As social media overflowed with Christian commentary on the same-sex marriage postal survey, a thought crossed my mind. Well many thoughts actually, but we’ll just focus on one for this article. I thought; I’m sure there’s something missing here. Like a conspicuously empty chair in the room. Where was the mass Christian response earlier this year when the federal Productivity Commission recommended Sunday penalty rates be scrapped?
In case you’ve forgotten or missed it the first time around, in February the Productivity Commission announced its findings that the extra loading hospitality and retail employees get for working on a Sunday should be removed and made the same as Saturday. The reasons were varied – from the idea that more hospitality venues would be able to open, that prices could come down, that consumer expectations have changed along with the way we relate to Sundays.
Not specifically mentioned, though surely implied in this, is the fact that religious beliefs which once defended Sunday as a holy day for rest and worship have declined in adherence and influence.
Now you’d have to say that’s true. But the question to be asked in the light of the current political climate is: where was the indignant Christian response? While unions and the Labor party very vocally opposed the changes, the church was deafening in its silence.
To be fair, the church wasn’t completely silent. The Australian Christian Lobby did make a well articulated statement against the changes, as did the social justice departments of the Catholic and Anglican churches. But I can say from experience that these statements would have hardly been heard by anyone who wasn’t looking for them. And why was the issue relegated to “social justice” anyway? Isn’t this a fairly serious attack on our “Christian society”? Where were the posters, facebook memes, the editorials in church newspapers? The sermons warning about the dire wider consequences? How can it be that Christians who believe the “safe schools” program is an attack on christian morality, or that Muslims are trying to take away Christmas; find no issue with a government body dismissing the ancient tradition of the Sabbath and saying just “for many workers Sunday work has a higher level of disutility than Saturday work, though the extent of the disutility is much less than in times past.”?
Now I should say here I don’t really believe in a legalistic definition of the Sabbath or other Old Testament laws. Nor does Jesus, who several times intentionally broke Sabbath laws to challenge that kind of thinking. Nor do I really believe in Christian religious beliefs being enforced on everyone by state power. But still, for reasons of Christian morality I oppose the cuts – because I believe that time spent on family, community and rest on Sundays is an important part of a balanced life and family; and should be the right of everyone. Because I believe hospitality and retail workers, already among the lowest earners, should be compensated for missing out on the social life high paid 9-5 workers are entitled to; and because I belief work and shopping are not supposed to be the things that run our life.
But also, a Christian approach to the issue should really go deeper than that. Because when it comes to greed and money; the bible doesn’t really take the moderate, balanced critique approach.
In fact, the great bogeymen of contemporary Christianity – secularism, sexual immorality, other religions – would hardly even when combined match the amount the bible comes out against money; either in frequency or stridency of criticism. Let’s dip in for a quick sample. From the words of Jesus there is
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.” (Luke 6);
Luke 18: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”;
Matthew 6: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Luke 12: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
Luke 16’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man gives no reason for the rich man’s “torment” after death other than that “in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things“.
The parable of the sower (Matthew 13) contains this: “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.“
That’s honestly just the beginning rather than a definitive overview; but let’s move on so we can hear from some other biblical voices, like Paul. Many would say Paul shifts the focus from the social reality of the gospels to a more Gnostic, spiritual idea of following God. Yet he is vocally critical of wealth: “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” (Phillipians 3) or famously; “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Tim 6).
To the same effect, but with a bit more rhetorical flourish, there is James: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” (James 5)
Not to mention Revelation’s depiction of the evil empire of Babylon (Revelation 17): “For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.” As Revelation depicts a victory of the kingdom of God over this empire of greed and power, we are told “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore… ‘Woe! Woe to you, great city, where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth! In one hour she has been brought to ruin!’”
Most emphatic of all, and one that is impossible for Christians to ignore, is Jesus’ extraordinarily blunt statement in Matthew 6: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
The biblical picture is pretty clear . Not only are the dictates of wealth dangerous and seductive; they are the opposite of the values of God. It is impossible to read it any other way. And yet one can’t help but think that at times Christians confuse God and Mammon. While the early church took Jesus at his word and gave away and collectivised all their wealth; these days we have a church that preaches the prosperity gospel – God wants you to be rich. Despite Jesus’ instructions in Luke 14 to specifically give money to those who can’t pay you back; the church has developed a doctrine of “sowing” into the offering plate – giving money believing it will return you more, as if God is some kind of divine stock market.
We have christian bookstores stuffed with books offering business advice. We have Christians believing that somehow Donald Trump represents the values of Jesus; that opposing healthcare for poor people is the duty of believers. We have committed Christian and former NSW Premier Mike Baird earning the nickname “Casino Mike” by defending the rights of casinos not to be subject to the lockout laws. The church, despite all the biblical warnings, has developed a dollar sign shaped blind-spot.
While unions are still campaigning against the changes to penalty rates, I can’t help but think the church could be the most powerful voice in reversing that law. And this is because the church can argue more than just economics or the right of a worker to enjoy a Sunday off. The church, equipped with the gospel of Jesus, can articulate an alternative society where it is love, not money, that is the guiding force – the kingdom of God.
That is, if we actually want to stop the changes to penalty rates. Plenty of people of people defend them. They say it’s good for the economy. They say society’s changed and the old rules of Monday-Friday 9-5 no longer apply. To be honest, I think a lot of people probably can’t conceive of Sunday leisure time that doesn’t involve there being hospitality and retail businesses open.
Which if you ask me, just goes to show that despite the claims of hopeful secularists and concerned Christians; society is not getting less religious. There are still two masters, we are just choosing one over the other.