed in some way from the historic teaching and practice of the Church. When they do, they usually justify their departure from the faith by claiming they have some insight not available to Jesus or the Apostles, or by referring to the ‘trajectory of scripture,’ or claiming that this is what Jesus and the Apostles would have said/done if their culture had allowed them to.

I am increasingly convinced that the underlying heresy of our time is blindness to the reality of the Fall, and/or a refusal to take its consequences seriously.

This was brought home to me on Sunday morning, as we sang Trust and Obey. The second verse was this:

Not a burden we bear, not a sorrow we share,
but our toil he doth richly repay;
not a grief or a loss, not a frown or a cross,
but is blest if we trust and obey.

Quite different from the usual:

Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies,
But His smile quickly drives it away;
Not a doubt or a fear, not a sigh or a tear,
Can abide while we trust and obey.

The difference is significant.

The former understands that life is toil. There will be grief and loss and disapproval, but all these can be blessed to God’s purposes if we trust and obey.

The second acknowledges that these things may come along, but expects that they will be wiped away by God’s smile. Everything will be fine, the sun will shine, if we trust and obey. In other words, happiness, self-fulfilment, plans coming to fruition, is what we should expect as Christians. I doubt very much that is what John Sammis had in mind.

Similarly with Jesus Loves Me. We used to sing:

Little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong.

Now we sing:

Little ones to Him belong, in His love they shall be strong.

Well, maybe. But again, I doubt this is what Ann Warner had in mind. The whole poem is about our utter dependence on God and His grace. Our weakness, His strength.

This is clear in the following verse, which is not sung at all anymore:

Jesus loves me! Loves me still
Tho’ I’m very weak and ill;
That I might from sin be free
Bled and died upon the tree.

Warner is not talking about physical illness or weakness, but sickness and weakness of the soul, weakness that is part of our fallen nature.

Somehow recognition and discussion of this has become unacceptable, not only in our preaching, but in our singing as well.

One more example. Joy to the World is one of the best loved of Christmas hymns. But how many of us have ever sung Watt’s third verse?

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Even the few modern hymnbooks that include this verse mark it as optional.

No Fall, no curse, no original sin to mar and muddy and mislead and confuse. A new day of self-respect, tolerance, self-esteem and hope dawns.

But equally, and fatally to our proclamation of the Gospel, no Fall means no need for redemption. We all just need to do our best, not discriminate, care for the environment, and everything will be lovely. Jesus is nice for those who want that sort of thing, but not really necessary.

But the Fall is real. The curse is real. Our reason, our emotions, our wills, are all warped by sin, as is the whole of creation. We are weak. We are ill. We are lost.

104 years ago, in the second chapter of Orthodoxy (appropriately titled The Maniac) GK Chesterton wrote “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”

Reinhold Niebuhr quoted this as “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.”

We want things we should not want. Just as each society has its besetting heresy, each of us has our besetting sin – some desire or temptation that plagues us, that will not go away, that seems to be part of our nature. What often follows is an effort to convince ourselves and others that the acts to which we are tempted are not really sinful. Or not in our case, anyway. Or even that this is the way God made us, and something to be celebrated.

But Isaiah warns us: Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (5:20).

Going from the sublime heights of Isaac Watts to the depths of empty-headed triviality, Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ is a perfect example of this kind of thinking:

No matter gay, straight, or bi,  Lesbian, transgendered life,
I’m on the right track baby,  I was born to survive.
No matter black, white or beige, Chola or orient made,
I’m on the right track baby,  I was born to be brave.
I’m beautiful in my way ‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby  I was born this way
Don’t hide yourself in regret just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby  I was born this way.

Reassuring, but wrong. Comforting, but deadly. The Fall is real. God does not make mistakes. Nonetheless, the world, including us, is not the way God intended.

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all need a redeemer.

The Adelaide Church Guardian is the newsletter of the Anglican Diocese of Adelaide.

There is an article in the February/March edition called ‘Christenviron’ Inclusive Church.

The article, by Fr David Thornton-Wakeford, argued that there should be no requirement for either party to a marriage to be baptised before the marriage can be solemnised in a church.

This was my reply:

I have the highest regard for Fr David Thornton-Wakeford. He prepared my wife Kathy for confirmation over thirty years ago, when she was a worshipper at St George’s Cathedral in Perth, and I was in my first year at St Barnabas’s College.

Much as I hate to disagree with him, his recent article in The Guardian obliges me to do so. Especially since the Guardian is the diocesan newsletter, and its articles may appear to have the Archbishop’s approval, or to be the official position of the diocese.

My understanding of the basis of Fr David’s article is that the Church should be as inclusive as possible, should open its doors as wide as possible, and should not put unnecessary barriers in the way of those who come to us for ministry.

All of that I agree with. Where the lines are drawn, I suspect, is a product of differing understandings of the mission of Jesus and therefore the mission of the Church, and of the nature and purpose of Christian marriage.

Rather than construct a separate argument, I will simply work through Fr David’s essay and point out some of those lines of difference.

“As a priest, if I am with a person at hospital, church, roadside, wherever, and they want to make their confession, I never ask if they are baptised.”

Why not? Of course you don’t ask whether someone is baptised before listening to them and caring for them. But the only way we can give people any assurance of forgiveness and salvation is by talking with them about their relationship with Jesus. If we are talking with them about their relationship with Jesus, how can we not talk to them about baptism? If we anoint people and make promises of forgiveness without doing this, we are short changing the people who come to us, and treating with contempt the costly grace which has lead them to that point.

“Marriage is a human sacrament before it is Christian.”

I am not sure what this means. If Fr David is saying that there are some material things which also offer spiritual or emotional comfort, and that a loving relationship between two people is one of these, then that is true, but it hardly seems relevant, or worth making a point of. If he means that people got married before Jesus was born and the true meaning of marriage was revealed, that is also true, and also irrelevant. Neither of those things is what the word “sacrament” means. It means an outward and visible sign through which the grace of Christ is ministered. By definition, there cannot be a sacrament which is not Christian.

“The bride and groom are the celebrants… “

Indeed. Exactly. Precisely. A Christian marriage is entered into because a Christian couple believe God is calling them into married life. They are called to minister Christ’s grace to one another and so to grow in love and into the likeness of Christ that their marriage becomes a sign to the world of the relationship between Christ and His Church. A conscious choice to enter into such a vocation can only be made by a Christian, and being a Christian means being baptised.

“Being baptised or not has no influence or control over God.”

Did anyone ever suggest it did? But we are commanded to proclaim the Gospel and to baptise all peoples. “Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved.” Mk 16:16. Of course in extreme circumstances someone who trusts in Jesus for salvation and accepts Jesus as Lord may not be able to be baptised, and we can still have confidence in God’s saving love for that person. That very rare circumstance does not dispense with the obligation for believers to be baptised.

“May God have mercy on me… when it comes to placing any stumbling block upon anyone who knocks on the church’s door.”

Quite right. Except for the stumbling block, the skandalon, of Christ himself. Jesus did not say to the woman caught in adultery, “Go on then, if that’s what makes you happy.” Nor did he tell Matthew he could continue being a tax collector if that is what suited him. Jesus talked repeatedly about hell, and gave people the stark choice between life – accepting Him – and death – going their own way.

Following Jesus is not easy. We certainly need to seek God’s forgiveness if we put unnecessary stumbling blocks in people’s way. And equally if we do not share the Gospel with those who come to us, and are not honest with them about the cost – their entire lives and selves – of accepting the Gospel.

I could perhaps be swayed if there were evidence showing that the undemanding approach Fr David suggests really bore fruit in encouraging people to become part of the Church family, to give their lives to Christ and to be baptised. But the evidence seems to suggest the opposite.

Opening the doors so wide that we pretend no commitment is required and that there is no cost to following Christ does not bring people into the Church, or into Kingdom of God. Instead, they seem to go away comfortable in the belief that the ceremonies are nice and the stained glass windows make for lovely photos, but Jesus is an optional extra.

The churches which grow are the ones that consciously, faithfully, deliberately proclaim the Gospel, and which do not make light of the gulf between being saved and unsaved.

A Christian marriage is a life-long vocation entered into by Christians. If we are not honest about that and what it means, then when we officiate at a wedding of two people who have knocked at the door we are not celebrating and blessing the beginning of a Christian marriage, but offering people a wedding in a church for a fee. To confuse the two is a travesty and a fraud.

By Bishop N.T. Wright at Durham Cathedral. Read the whole thing. It is a reminder that despite its mad follies and unfaithfulness, the Church of England still has men who care about the truth, and stand for it with courage.

John’s Christmas message issues a sharp and timely reminder to re-learn the difference between mercy and affirmation, between a Jesus who both embodies and speaks God’s word of judgment and grace and a home-made Jesus (a Da Vinci Code Jesus, if you like) who gives us good advice about discovering who we really are.  No wonder John’s gospel has been so unfashionable in many circles.  There is a fashion in some quarters for speaking about a ‘theology of incarnation’ and meaning that our task is to discern what God is doing in the world and do it with him.  But that is only half the truth, and the wrong half to start with.  John’s theology of the incarnation is about God’s word coming as light into darkness, as a hammer that breaks the rock into pieces, as the fresh word of judgment and mercy.  You might as well say that an incarnational missiology is all about discovering what God is saying No to today, and finding out how to say it with him.  That was the lesson Barth and Bonhoeffer had to teach in Germany in the 1930s, and it’s all too relevant as today’s world becomes simultaneously, and at the same points, more liberal and more totalitarian.

Discovering what God is saying No to today, and finding out how to say it with him.

O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum,

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,

jacentem in præsepio.

Beata virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum,

Alleluia!

O great mystery and wondrous sacrament,

that animals should see the newborn Lord lying in their manger.

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.

Alleluia!

It is a tad disappointing that church leaders trot out the same bland comments about illegal immigrants year after year. You might hope that if all they can up with is platitudes, they could at least try to find some new ones.

But no. This year, yet again, we heard that Jesus was a refugee, and that this means we have an obligation to be warm and welcoming to anyone who arrives here, no matter where they come from. We are asked to imagine the fear felt by Jesus’ family as they fled the violence of Herod’s persecution, and to understand that refugee families feel the same fear and desperation.

These are worthwhile thoughts. Or they would be if church leaders had not battered us with them every Christmas for the last twenty years.

Just as cliches in writing are to be avoided like the pox, cliches in preaching are to be avoided like polio, and for the same reason. Cliches become cliches because they express a thought strikingly. They make you think. As soon as they become cliches they cease to express anything very much. They are just boring and predictable and don’t encourage thought at all. It is the same with lazy, cliched preaching.

Church leaders who talk year after year about the need to be compassionate to refugees are not going to convince anyone, because everyone is already convinced. We all know we need to find a compassionate way to deal with refugees, including those who make their way to Australia illegally.

What most Australians understand, but which seems to have escaped the bishops and moderators, is the complexity of going from good feelings and wanting to do the right thing, to formulating and enacting policy which really does do some good.

Under the Howard government, people smuggling and illegal immigration had slowed to a trickle. That left more resources for the Department of Immigration to allocate to refugees who were in greatest need, and to supporting those refugees in their transition to life in Australia. When Labor was elected there were fewer than 400 people in immigration detention. Now there are over 4,000. That number is growing rapidly as new boats arrive every week.

At least 400 people have died in transit since Labor came to office. Yet there has been no acceptance of responsibility, no acknowledgement that the kinder policies demanded by churches and refugee advocate groups have been responsibile for the current cruel and expensive mess. Instead, the same people are serving up the same tripe about the ‘need for compassion.’

A lack of compassion is not the problem. A lack of willingness to think is. If church leaders really want to help, they need to stop the reflexive bagging of conservative politicians and recognise that it is possible for politicians on both sides of parliament, and for ordinary people, to feel the same depth of concern, but to have completely different ideas about the best way forward.

The best way forward, of course, is the one that works. What works is stopping illegal immigration, and concentrating resources on bringing to Australia people who are most in need, and who are most likely to share, or to come to share, Australia’s key values of rule of law, equality for men and women, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, fair work for fair pay, generosity and ‘having a go.’

And by way of contrast, thank God for Queen Elizabeth.

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