The ultimatum that forced a chief executive officer of an Australian rules football club to choose between his faith and his employment has caused widespread concern among people of faith in Australia and for good reason.
Andrew Thorburn, a former CEO of NAB and the BNZ, lasted one day in his position at the Essendon Bombers club. This was after social media activists broke into outrage over his being chairman of City on the Hill church, which is affiliated with the Anglican church. (See story page 12).
The issue wasn’t anything Mr Thorburn had done himself. He merely had a leadership position in a Christian church in which some sermons – a decade ago – had stated views on abortion and homosexual acts that activists objected to. (It should be stated that linking abortion and concentration camps is problematic – as this newspaper has pointed out in a previous editorial. But the fact that abortion is a grave moral evil is a reasonably mainstream Christian belief.) He wasn’t aware of the sermons.
The fact that NAB bank has sponsored a “pride” round in the AFL when Mr Thorburn was CEO was not enough to save him.
Arguments from employment law specialists focused on two aspects – the right to be free from religious discrimination and the alleged conflict in values between the football club and the church which meant one could not theoretically have a leadership position in both.
The latter prevailed and Mr Thorburn expressed his views on how worrying this development is.
“It is troubling that faith or association with a church, mosque, synagogue or temple could render a person immediately unsuited to holding a particular role. That is a dangerous idea, one that will only reduce tolerance for others and diversity of thought and participation in our community and workplaces,” he is reported to have said after he resigned.
The Catholic archbishops of Melbourne and Sydney both decried this attempt to exclude a person with reasonably mainstream Christian beliefs from the public sphere.
We can see similar happenings in this country too. MP Simon O’Connor was firmly put in his place for publicly backing the Roe v Wade US Supreme Court ruling earlier this year.
And a series of media stories picking on small Christian schools over beliefs about marriage and gender identity led to a promise from the Associate Education Minister to have an urgent review of schools’ policies on “inclusivity”. It is not surprising that the New Zealand bishops’ recent guidelines on diversity in schools followed relatively soon afterwards.
The question for Christians is – where will it end?
The late Francis Cardinal George of Chicago is reported to have said in 2010 that “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square”.
Martyrdom is nothing new for Christians. Sometimes, it is preceded by lesser penalties, one of which is banishment. What happened to Mr Thorburn and instances of deplatforming or cancelling can be considered a subset of this. St Cyprian of Carthage suffered banishment for refusing to conform to Roman religious rites.
In 258AD, the proconsul Galerius Maximus pronounced the following judgement on him: “It is the sentence of this court that Thascius Cyprianus be executed with the sword.”
St Cyprian’s response was wonderful. He simply said: “Thanks be to God.”
As exclusion of Christians and their views from the public square increases, Christians should remember who will ultimately have the last word. God. That is why we can love our enemies even in the face of persecution. But loving enemies does not mean admitting that they are right everywhere and at all times.
There is a final sentence that is often left out of Cardinal George’s quote above. It states that the successor of the prelate martyred in the public square “will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilisation, as the Church has done so often in human history”. This is our hope.