CHAPTER 2 - WHEN WORDS KILL!
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The Honourable Rev Fred Nile, Shaming the Other.
Shame for societies often comes about when cultural norms are challenged. How often though has the shame reverted back on the shamer? Over many years conservative and homophobic Christians, Catholic and Protestant have vilified LGBTIQ+ people as being sinful, demon-possessed, and different to “God’s norm”. It was always a sinful choice in their view.
A horrible example of this in my country Australia was the Festival of Light which shed darkness on the lives of many queer folk in its heydey led by its now aging founder Rev Fred Nile. Successor in the political sphere has been the Australian Christian Lobby which is known more by its opposition to the LGBTIQ+ community than the love and kindness that typified early Christians.
Nile’s Wikipedia page claims, that he born in 1934, was ordained as a Congregational minister in 1964. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Nile) He held leadership roles in various evangelical organisations, including being the assistant director of the 1968 Billy Graham Crusade in Sydney which attracted many thousands of people.
In 1974, Nile was elected national co-ordinator and the New South Wales director of the Australian Federation of Festival of Light – Community Standards Organisation (FOL-CSO), an organisation that campaigned for “purity, love and family life". It’s clearest target over the years soon became the LGBTIQ+ community which was to be denied at all costs “purity, love and family life”. It is now known as Family Life Australia.
Nile went on to pursue a political career in both State and Federal Governments to further his aims. Currently, he is the longest-serving member of the NSW Parliament at the age of 86.
The Honourable Rev Fred Nile, (his parliamentary title, is a passionate believer in Jesus Christ and believes he is serving God by advocating against LGBTIQ+ people. Wikipedia states that “he is known for his vocal opposition to drug use, violence against women and children and the "mistreatment of the Aboriginal community" by state and federal governments. Whilst these are very worthy causes and to be applauded, he has however been most often quoted over the years by the media on issues relating to pornography, abortion and homosexuality.
Trying to understand the thinking of Fred Nile is quite a challenge. For me, it is best understood by his 2003 resignation from the Uniting Church in Australia when that church "officially decided to part with a literal interpretation of the Judeo-Christian Bible". As someone who spent years in a fundamentalist Christian cult, I understand the importance and the irrelevance of the irrational choice to claim that Scriptures written by various people in vastly different circumstances and times stand as “the written word of God” with all the authority that carries.
The world’s battle with the Covid pandemic has been won and lost by those claiming a rational response based on the best science and medicine available, compared to those who have claimed otherwise or tried to ignore or minimise the threat. Imagine where we would be if we had used the best medicine and science available from the first century AD to battle this disease, yet some use the Bible, the Koran and other Scriptures to argue for or against Psychology, Neurology and other sciences. In many ways, this is like arguing for flat earth when NASA and the space race has more than adequately provided evidence, if we needed it, of a beautiful three-dimensional globe as our home
I love the Bible but I am selective as to what I endorse. The extermination of peoples by God and his servants, no, whereas love and mercy and justice yes, as can be found throughout.
Giving Nile his due, he is on the record as being totally opposed to any violence or attacks directed against homosexual men or lesbians. Unfortunately, what most religious leaders, like Nile, don’t recognise is that there are terrible ramifications for ordinary people from the words they use to condemn whole communities whose sexuality and beliefs are different to their own. Words can kill.
In Africa, where the focus of the charity in which I am involved works, Humanity in Need - Rainbow Refugees, the ramifications have resulted in displacement, suicide, murder, rape, and families disowning and stoning a once-beloved son or daughter. Police raping a lesbian, trans person or a gay man is justified because to them and the homophobes of Africa they are evil people who don’t matter.
Now I remember 1978, the year the queer community launched its Sydney Gay Mardi Gras which is now, Covid apart, a large celebration of the uniqueness of the human spirit and of difference. At the time as told in the book I wrote with my brother John “My Brother’s Eyes” I was a member of a fundamentalist Christian group that shared many beliefs with Rev Fred Nile and the Festival of Light.
Yet I can remember at one point recognising the importance to a hurting community that they turn the tables, change the narrative, and celebrate who they were and who they loved through a public display. This was so important because queer people had been for too long vilified, objectified and “othered” by religious leaders and a conservative world that clearly despised them.
I’m not sure when I began to feel that Mardi Gras owed a debt of enormous gratitude to Fred Nile and his good Christian friends who faithfully echoed his calls for their definition of morality as they marched and protested those who chose to be sinners in the parade. The shame they cast on the sinners in the parade in my view is a shame that has blasphemed the name of a merciful God they claim to serve.
In 2011, Nile was disgusted to learn that Penny Wong, a Labor Party federal government minister, was celebrating the pregnancy of her same-sex partner and said "I'm totally against a baby being brought up by two mothers," and "She needn't have made it public. It just promotes their lesbian lifestyle and trying to make it natural where it's unnatural."
Years later, in the early 2000s, when I led evangelical mission organisation International Needs Australia, I sang with a group for the graduation of students from Churches of Christ Theological College (now known as Stirling College honouring a great Christian leader, a generous and loving man, Gordon Stirling, who I was privileged to know). A friend who had been very supportive of me and my family when we first moved to Melbourne was horrified when a young woman thanked those at the college for their acceptance of her difference, and their love for her during her time in studies, before publicly thanking and honouring her same-sex partner. My friend was horrified and felt, like Nile had about Penny Wong, that she should have been ashamed of her sin, rather than publicly declaring it.
Shame is in the eye of the beholder. I’m so glad the world has changed a lot since then and Australia has, to Fred Nile and his cohort’s horror legalised same-sex marriage. As an authorised Civil Marriage Celebrant I have performed a number of same-sex marriages and marvel each time at the normality of the love and union I see in the couples I have been privileged to marry. I have also seen long term loving relationships from those in the queer community that literally put to shame some heterosexual marriages where love has left the room.
Those who know the Honourable Rev Fred Nile personally believe he has been misunderstood in the media, and yet there is no doubt over his career his public pronouncements against homosexuality and other sexual “abnormalities” have caused immense pain and suffering to a whole community of people. A fact sheet from “Suicide Prevention Australia” stated that:
”The 2020 iteration of Private Lives found 41.9% of LGBTIQ people had considered suicide in the previous 12 months, with 78.4% considering suicide at some point during their lives.
Compared to the general population, LGBTIQ people have significantly higher rates of attempted suicide.
LGBTIQ young people aged 16 to 27 are five times more likely to attempt suicide (16% report attempting suicide).
Transgender people aged 18 and over are nearly eleven times more likely to attempt suicide (48.1% report attempting suicide).
People with an intersex variation aged over 16 are six times more likely to attempt suicide (19% report attempting suicide)
LGBTIQ people are less likely to access help when in crisis. A study by La Trobe University (Melbourne) found 75.3% of LGBTIQ participants did not use a crisis support service during a recent personal or mental health crisis.
Nile, like so many other conservative religious leaders, has described homosexuality as a "mental disorder," and a "lifestyle choice," that is "immoral, unnatural and abnormal".
Yet in the first centuries of Christianity, followers of Christ were not known by what they opposed but rather by the love and kindness they shared. They were known by a love, (John 13:35), that was an example to the world around them.
Emperor Julian Caesar wrote to Arsacius, High-priest of Galatia about 362 AD:
“... it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.” The example of Galilaeans prompted him to order that provision be made to provide sustenance to the poor and the wider community.
Too often in our modern world, Christianity is known by the condemnation spoken against people in society that the broader world is coming to recognise should have equal rights and recognition. Rather than society being shamed by the good deeds of Galilaeans as with Julian’s letter, the opposite is the effect. Yet, within those churches where leaders condemn homosexuality, for example, because of narrow interpretations of ancient scriptures, there is little or no accountability. If the words of a popular Pastor or Priest, lead to the isolation and exclusion from the welcome of their congregations, there is no-one to bring the speaker to account.
2. Lachie, an Honourable man, Shamed by his church.
Recently, a good friend of mine, and proud father of five children, Ian James, told a small group of us about the post of his recently out gay son, Lachlan. Ian was so proud of a courageous post that Lachie shared on his Facebook page prompted by debate about a bill in the Victorian Parliament to outlaw the practice of “Conversion therapy” which many gay and lesbian people have suffered when there was no acceptance or recognition of their same-sex attraction within their religious community. Thank you Lachie for the courage you show in sharing your story publicly, and being willing for me to quote from it here.
In his post Lachie was painfully honest about his experiences within his church. My concern for him and so many like him is that when words are spoken by Pastors, Priests and others or by the political leader Rev Fred Nile who holds them to account? Their words kill not only the soul but in some cases the very life of the subjects of their words.
The bill passed in the Victorian Parliament that Lachie refers to may be just a beginning. If only we could all look into the eyes of those we harm and truly empathise with their humanity, how different our world could be.
On his Facebook page Lachie James wrote”
“One week ago, the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 was passed by the Victorian Parliament.
Throughout this process, I have read countless comments from people on both sides of the conversation. On one hand, people argue that this bill is designed to protect a vulnerable group in our community. On the other hand, people argue that this bill is poorly worded and will infringe upon practices like prayer within the family home.
However, my views on this bill are shaped by my own experiences of conversion therapy.
In 2009 I was 19 years old. I was scared, highly vulnerable, and totally unwilling to accept that I was gay. In great secret, I confided this to a pastor who recommended I seek counselling at Crossway”.
(Crossway Baptist Church is one of Australia’s largest Baptist churches and is located in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. It is claimed that overall attendance for 2016 was 6,675. Well known throughout Australia, Crossway provides a wide range of religious activities and community support services throughout the week.)
Lachie continues: “This counsellor told me that I was demon-possessed and he attempted to exorcise me. When this failed, he sent me to a ‘prayer ministry’ that involved two people who spent the day attempting to expel demons while shouting that my love for others is evil and satanic. Following this, I was sent to a group where I had to stand in front of everyone and call myself a ‘sexaholic’ because I had these unwanted feelings. I attended these group sessions 3-5 times a week for a full eighteen months.
Ten years later, I am still trying to process and deal with the pain from this therapy.
Why would I speak up? Sadly, the same messages that I heard during these sessions are still being used regularly today by well-intentioned Christians. To contextualise and hopefully humanise these comments, all you have to do is replace the word ‘gay’ with my name.”
In Lachie’s newsfeed on Facebook there have been many claims by conservative Christians in regard to homosexuality, including that gay people can be fixed with conversion therapy. Others have been even extraordinary unkind and cruel. Lachie quoted some of them in his post replacing the words “homosexuality, or gay” with his own name to illustrate how hurtful they were.
“•Lachie falling in love is comparable to paedophilia and bestiality.
•Lachie shouldn’t be allowed to marry.
•Lachie getting married is a threat to families.
•Lachie doesn’t love, it’s only lust.
•Lachie cannot be a good parent.
•Being Lachie is a choice.”
That last one cuts deep. I read it and my heart breaks for Lachlan because his sexuality is an essential part of who he is and yet those who would argue against it don’t realise how much their denial of his sexuality is a denial of his humanity. I’m so sorry, Lachie.
He wrote: “During the same-sex marriage plebiscite, my senior pastor released a public statement that included references to paedophilia and incest. This statement also used the line “as best as I can understand the Bible, I believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.” This line is repeated, to this day, by honest and well-intentioned people.
“However, we only have to look at history to understand how damaging this line can be. Decades ago, my close relatives were preparing to work overseas as missionaries. That is, until honest and well-intentioned people stated “as best as I can understand the Bible, I believe that couples should not be mixed race” and they were kicked out because she was white and he was not. More recently, my mum recalled how women were not allowed to preach at Crossway – previously called Blackburn Baptist - because honest and well-intentioned people stated “as best as I can understand the Bible, I believe that women should not teach or have authority over man”. These views were justified across centuries using verses lifted directly from scripture. However, we understand now that to apply these verses within today’s context would be both harmful and immoral. And now, a growing number of thoughtful and intelligent theologians and pastors are speaking up that the biblical authors were clearly not talking to a society where two men or women could enter into a faithful marriage.
But again, why would I speak up?
“I speak up because I am deeply concerned for young people who are hearing the message that, for the rest of their lives, they must never fall in love. For the rest of their lives, they must never have a partner or a family, two things that Christians celebrate as deep sources of joy, meaning, and purpose in life. I am concerned for people, young and old, who are told that a core part of who they are - and that they never chose – must be changed through prayer ministry or conversion therapy.”
I have to say that in reading his post again, I am deeply troubled that too many people of religious faith have remained silent on the issues that Lachie raises and I agree wholeheartedly when he writes: “...too many Christians appear more energised by a perceived threat to their rights rather than standing alongside the broken.”
Generously he concludes “If you want to chat, I am just a message away. Perhaps you just want to chat because there is someone you love who is in my shoes. Perhaps you want to chat because you disagree with every point that I have made. I am open to chat, but know I might not respond to your message right away. I am still healing and growing on this journey.
But let’s not do this journey alone.”
Crossway, like many churches throughout my city of Melbourne do some wonderful things in their communities and provide love and support to their members. Isn’t it time though for a public apology for all the Lachies who have been so terribly hurt and abused by a society that declared “being Lachie was a choice”.
In homophobic nations, often driven by conservative religious beliefs whether Christian, Moslem or other, words literally kill. For the queer folk we are supporting in Kenya, excluded from their families, their careers, and their nation the ramifications of hateful preachers are clear. In Kakuma Refugee Camp or in Nairobi the threat of starvation, violent physical and sexual attacks, denial of medical care and food, and death itself is never far away.
Where are the Christians who will stand with us for the love of God? Often, the love, support and care of atheists and agnostics put conservative “believers'' to shame when they won’t be seen as joining with people of various sexualities, races and beliefs to say enough is enough. I have atheist friends of whom I can say they are known by their love when the Bible claims Christians should be.
The next chapter features Belgium born Catholic priest, Father Damien whose love was clearly seen in his care of lepers in Hawaii. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th Century he touched lepers with genuine love and kindness when so many others shunned them. The chapter also features my friend, Emmanuel Kiyimba, a young gay refugee, an orphan from Uganda who you could say follows the example of Father Damien. The loving care he shows for those around him whether queer or not demonstrates that he is truly known by kindness, love and humility. Emmanuel heads our Kakuma Camp Uganda team and like Father Damien his empathy is inspired by his Christian faith.