Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Emblem of Identity Crisis

It's been a long time since I last blogged as I've been rather caught up lately with writing my PhD thesis.  However, a thought struck me the other day that I haven't been able to shake so I decided it might be worth sharing.

Like many Salvation Army officers, my wardrobe is lined with quite a few white shirts.  The difficult morning choice used to be whether I would wear a long sleeved or short sleeved shirt.  Now I have a new problem - which logo to choose from?


This might seem like a silly thing to dwell on (and it probably is) but I think it's actually quite symbolic of an organisational crisis in identity and mission that I've been talking about for some time now.  To the casual observer, it may be curious for an organisation to have two logos but not overly significant - it's not unheard of for a company to rebrand or change their logo.  However, what is unusual is that the image on the right, the iconic red shield of The Salvation Army, is one of the best known and recognised brands in Australia (it's known worldwide of course).  You don't change your brand if it's the symbol of your success - and yet, on our uniforms at least, we did.

Now, I don't know why that happened but here's a few guesses at contributing factors.  The red shield is widely recognised as the symbol of a charitable organisation, known for their good works in the community, helping the homeless, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger and the forgotten.  That all sounds pretty good but there are many Salvationists who think that the acclaim of our social services has overshadowed the movement's identity as a Christian church.  In the logo on the left, the letter 'T' in Salvation has been shaped in the image of a cross to explicitly affirm this Christian identity.

Now perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but since when was compassionate service to the poor and marginalised an insufficient symbol of Christianity?  Did someone really suggest that instead of being associated with charitable works in the community, it would be better to start again with a wonky cross in the middle of our organisation's name?  To me, the red shield has always encompassed our historic Christian identity as the driving motivation of a world-changing movement. However, I'm not sure that discarding it didn't send a message about what's important and what's not. These two logos actually represent quite different ideas of who we are and what we do - and they reflect competing ideas about identity and mission in The Salvation Army.  This isn't about corps versus social programs, it's about how big our notion of salvation actually is.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Thinking about sex (again)

I’m spending this weekend talking and listening about sex.  With perhaps a few exceptions, most people I know don’t relish these conversations.  On the whole we haven’t been particularly well socialised to talk openly and publicly about sex and sexuality and those of us within the church are quite a few steps behind the rest of society in this regard.  As you can imagine, there’s been moments of discomfort, some awkward squirming at times and lots of laughter, because that’s a common way to deal with difficult topics.

The subject has come up as the key area of discussion for an annual Salvation Army conference called Thought Matters.  This year’s theme is ‘Honour God with your body: A Christian view of human sexuality’.  Whilst the matters under discussion haven’t been limited to same-sex relationships, it’s not surprising that these have had a fair bit of attention.  We’ve had some excellent presentations with, what I imagine has been, a massive effort in preparation to ensure a range of perspectives, a balanced viewpoint overall and great care not to offend anyone in the process.  Now that I say that, I realise perhaps why I’m not down as a speaker this year.

You see, I think there’s great danger in pretending to be balanced here.  This isn’t just about competing concepts.  We’re not dealing in abstractions.  It’s not like debating the nature of the Trinity or the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin.  It is deeply  personal and there are real human casualties.  For me, that has to be our starting point.  To take a position of neutrality, while opponents work their way through theoretical arguments, is to side with the status quo and the status quo is hurting people.

Today we heard some truly compelling personal stories from people who have been hurt by their experience of church, and specifically by The Salvation Army.  I can’t imagine anyone in the room wasn’t touched in some way and a number were certainly brought to tears, myself included.  We can’t fix this by saying sorry if we don’t in fact stop hurting people right now.  We need to take responsibility for the messages that we put out that tell LGBT people that they are wrong, deviant, unacceptable to us and to God, because these messages are causing real and long-term damage.

Perhaps because of some of the tumultuous nature of the world right now, the notion that occurred to me as a way forward is that we need to institute an immediate ‘ceasefire’.  It may be that the solutions we are seeking are still some way off and, as much as we might want to hurry them along, there is no evidence that this is likely to happen.  So the least we can do is to stop the rate of casualties in the meantime.  As the party with the most power in this situation, The Salvation Army will have to make the most compromises in order for a ‘ceasefire’ to be effective.  I don’t have a clear or comprehensive idea about what this might look like but some possible features could include:
  • We stop making public statements about other people’s sexuality.  (Frankly, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think we have any credibility in this area anyway)
  • We do make intentional and specific statements and efforts to welcome LGBT people into our corps unconditionally.
  • We work on the default assumption that LGBT people can participate as fully in corps ministries as anyone else, rather than figuring out reasons why they can’t.

None of this is to presuppose a permanent solution.  There will still be much discussion to be had and that discussion will need to prioritise the active participation of those most affected.  However, I can’t help but think that if we stop the processes and activities that are currently causing so much hurt and pain in people’s lives, then perhaps, just maybe the discussion might be a little more fruitful because its context is one of genuine love and grace rather than pain.

I know that for some people, even a temporary move like this will appear to be a grievous compromise of dearly held principles.  I’m honestly not sure what to say to those people.  I understand their viewpoint but I can’t with any integrity accept that the church can harm people in the way that it has been doing and not take responsibility for its own complicity in that.


It has to be more than a battle of ideas and we won’t be able to take any pleasure in what we perceive is the moral high ground, while LGBT people continue to feel self-hatred and loathing to the degree that they do, and while they continue to self-harm and suicide at the rates that currently exist.  The church isn’t the only cause of these things but followers of Jesus should never be counted amongst those who crucify others. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

How does a straight guy become a rainbow flag bearer in The Salvation Army?

So, it’s the International Day against Homophobia today.  It’s become a day that I can’t let pass without some reflection and usually a rave of some sort.  The Salvation Army has a wonderful tradition of testimony, so I thought today I’d apply myself to the task of testifying about my journey towards the inclusion of LGBT folks in my life and the life of the church to which I belong.

I grew up in a culture that was overtly anti-gay.  The word ‘poofter’ was a derogatory epithet hurled across the school playground at regular intervals to anyone who crossed the line of unpopularity.  Their offence didn’t have to reflect anything at all characteristic of male homosexuality, it was just a punishment for someone that wasn’t liked at that moment.  The equivalent today would be the way that young people say things like “That’s so gay”, meaning that something is stupid or ‘lame’ without pausing for a moment to consider the implications of associating a particular sexual orientation with stupidity.

I never really gave this much thought at the time, though I’m sure I was both the giver and receiver of this term as a weapon of schoolyard abuse.  It also never occurred to me that people in my school could actually be gay.  I was much too busy chasing girls to consider that any of my peers might have objects of desire that were of our own sex – or that some of those girls might not be interested in me because they’d prefer to be with another girl.  In retrospect it seems rather blind of me not to have noticed this more but I guess you get to be a bit self-absorbed as a teenager.

I guess the first gay people I noticed were those that came out publicly – usually celebrities or notable people of some sort.  Many were musicians and as a musician myself, I had long ago learned to judge people on their music and not worry about anything else.  Their sexuality didn’t affect me directly and I just assumed that some people were naturally like that.  On reflection, this assumption may reflect the fact that I didn’t grow up in the church, so I never had any kind of indoctrination to suggest that same-sex attraction was a choice that people might make against God’s desire for humankind.

The first time I became aware of heterosexism and homophobia within the church was an assignment that I did in my first year of theological studies.  I was in my late teens and had only been a Christian for about a year myself and the discipleship processes that I’d gone through were much more oriented on curbing my own heterosexual impulses towards the young women within my social circles at the time.  It was the late 1980s, the time of the Grim Reaper ads that fuelled a degree of panic and prejudice about HIV/AIDS.  In my Pastoral Care and Counselling class, I took up an essay about how the church should treat people infected with HIV.  In my research, I was shocked at the open discrimination against gay people that suddenly seemed so predominant in the church.  Even then, I couldn’t help but wonder if homosexuality was really a choice that people made against God but the key issue for me was how people who claimed to love God could be so unloving against other humans, specifically those who were ill and suffering what was commonly understood as a death sentence at that time.  The idea of HIV/AIDS as the judgement of God on the gay community didn’t just rest uneasily with me but created a distinct disturbance within.  I couldn’t help but get up and walk out of church when I heard one officer preach this from the platform one Sunday.

Over time, I got to know gay and lesbian people as people long before I found out about their sexuality.  Some of them were my colleagues, working alongside me doing their best to build a better world and care for those who had been marginalised by society.  I can’t imagine how I could ever have constructed a worldview that saw them in any way as inferior to myself – or worse still, condemned in some way to eternal punishment for who they were and the people they loved.  They were, and are, people of deep compassion, great commitment and have given sacrificially of their lives in service to others.  Could God really ignore this in order to focus on what went on in their bedrooms?

I also got to know people who came to The Salvation Army for help who had been bruised and battered, physically and emotionally, because of their sexuality.  All too often the perpetrators of this abuse had been people in their churches, which added a dimension of spiritual abuse to their trauma.  I came across people who had been taught to hate themselves because of attraction to their own gender, who had harmed themselves, who had contemplated and even attempted suicide because they thought that they were abominations in the sight of God.  I couldn’t, and can’t, believe in any kind of God that would want that to happen.

I tried to get my head inside the opposing arguments – was the Bible really as clear on this subject as people said?  I studied the handful of passages that appear to reference same-sex activity in the scriptures.  I looked at them in Hebrew and in Greek and scoured dozens of commentaries seeking insight.  What I learned didn’t give me clarity about a singular biblical position – it revealed a multitude of positions on a variety of behaviours and relationships, none of which seemed to reflect anything like the same-sex relationships I had witnessed and most of which simply mirrored the kind of prejudices and social attitudes that one might expect from their historical contexts.  I struggled to believe that God could really be the author of such hatred.

I was once asked to share my exegetical insights on this subject at a Christian conference and afterwards I was shocked that none of those present in that session really challenged my conclusions about the scriptures.  The dominant questions were no longer about the Biblical messages but instead sought affirmation in the hope that people would be able to ‘pray away the gay’.  I had naively thought that those who seemed to be saying that the Bible was the biggest barrier to their acceptance of same-sex relationships might be swayed by a deeper investigation of the biblical passages in question.  Instead, it seemed like a nagging discomfort with homosexuality was at the root of people’s prejudice and if the Bible wasn’t the most effective tool to sustain their viewpoints, then the ground could easily be shifted sideways to a less empirical space for discussion.  Since then, the evidence of the overwhelming failure of gay ‘conversion’ ministries seems to be well and truly in – though those most determined will persist I’m sure.

Much has happened to affirm my understanding of the boundless love of God that embraces people of diverse sexualities and genders.  I’ve been blessed to witness and occasionally to be a part of the healing that comes into people’s lives when they are truly accepted for who they are.  I’d like to think that I’ve played my part in beginning to repair some of the damage that the church has done to gay and lesbian people by affirming God’s unconditional love for them and demonstrating their value to the world, the church and myself.  The relatively minor costs that I have borne along the way have only helped me to share a fraction of insight into the wounds that my gay brothers and sisters have had inflicted upon them by others for years.

I don’t expect to change the world.  When it comes down to it, I don’t even think I can change one other person.  Frankly, it’s hard enough to change those parts of myself that could do with a bit of improvement.  But I can’t stand by and be silent while the church that I’m a part of continues to discriminate and cause pain to people because of their sexuality.  This is my journey and here I stand.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Public occasions and gender matters

It might surprise a few people but I really don't mean to be controversial. I'm writing this off the back of a Facebook status that gathered much more attention than I expected. Giving a fair response to those who commented on this status was going to take much more than I could reasonably squeeze onto Facebook, so I've chosen this space to capture my thoughts instead. In order to preserve the context, here's the status that I originally put up:

"Of all the weirdness that is Commissioning, tonight's highlight is sending the women of each married couple across the stage to pick up their kids before receiving their appointments. How very 1950's!"

Before I get into why I feel the need to give an extended response to some of the comments, I have a few initial comments to set the scene:

1. I don't want to take anything away from the signficance of Commissioning for those who were involved. They were my students, are now my fellow officers and deserve to be congratulated, not simply for making it through Training College, but for their commitment to ministry within The Salvation Army. Thanks to one person's comment, I now understand that the decision about who went to receive their children was made by each couple, so the predominance of women taking on this role was perhaps simply coincidental.

2. I acknowledge that men and women are different in some ways. Whilst the details of what, how and why are highly debated, that's got nothing to do with my original point. I'm also pretty sure that the parenting roles in each of the families that were represented are more evenly shared at home than how they appeared on stage. I'm only making a point about the latter and why it matters. So, why does this matter at all?

Firstly, let me explain why I described what happens at Commissioning as 'weirdness'. It's perhaps important to say that I don't even mean this as a derogatory term. I enjoy almost all of what happens at Commissioning and have been a regular attender since I first became part of The Salvation Army. I was even commissioned once myself. However, I'm keenly aware that it's an event for insiders. Much of the language, concepts and symbols are tailored to Salvationists - and perhaps even more significantly, an older generation of Salvationists. Put yourselves in the shoes of an 'outsider' for a moment and imagine their confusion when someone shouts 'Fire a volley!' or people start clapping all over the place during singing (which may include songs that you're just meant to know because the words may not be on the screen). I could go on but hopefully you get the point. It is about pageantry and sometimes even in-jokes, and it makes those of us who are insiders feel good about being in a very special club. There's absolutely a place for such events and Commissioning is probably one of them - but that doesn't mean that it's not weird at times.

I think that symbols matter. That's why the flag is important, as is the shield, the crest, our uniforms (yes, I was there sweating it out in full navy). However, symbols also include what we do and who does it. This gathers even more importance at an event like Commissioning, which I suspect is the best attended Salvation Army event annually across the Territory. This is the place and time when we gather together to affirm our identity as a movement and specifically acknowledge the new breed of officers who are starting their journey as the both the representatives of a glorious tradition and the vanguard of what we will be tomorrow. Everything about Commissioning says something to someone about who we are and who we want to be. This includes who's on the platform, what they wear, how they behave (I'm sure many officers remember learning how to sit correctly on the platform for Commissioning) and what they say. It's expected for the Staff Band to be there - even though only a minority of Corps have brass bands anymore. Same goes for the Staff Songsters. There's a very good chance we'll sing Boundless Salvation and finish the night Storming the Forts of Darkness. It's all very intentionally arranged and nothing happens by accident.

Throughout the comments on my Facebook status, it became evident that some people had noticed the same thing that I did and others either didn't notice or didn't care. I guess that's only to be expected but the reason that I care is that I think what we notice and what we don't is very important (and as I say this, I have to confess that there's a lot that I don't pick up on!). The things we take for granted are usually the things we should think most about. They are often the signs of power in our society - power that goes unnoticed, and therefore unquestioned, is the most pervasive of all. It's this kind of power that is behind both explicit and subtle forms of oppression. One of the most challenging aspects to this is that it's much harder to see the dimensions of these power dynamics if you are one of its benefactors. I'm a perfect example - as a white, straight, middle-class, tertiary educated, Australian-born male in this country, I'm on the 'winning side'. Those who are the victims of power struggles can see what's happening far more clearly than I can. I need to train myself to become attuned to all of the subtle but pervasive ways in which the power that I benefit from is effected around me. I am still learning to do this when it comes to gender differences, despite some training in feminist perspectives and some great examples around me. Because of this, I'm better than I was at picking up the multitude of ways in which women are treated differently in our wider society and in The Salvation Army.

As a husband, brother, son and father of two daughters, I've got a vested interest in some of the women who have been and will be impacted by different pay scales, glass ceilings in the workplace, loss of sick days due to childcare and reduced superannuation, in addition to generally carrying the greater burden of household tasks. Despite the way we celebrate an early commitment to equality in ministry for women in The Salvation Army, it's pretty clear that there are different rules and opportunities for women and men in our own organisation as well. This is why something apparently small matters. Because in both our society and The Salvation Army, women experience disadvantages and a reduction in opportunities just because of their gender. There's a long and powerful history of patriarchy that won't be broken down overnight but small symbols such as a father being the first to pick up their young child in a public event - or even both parents going together - can be an important step in the right direction. This is true for those who didn't notice what happened last night and for those who did. The dynamics of power are such that even unintentional acts can reinforce the domination systems that we exist within and that, unchallenged, continue to shape our lives.

Well, that's a long rave for a Monday morning. I want to finish by saying that none of this is to cast blame on those involved. The madness of the Commissioning weekend is such that I'm sure a range of decisions get made without the opportunity for deep reflection. Perhaps this itself illustrates the significance of our default positions, the paths of least resistance. Let me be clear, I'm not saying that what happened shouldn't have occurred. I support the right of each family to make the kind of decision they did. I just think that it is worth thinking about and sometimes what seems to be little things have a greater significance than initially realised.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Being and Becoming

One of my essential tips as a driving instructor to my daughters was "look in the direction that you're going". One might assume this to be self-evident until the moment that you realise that the car is reversing and the driver is looking forwards and suddenly the importance of stating what previously appeared to be obvious becomes clear.

As The Salvation Army's sesquicentennial (150th) celebrations approach, the theme of looking back and looking forward has been increasingly on my mind. I'm a first generation Salvationist, so I don't come from a long line of Salvo ancestors. My blood just runs red like ordinary folk, not the yellow, red and blue kind that comes from some of those revered genealogies. However, I do have a strong appreciation for the history and traditions of The Salvation Army. I've eagerly consumed countless stories of the early years of the Army, wading my way through a multitude of fascinating books and other historical artifacts. I've been drawn in by the development of William Booth's theology and approach to mission, the relationships in his family and so many of the other colourful characters that shaped this incredible movement.

Yet, I'm also keenly aware that an unchecked preoccupation with history could resign us to its pages. Even more seriously, I've occasionally discerned an attitude amongst some Salvationists that they would rather see the Army 'die with integrity', than change. Whilst this sounds very noble, it seems to me that it's based on two very false notions. One is an overly sentimental idea of what has been. It usually reflects something closer to the era that this person has grown up in than the formative years of the Army and reads history through this anachronistic lens. The second misconception is a denial that The Salvation Army has not already undergone massive change and continues to do so.

There's a well-known philosophical quandary about the ship of Theseus. The ship was so well maintained over many years that in order to preserve it as well as possible, every single plank, nail, sail and oar was replaced. Philosophers disagree over whether the end result is still the same ship. There are a multitude of variations to this story. Another focuses on George Washington's axe, which since Washington's time has had its handle replaced 3 times and its head twice. Our own bodies are living testaments to this paradox of continuity and discontinuity with cells dying and being replaced all the time.

There will always be debates about what constitutes the core elements of Salvation Army identity and which parts we can dispose with in order to meet changing times and contexts. Sometimes, and sadly, I've seen people use their idea of what's authentic to marginalise or exclude others - for instance, on the basis of status (uniform/position), theology (doctrinal positions or interpretations), or function (the classic church/social divide). However, what I think we need to do right now is make a more critical assessment of where we are today. What does The Salvation Army really look like today and how much is our present form indicative of our identity? Be wary of easy answers when it comes to considering this question. Our international presence alone suggests more heterogeneity than we might automatically assume.

If we're honest about what we've already become, then we might have some hope of shaping what we're becoming tomorrow. If we kid ourselves about the present or the past, then the future's assured - and it's not bright.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

An Army of Paradox

The Salvation Army's military imagery is a vital part of our organisational identity. I've written extensively before about the meaning of 'Salvation' in our movement's name and the need for this not to be construed too narrowly. It's now time to turn to the 'Army' part because I'm becoming increasingly convinced that overly literal interpretations of this military signifier also threaten to undermine our Christian identity.

It's only fair to begin with the recognition that being a Christian 'army' in the 19th century probably didn't have the cringe factor that it gained for many people in the 20th century. If that wasn't challenged by two world wars, it certainly became an issue by the 1960s and for the generations that followed who chanted "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing".

The inherent discomfort in the juxtaposition of Christian faith and military imagery finds its root in Jesus' call to non-violence (Matt 5:38-40;26:52). However, as long as you can imagine an army of non-violent love, then the problem goes away. Unfortunately, that's exactly the kind of paradoxical idea that most Westerners struggle with. The closest we come to embracing paradox is usually irony - and it's not really the same thing.

Despite these challenges, I think there is real opportunity here. The context just means that we have to be even more explicit about our non-violent approach. We can affirm our identity as an army and every time we do so, we need to reiterate what this means. It means that we take the inclusive love that Jesus proclaimed very seriously indeed. It is something that we're prepared to fight for but in this case, fighting means laying down our swords in the same way that Jesus lay down his life. Whilst other armies have to learn to hate their enemies, we embrace love of enemy. Our real enemies are never people but the oppressive systems and circumstances that drain people of life and of love.

If we can begin to embrace the centrality of this paradox in our organisational identity, then all sorts of additional possibilities also open up. How can we affirm the idea of a uniform without imposing uniformity? How do we embody servant leadership in the midst of an evident hierarchy of power? How can we demonstrate the genuine inclusivity of the Kingdom in a world which is always asking us to take sides?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Reinventing religion

I've been struck a number of times recently by Christians accusing others (including myself) of trying to reinvent religious ideas.  The basic argument goes like this: the key elements of our faith have been revealed (through the Bible, our doctrines, etc) and our task is to share these in faithfulness to the tradition which has handed them down to us.  Any attempt to redefine theological concepts in order to make them more palatable to contemporary society is a slippery slope leading to heresy.

I've just got two problems with this line of thinking:

Firstly, I think that the process of finding effective ways to talk about God in your own culture is the primary task of theology.  God cannot be trapped in traditions, in words and phrases, no matter how much we have venerated them.  God doesn't need to be guarded or protected.  Furthermore, when we try and limit God's self-revelation to culturally and historically confined expressions of someone else's faith, we risk missing what the Spirit is doing now because we've created an idol of orthodoxy.

Secondly, any student of history and theology knows that this reinterpretive process has been happening for millennia.  For Christians, it starts with the Bible, which witnesses repeatedly to the creative reimagining of theological themes in different historical periods and across a variety of cultural contexts.  Such revisioning inevitably happens in translation to different languages and as each language develops (anyone noticed that few people speak in Shakespearean English anymore?).  Even in relatively new religious expressions such as The Salvation Army, we've already had multiple versions of the Handbook of Doctrine trying to explain our faith to new generations - and there were several versions of these doctrines in our early history.  There has never been a perfect point in time, in which theological concepts reached an objective expression that will last for all time and which can be applied without modification to all cultures.

Does this mean that everything's up for grabs? No, it doesn't.  Being faithful to a tradition means that we should look back and understand those who have gone before us and why they expressed their beliefs in the ways that they did.  Every theologian needs to find that space, between heresy and the idolatry of doctrine, which allows them to communicate the gospel effectively to those around them and in faithfulness to those who have gone before.  To help with that task, we have three important guides: an incredibly rich historical and theological tradition, the community of faith in which we exist and the Spirit that inspires us to articulate anew those things which matter most.  It's not an easy task, however, it's the only way forward because for the Church to simply try and defend the past is not only naive but a recipe for demise.