An old phrase used to describe sceptical Bible scholars, “the hermeneutics of suspicion” came to mind while watching the whirlwind of media attention that engulfed Jim Wallace this week.
Scholars who take a very liberal view of scripture are accused of looking for supposed flaws in the text, interpreting (hermeneutics) with a suspicious mind.
Jim Wallace, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, discovered his words were treated with suspicion this week by the Prime Minister, who reacted by withdrawing from the ACL’s October National Conference, as well as most of the media.
The PM’s decision not to speak to the ACL was described as a blow to “Australia’s Christian constituency” by Wallace.
“This is a victory for the relentless campaign of demonisation against anyone who would challenge the gay activists’ agenda in the public square,” he said.
The PM characterised some comments by Wallace at the University of Tasmania LawFest in Hobart on Wednesday as “offensive”.
”To compare the health effects of smoking cigarettes with the many struggles gay and lesbian Australians endure in contemporary society is heartless and wrong,” she said in a statement reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.
”Although everyone is entitled to their own view, these statements reiterated again today on behalf of ACL are totally unacceptable.
”In light of this, I believe my attendance at the conference would be inappropriate.”
Jim Wallace says his comments were taken out of context. He told the ABC on Thursday that he was talking about the “packaging” of cigarettes and homosexuality. “If we are to package … gay lifestyle in with the heterosexual lifestyle in marriage, then we are ignoring the fact that it’s not equal love, when the consequences of gay love, in health consequences, are quite pronounced and disastrous.”
The AAP had carried this Wallace quote from Wednesday: ”I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health … are that it has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide … it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years,” he told the audience. ”The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”
Sympathetic readers may see no contradiction between the Wednesday Wallace and the Thursday Wallace (or the quote may be wrong; Eternity has not been able to get it verified by the ACL).
It’s likely that Wallace really was trying to compare the packaging of gay marriage to what the Federal government is doing to cigarettes. An ACL statement issued on Thursday said “Mr Wallace said at no stage did he say that ‘smoking is healthier than gay marriage’, as reported by some media.”
“What I did say is that heterosexual sex and homosexual sex are different and have different health consequences. They should not be packaged the same way as marriage because, as just one of many reasons, they are different,” said Wallace.
But if the AAP quote is right, then Wallace may have buried his metaphor. Many people have taken his comment as a direct health comparison. Simply put, the stats leapt out of the quote in a way that the point about packaging did not.
There is a lesson to be learned here about keeping your message simple. Having compared the reduction in life expectancy for smoking and homosexuality – a very controversial statement – Wallace should have been aware that it would be the “takeaway” quote for much of his audience.
The comment “I am not saying smoking is healthier than gay marriage” could usefully have been made when the life expectancy stats were first used. (And it may have been. I hope so, but I have not seen it reported by the media or ACL’s several press releases.)
The comparison of smoking’s ill effects and health statistics for gay people is what caused the reaction from most commentators. (There is some debate over whether Wallace’s statistics were right or out of date, but for the purposes of this discussion let’s assume he was correct).
For an audience sympathetic to Wallace, making the point about the health effects of being a gay man might even be seen as helpful, indeed a health warning just like on a cigarette packet. It could even be seen as kind.
For an audience suspicious of Wallace, comparing people’s sexuality to a disease is abuse. And many arguments about homosexuality, put up by Christians run into that difficulty: comparisons to adultery, illness, or relationships traditionally considered less than marriage (e.g friendship) will be perceived that way.
Because statements by Christians are now treated to the hermeneutics of suspicion, we need to be careful to make our comments to a secular audience simple and clear. We may want to say something that will be regarded as tough-minded: what I am warning about is doing it when we don’t intend to.
If we say something that might be controversial (and Wallace’s gay health stats were certainly that) and we think that will lead our audience to think we are saying the next logical step (gay marriage is less healthy than smoking), we should try to anticipate that.
That won’t be easy. On this topic Christians have a record of making comments that appear reasonable in light of what they believe the Bible says, but are thin when considered by someone who does not share the same basic beliefs. In other words we are good at talking to ourselves, but not to a secular audience.
After the ACL’s “Defining Marriage” webcast a few weeks ago one of the key participants said to me that he was worried that Christians were not putting forward arguments that were strong enough to convince the Australian public.
Some readers here will be fans of Jim Wallace and others may not be. Leftie Christians might think these warnings about the hermeneutics of suspicion don’t apply to them. But I gave an example earlier of comparing same sex relationships to friendship as an example of what the secular audience, certainly a gay audience, might regard as abuse. It’s a suggestion that has been put forward by one of the most liberal church leaders in Australia.