The Divided Church:  Overcoming the politics of fear

Welcome to Melbourne.  The most locked down city in the world.  Us Aussies are a compliant lot, but a year and a half of six lock downs are taking their toll on the easy going ‘she’ll be right mate’ attitude.

So it’s not surprising there’ll be some anarchy on the streets.  Melburnians wittnessed 3 consecutive days of thousands creating mayhem in the streets this week, sparked by a workers’ union protesting against government mandating of vaccinations for workers on building sites.  Not defensible, but perhaps, understandable.

Trouble is, once you start a riot it’s hard to stop.  And it creates a lightening rod of discontent for all the pent up anxiety, fear and frustration of anti vaxxers, flat earthers with a conspiracy shtick to wield waving banners, Stop The Spread of Media Lies and My Body, My Choice.

Watching flares igniting at the Shrine of Remembrance a day after a useless rebel march up and down the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne, might almost seem comical if it weren’t so tragic. 

At home, most of us stay compliant and locked up, but watching our screens, there appears to be more than a whiff of anarchy in the air.  There’s outrage that this could cause more infections, outbreaks, extending our incarceration and shortening our sanity fuses. 

A palatable dread hangs over lockdown city.  It might as well be Gotham City with the police squads, batons and masks.  (For non-Melburnians, John Batman is our city’s father.)

A few days after the protests started, I’m inside our house (where else can I be?) when the walls and floors start shuddering, like the whole house might walk off and leave me.  It took me a few seconds to figure out it was an earthquake.  6.0 on the scale.

All this on top of a pandemic can’t help make you think of apocalypse and the Book of Revelation.  Plagues, anarchy, earthquakes.  What next?

People retreat into their tribes clinging to their rights when the world starts falling apart and stops making sense.  It’s human nature.  We retreat into a fetal ‘what we know’ position.  Or what we think we know.

And fear makes strange bedfellows.  Anti vaxxers mixing it up with Trumpites, flat earthers, fundies, atheists and neo-Nazis.  The caldron pool website demonstrates this strange brew of right wing fundies and politicians such as self professed atheist Mark Latham.  It even tries to co-opt C.S. Lewis by quoting Narnia!

Ben Davis, named as the founder of Caldron Pool on the website, writes: “In the end, to ban healthy believers from public worship for any reason other than unrepentant sin, including those based on whatever arbitrary medical treatments the government deems necessary at any particular time of the day, is to ultimately exchange the gracious staff of the Great Shepherd for the often cruel and unforgiving rod of Caesar.”1 

But God’s grace is a gift not a right and comes from love not fear.  Grace is the antithesis of the politics of tribes and rights.  Fear divides us as we retreat into our tribes clutching our rights not to vaccinate, not to wear masks, not to be locked down.

We are all grappling with how to accomodate the divisive issues of vaccinations as the light at the end of the tunnel gets closer to us gathering back in the office and church.  So, here we are with another issue to divide us.  

Church leaders are charging up their megaphones to rally the saints, calling out the sanity texts in scripture.  It’s not about your rights, think about your neighbour.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is an uncomfortable truth answering the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29-37)

Fear divides us as we retreat into our tribes clutching our rights not to vaccinate, not to wear masks, not to be locked down. But God’s grace is a gift not a right and comes from love not fear.  Grace is the antithesis of the politics of tribes and rights.

On our church divisions, we are less persuaded by argument and more influenced by behaviour and the antidote of fear – love.  ‘There is no room in love for fear.  Well-formed love banishes fear.  Since fear is crippling, a fearful life – fear of death, fear of judgement – is one not yet fully formed in love.’ (1 John 4:17-18b The Message)

After all, love is the one distinguishing mark of the church according to the Apostle John’s record of Jesus words.  ‘Let me give you a new command:  Love one another.  In the same way I loved you, you love one another.  This is how everyone will recognise that you are my disciples – when they see the love you have for each other.’  (John 13:34-35 The Message).  

You can’t go beyond yourself to love someone else if you’re consumed with your own rights, fenced in by your tribe, deafened by your echo chamber of choice. 

(See my last post, Ground Zero 20 Years On:  9/11 and the return of the king for more on the politics of tribes and rights.)

The church is called to be whole and bring that wholeness into the world.  We are not called to divide and keep on dividing.  A dividing church can’t multiply itself to disperse the light and salt of God’s kingdom – grace, mercy, love, peace  – into the world.

At the end of John’s first letter, John stops talking about love and abruptly ends with ‘… and keep yourselves from idols.’ (1 John 5:21)

Eugene Peterson asks why John introduces idols at the very end of his first letter?  “Why does he leave us with this as his last word?  Just this:  An idol is a god with all the God taken out of it.  God depersonalised, God re-lationalized, a god we can manipulate for our selfish ends, enlist for our pet causes, and fantasise about without ever having to give or receive love, either from him or anyone else.”

“And that warning is as necessary today as it was in John’s day.  Perhaps even more so, because idolatry in the present religious world is more subtle and seductive than it was in the world of the first century.”2

Idols keep us from God and turn us against each other, breeding fear, envy, strife, discord.  

The antidote to division is love.  Just as the antidote to the virus is the same as the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbour?”  In lockdown Melbourne, my neighbours are the vulnerable and exposed.

Without love we are divided.  And a divided church that can’t love each other and the world is not much of a church at all.

The church is called to be whole and bring that wholeness into the world.  We are not called to divide and keep on dividing.  A dividing church can’t multiply itself to disperse the light and salt of God’s kingdom – grace, mercy, love, peace  – into the world.

  2. Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual theology, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2005, p325

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4 replies

  1. Love one another, yes may we look to those word spoken by our Lord as the world population is increasingly becoming the opposite to that example. Those who look to a moral and loving world are the minority and if we look to Revelations, Nostradamus, Kali Yuga or the Mayan Calender, we see a period of hate, catastrophes, Wars, natural disasters, and general dark ages coming upon humanity. Scary and frightening to say the least. But i believe that as a Christian, God is in control and i have faith he will get me through and also those that i help. My biggest idol is self centeredness, if that is an idol. I try to love humanity and find myself distracted by what humanity does. Maybe if i just put my trust in God i will come out a better person.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In New Zealand, authorities reel off a list of pandemic do’s and dont’s and end it all with “Be kind to one another” and this is also the message of the Church – think of your neighbour not your own rights – how will my action affect my neighbour – I think the pandemic has highlighted our symbiotic relationship as a community regarding transmission of the virus. Us Kiwis have been very fortunate in that the we had a long sabbatical from lockdowns so as the article pointed out – the record time in lockdown goes to Melbourne and so we would expect most people to suffer from lockdown fatigue and vent their frustration when an opportunity occurs – but many people would feel that venting and exacerbating a situation do not pay dividends in the end if it prolongs things – in practical terms – epidemiology dictates that we pursue sensible and constructive pathways to mitigate the disaster. Are my rights alienated if I have to put a fence around my swimming pool? Put my dog on a leash? Drive slowly in a school zone? Use an electric car or walk more? From the utilitarian philosophical homeland of the USA, rights are placed upon a pedestal – but what if that pedestal as the article so succinctly highlights – supplants the very heart of the Church – transplanting a foreign entity with the core value of love and in the USA for example – the philosphy of utility. This dissonance that is created adds to the confusion and malaise because of our global outbreak – this makes it more daunting (Global not regional climate change for example hightens our fears) and creates that apocalyptic mindset generated by scale. The answer: go back to the core Christian value of love or if secular, to the utility of an action that works – love is contradicted by an action that endangers my neighbour or utility is compromised if my insistence on my right prolongs a pandemic. Either way – the majority have held fast because of the consequences of anarchy if those core values are set aside, and substiuted with a poorly applied zeal for personal liberty. If it does not work, do not do it or if love is set aside for another value that undermines love than both our fundamental philosophical ideals and religious values will be substituted for fear-based distorted actions like rioting or making unsound demands from Government. Governments are already reeling from a plethora of issues initiated by COVID and the need to express our fears and frustration can be accomplished without recourse to actions that endanger the lives of others.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s a completely different world we live in with this pandemic. It’s united people all over the world to fight the war on this virus, at the same time it has divided people. When we first went into lockdown here in Melbourne and Victoria, and knowing the hundreds of thousands of lives that were being affected the same right around the world, it seemed so surreal like the falling of the Twin Towers, Sept 11. People can still remember where they were back then and what they were doing at the time they first heard that news! For me it brings to life biblical prophecy and the vulnerability of humankind. We are not so all self-sufficient as we think we are. What if we were hit with more than one pandemic, potentially we could be nearly all wiped out because our resources would be too limited.

    Anyway, I digress. Relying on our resources as a united world, together, and through business, invention, etc, we live a luxurious, secure life. When this is threatened in any way, it reveals there is more to what we need. If we can turn to God in these times, then that might also be just that we are turning away from idolatry. This is the time to know that it is God we truly need, and anything on top of that is a blessing.

    May the Church be focussed on what really counts.

    Liked by 1 person


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