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What changed us in 2015: the twin themes of terrorism and Christian freedom

CHRISTIAN LIVING | John Sandeman
Thursday 31 December 2015

For the Christian, 2015 has been a “time of trial,” a year of tests and lessons.

Two terrorists burst into the office of Charlie Hebdo—a French satirical weekly—on January 7, killing 11 in the building and a policeman on the way out.

Those killed included Charlie Hebdo’s maintenance worker, who was at the reception desk, and a mix of cartoonists and journalists.

This attack hit home to me, firstly because like Charlie, Eternity is a small publication with a close-knit staff, and also because I spent a great deal of my earlier career nurturing the sort of people that the terrorists hunted: cartoonists.

Eternity responded with a take-off of the cover Charlie published after the massacre, “Tout est pardonné” (“all is forgiven,” but suggesting that instead of Mohammed, they should have run a picture of Jesus, as we did).

Charlie Hebdo set two themes running that dominated the rest of the year. One, simply put, was terrorism.

Sadly for Paris, that attack on the magazine turned out NOT to be an isolated incident. For a moment in January it seemed as though it might be. It seems innocent now, but the argument ran, that Charlie Hebdo had been provocative, and that the attack on them would prove exceptional.

Charlie Hebdo also raised the issue of just how much discussion of religion, Islam or otherwise, and how provocatively it should be put, should take part in the public square. Like terrorism, that issue kept returning throughout 2015.

On Sunday February 22, ISIS released a video of a line of 21 Egyptian Christians, dressed in orange, being led by a line of 21 masked men in black along a beach in Libya to their execution. The Egyptian Bible Society gave us all a lesson in how to respond with the publication of a poem/tract “Two Rows by the Sea,” which compared the motives of the row of black clad ISIS executioners with the row of orange clad Egyptian Christians. Within 36 hours of the executions, the first of 1.6 million copies of the poem were ready for distribution across Egypt.

Two rows of men walked the shore of the sea,
On a day when the world’s tears would run free. 
One a row of assassins, who thought they did right,
The other of innocents, true sons of the light. 
One holding knives in hands held high,
The other with hands empty, defenseless and tied.
One row of slits to conceal glaring-dead eyes,
The other with living eyes raised to the skies.
One row stood steady, pallbearers of death,
The other knelt ready, welcoming heaven’s breath.
One row spewed wretched, contemptible threats,
The other spread God-given peace and rest.
A Question… Who fears the other?
The row in orange, watching paradise open?
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?

Watch the video version here.

The robust nature of the Egyptian Bible Society’s riposte to ISIS contrasted with nervousness within Western societies, especially of the left, in discussing Islam and terror. But if Islam was off-limits, vigorous and critical discussion of Christianity got stronger and stronger.

If it were not overshadowed by gloomier themes, 2015 would have been designated the year of the “gay wedding cake”. That is shorthand for the dilemma for conservative Christian suppliers of wedding products such as photography and bespoke confectionary to same sex marriage ceremonies.

It provoked the years fiercest debate in Eternity newspaper and online.

It is an interesting issue because it lies halfway through a spectrum of issues: On one side is the question “Should preachers be allowed to preach against same sex marriage?” Even the protagonist in an anti-discrimination case launched against Australia’s Catholic Bishops’ for the distribution of a “Don’t Mess with Marriage” pamphlet said she would not protest preaching in church. On the other-side, “Should grocery stores be allowed to refuse service to gays?” would have been answered “no” by the doughtiest defenders of traditional marriage.

“Gay cake” split the difference.

The United States Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges decision that ruled that gay couples had a fundamental right to marry may be what 2015 is most remembered for. But the dust has not settled: further anti-discrimination clauses (for example, in employment) by further court action or legislation is inevitably on the way. As with skirmishes in the US over abortion and healthcare, exactly where the boundaries of religious exemptions will rest will take some time to work out.

Meanwhile the toppling of Tony Abbott has brought the end closer to the heroic act of prevarication and delay to gay marriage in Australia that has been orchestrated by Jim Wallace, the former head of the Australian Christian Lobby. Wallace negotiated with the Rudd and Gillard governments to hold the line on gay marriage until a safe pair of hands in Tony Abbott took over. This year’s putsch in the Coalition means that we have entered a post-Wallace age where the impact of conservative Christians will be less.

While the same sex marriage plebiscite will loom large in the public square next year, perhaps the most significant development of 2015 has been the arrival of the transgender lobby in mainstream discussion. Retired Olympic decathlon champion Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce) a star of the “reality” TV show “Keeping up with the Kardashians” came out as a trans woman in a major media splash: an Annie Leibovitz cover of Vanity Fair and a record high rating prime time TV interview with Diane Sawyer.

The transgender issue has become unavoidable. It is a complicated discussion, with left wing lesbian groups finding a new appreciation of the strong gender definitions found among Christians, for example.

The space for discussing Christianity in public narrowed in 2015. Special Religious Education conducted by volunteers was removed from class time in Victorian Public Schools, and relegated to before or after school. A ban on three books (by three writers who have been published in Eternity Newspaper) by the NSW Department of Education meant that Special Religious Education (SRE) providers were asked to “stop using them immediately”. The ban on two of the books, You: An Introduction by Michael Jensen and the Sneaking Suspicion resource by John Dickson, was overturned by the Education minister. The third book, Teen Sex by the Book by Patricia Weerakoon has never been part of the SRE curriculum.

Christians can no longer think they have an automatic “right” to discuss their ideas in public places, or that they have an honoured place in the general community. There are now lobby groups opposed to public displays of religion. Coming to terms with how best to meet these challenges will be a major task for us next year.

Following Jesus in 2015 was not easy. It may have been a mistake for anyone to think it ever was. Western Christians should be reluctant to raise the cry of ‘persecution’ about ourselves, especially when we think of our brothers in desperate places. But we will be reminded that our Saviour has asked us to take up our cross daily.

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