Alias Grace: Giving wronged women a voice

(Originally published on the Ethos blog)

Alias Grace is the latest television series to stem from the vast repertoire of Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Like her recently televised modern classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Gracefeatures a strong, beleaguered female protagonist resisting the oppression of upper class men. However, a key point of difference is that Alias Grace is historical, rather than dystopian, fiction.

Grace Marks is an Irish immigrant and inmate of Kingston Penitentiary in 19th Century Canada, infamous across North America for conspiring to murder her former employer. Her youth, fragile mental health and air of humble melancholy have attracted a movement of supporters who believe she is innocent and who are working to secure her release.

We learn about Grace’s troubled past through a series of interviews conducted by the young, handsome Dr Jordan, a psychiatrist recruited by Grace’s supporters to help build the case for her innocence. We discover, along with Dr Jordan, a history of abuse and traumatic loss that gives us an increasing compassion for, and understanding of, Grace’s present predicament.

The story hinges around Grace’s alleged crime: the murder of wealthy farmer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper and lover Nancy Montgomery, for whom Grace worked as a maid. Grace’s memories of the event shift and change and Dr Jordan, increasingly drawn into Grace’s retelling of events, begins to wonder whether her account is truthful.

Alias Grace is a fascinating blend of historical fiction, period drama and psychological thriller, with a touch of horror. The series has been composed in such a way that Grace herself (played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon) is mesmerising, to the viewer as much as to the increasingly confounded Dr Jordan (Edward Holcroft). She is diminutive, calm and conservative, frequently quoting Bible verses in her soft Irish brogue, while also conveying an utter tenacity and intensity of spirit that is, at times, intimidating. She comes across as a character that could be at the same time guilty of anything, or of nothing at all. The suspense is thrilling. Did she do it?

Like The Handmaid’s Tale series, Alias Graceconfronts the complexities of class-based, religiously justified power play, and the elusive nature of truth. Most of all, like its on-screen predecessor, it interrogates the implications of such environments for the ordinary women who are often their most pronounced victims.

Alias Grace was released on Australian Netflix in September 2017, just ahead of the Harvey Weinstein scandal that sparked the outing of toxic cultures of sexual misconduct across the entertainment industry. The series also arrived in the midst of ongoing exposure by journalists Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson of domestic violence undercurrents in the church. Not long after, the final report on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was released. Alias Grace could not have been aired at a more appropriate time in Australia; a time when the voices of abused and oppressed women and children, like Grace and her friends, were being heard with compassion and outrage.

Watching Alias Grace as a Christian also raises timely questions about what faith offers to those who have experienced injustice. Grace interprets many of her experiences in light of quotes and principles from Scripture, and appears to hold to a genuine Christian faith that brings her guidance and comfort. And yet, her alleged actions in relation to the crime she is accused of are difficult to reconcile with this, as are her disturbing spiritual – or are they psychological? – experiences portrayed across several episodes.

The resounding message I took away from this addictive and brilliantly delivered series was that allowing abuse and oppression to go unaddressed can have serious personal and societal consequences. While faith can be a critical factor in enduring and overcoming these experiences, we must be careful not to use Scriptural principles, religious traditions or church structures to bury difficult emotions, gloss over the truth or live in denial.

We must allow victims to make known the injustices to which they have been subjected and to seek redress. We must give people permission to experience and express the difficult emotions that result, and respond with holistic and non-judgemental support. We must give individuals who have the courage to speak out the benefit of the doubt, not automatically disbelieving their uncomfortable claims, as has so often happened in the past.

To me, it is fitting that the protagonist of this absorbing series is named Grace. Atwood’s compelling narrative, based on a true story, confronts us with the need for us to receive the stories of wronged and wounded individuals with mercy and generosity of spirit, even if some may argue that they don’t deserve it.

2017: A year for women

At midnight tonight, 2017 will come to an end. And what a year it has been! Especially for women.

Again and again in 2017, women in Australia and abroad rose up to expose toxic cultures of sexism, sexual harassment and domestic and family violence that had been protected for too long in a range of institutions.

The resounding message, bolstered by the media, was that the abuse and silencing of women in our entertainment industries, halls of power and Christian communities will no longer be tolerated.

Here is a timeline of some of the key events:

JANUARY: The women’s marches

I can’t help but smile when I recall that it was, in fact, Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States that breathed new life into the fourth-wave feminism that really took off this year. Ironic, given his reputation for misogyny and many allegations of sexual misconduct.

Following the epic Women’s March on Washington on 22 January to protest Trump, a further 600 public rallies took place across 60 countries in support of women’s rights, including thousands of Australian protesters.

The massive turnout was a sign that Trump’s policies would be highly scrutinised in his first year of office, and that powerful, misogynistic men were already in the firing line.

APRIL-JUNE: Media milestones

On 26 April the highly acclaimed Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel by the same name, first aired in the United States, and was later streamed in Australia on SBS Demand from 20 July.

Many saw the series as a prophetic warning about the potential erosion of women’s reproductive rights under Trump, while others lauded its stark portrayal of the dangers of Christian fundamentalism, for women and more generally.

Hot on the heels of The Handmaid’s Tale came the Wonder Woman origin film, which broke box office records as the highest grossing female-directed film in its opening weekend in the US, in late May.

Released in Australia on 1 June, the film’s compassionate yet formidable lead was a character with whom many women identified, despite considerable criticism of the film for being ‘less feminist’ than it seemed.

While Wonder Woman was not without fault, it was certainly a breakthrough in an industry, and a genre, that remains highly male-dominated, and its message of female comradery, strength and empowerment was welcome on our screens.

JULY-NOVEMBER: Skeletons in the vestry

Starting in July, the ABC published a series of investigative pieces by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson exposing a hidden undercurrent of domestic and family violence in Australian churches that had been swept under the carpet.

Following the initial expose, the authors received hundreds of further reports, 20 of which were subsequently published in a follow up article. A further report in November focused on the experiences of clergy wives.

Responses to these articles from Australian churches were mixed, with some disputing or playing down the claims, while others publicly apologised and committed to do better. One Christian organisation, Common Grace, later published Safer, an online tool help churches respond to domestic and family violence.

OCTOBER/NOVEMBER: Another one bites the dust

In early October the first of more than 80 accusations against acclaimed Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, began to emerge, painting him as an aggressive misogynist who routinely used his position to subject young actresses to unwanted sexual advances.

The high profile of his accusers drew considerable publicity, prompting similar allegations against other famous men, including Kevin Spacey (although his alleged victims were men).

The litany of highly publicised falls from grace also breathed new life into the ‘Me Too’ campaign, a social media movement calling out sexual harassment. Promoted by actress Alyssa Milano in the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein affair, the #metoo tag went viral on Facebook and Twitter.

Millions of people worldwide, predominantly women, used #metoo to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, and express their solidarity with other victims. The popularity of the hashtag brought to light the worryingly high prevalence of sexual misconduct.

Given the sheer scale of the response to, and fallout from, the ‘name and shame’ campaign, TIME Magazine’s naming of the so-called ‘Silence Breakers’ as person of the year for 2017 was very fitting.

In late November, Australia was enveloped by its own ‘name and shame’ scandal, when Aussie icon and TV star Don Burke was outed by the press as committing multiple acts of sexual harassment and assault.

Like his Hollywood counterparts, Burke was denounced by many ‘big names’ in the entertainment industry, and a protracted history of abuse was revealed.

What next?

With Trump still in office, facing his own allegations of sexual misconduct, one can only imagine that the theme of powerful men abusing women will remain in the international news well into 2018, especially given Trump’s record for offensive tweets.

In Australia, the December release of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’s final report will also likely ensure that sexual misconduct maintains headline status into the new year.

As 2018 dawns, let us celebrate the exposure of injustice and the empowerment of women that occurred this fateful year, and commit to keeping it on the agenda in the coming months so that the ‘creepy old man’ we’ve all had to deal with at sometime or another becomes a thing of the past.

Ordinary extraordinary women

Over the next 6 months or so, I will be featuring biographical profiles of several ordinary extraordinary women with whom I have been privileged to cross paths.

These women are not celebrities, leading executives or Australians of the Year (that I know of!), and when I asked them to participate they were universally incredulous at my use of the word ‘inspiring’ to describe them. But something about their passions, interests career achievements and approach to life has placed them in that category for me.

These women are down to earth and relatable, diverse in age, occupation and background, and great examples of everyday women who know what they value and have pursued it with determination and excellence.

I look forward to sharing their stories with you!

Today I voted ‘Yes’. Here’s why.

After years of prayerful consideration, I decided to ‘go public’ with my support for same sex marriage just over twelve months ago, after attending an inspiring panel discussion entitled, Equality, Discrimination & Faith run by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. I knew that many of my Christian friends would disagree with me, and some may even question the genuineness of my faith. But I felt it was important to speak out.

At the time there were relatively few Christian leaders, bloggers and public figures vocally supporting same sex marriage, giving the impression that there was only one valid Christian view, and that view was one of unconditional opposition. I wanted to challenge that assumption.

Since that time I have been vocal in my support, especially on social media. I have also published two previous articles on this topic: Why I oppose a postal vote and Can a Christian support same sex marriage? However, this is my first attempt to address in detail why I support same sex marriage, and how I got here. It doesn’t cover absolutely everything, and it’s more of an opinion piece than an essay or manifesto, but I wanted to keep it as conversational as possible and didn’t want to replicate what had been done elsewhere (including the list of Useful Links at the end of this post).

Who I am

For any readers I don’t know personally, I should specify that who I am is central to why I am writing this, and what I will write. I am a straight, married, Gen Y, Christian woman who has a number of LGBTIQ friends, family members and colleagues, many of whom are (or were) Christians. The LGBTIQ people in my life are a key reason for my taking this topic so seriously, and my Christian faith compels me to pursue truth and justice with compassion.

If labels are important to you, my ‘flavour’ of protestant Christianity could be summarised as evangelical and charismatic in equal measure, with a strong interest in the social justice application of Scripture, a heart for seeing the gospel of grace lived out in everyday life, and a firm belief in the separation of church and state. Hopefully that gives some context to my arguments.

Why I am writing this

It may be obvious already that I am writing predominantly for a Christian audience. This is essentially because I wish to demonstrate that Christian faith and support of same sex marriage do not have to be mutually exclusive.

I write with three main goals in mind: first, to offer my thoughts to Christian friends who are undecided on the issue and want to thoroughly think it through. Second, to explain my view to open minded Christian friends who disagree with my view but have expressed interest in understanding it. And finally, to communicate to my LGBTIQ friends that they can be heard and supported by Christians, even – and especially – if that has not been their experience.

My intention is NOT to either convince or to criticise resolute opponents (or supporters, for that matter) of same sex marriage. Many of those will have voted already anyway. My primary aim is to express my personal view for those who are interested, and I ask that any comments or conversation be reasoned and respectful.

International readers, while this article contains a lot of general points, it is primarily geared toward the current discourse in Australia surrounding a national postal vote on whether to change the law to allow same sex marriage.

Why it took me so long to write this

As I have already mentioned, my view on same sex marriage has been years in the making; it is not something I have taken lightly. It has taken me until now to publish my detailed position for a number of reasons. Being busy with work, life and travel accounts for a few of them. However, I also delayed because so many great articles expressing various aspects of my position have begun to be published in the lead up to the postal vote (links to all of these are included at the end of this article), and I wondered whether my voice would add anything meaningful.

Plus, I wanted to read up more on the key arguments for both sides, and gauge just how vitriolic this debate was going to get. It is difficult to express a view on this topic at the moment without drawing personal insults and aggressive opposition from either side. We are in the midst of a veritable war of identities and the emotional stakes are high. My goal is not to offend, so if I do, I am sorry.

Perhaps the main reason, though, that it took me so long to write this is that it’s such a massive, complicated topic, and has only become bigger and more complicated since the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns really took off. The thought of where to start and what to cover was, simply put, intimidating. So I won’t address absolutely every aspect of the debate, just what I see as the key points behind my support.

The power of stories

I have always been a lover of stories. Not just made-up ones, but real-life stories about people’s adventures, struggles and experiences. Nothing is more powerful than a personal story to convey an idea. We are wired for stories.

Listening to the voices of LGBTIQ individuals and communities has been absolutely central in shaping my view regarding same sex marriage. It is easy for heterosexual Christians to make assumptions about what same sex couples need or want, what marriage may or may not mean to them, and how Christian opposition should be received. But it is only by hearing the hearts of LGBTIQ people on this issue that we can truly begin understand how much this whole discussion affects them personally. I strongly encourage any Christians who have not sought an LGBTIQ perspective with an open mind to do so before casting their vote.

What I have heard resoundingly from LGBTIQ Australians is a longing for recognition and acceptance. I cannot hear that cry, knowing the self-hatred, rejection and discrimination so many of them have suffered, especially in the name of my God, and not be moved.

From what I have heard and read, expanding the definition of marriage is as much a symbolic gesture legitimising LGBTIQ identities and relationships as it is a matter of legal rights and entitlements. However, legal rights and entitlements are also central, and claims from the ‘No’ campaign that de facto arrangements are equivalent to marriage in this sense are questionable.

The importance of this change to so many LGBTIQ Australians, in light of the legacy of inequity they carry, is enough for me to want to give it to them.

Identity wars

As we have moved closer and closer to the dreaded postal vote, the public discourse regarding same sex marriage has become more polarised and emphatic (not to be confused with empathic – quite the opposite!). There is much finger pointing going on about who the biggest bullies are, but I for one have seen inexcusable vitriol and ignorance from both sides of the debate. We knew this would happen, but it’s still unpleasant to see such divisive rhetoric threatening Australians off differing opinions.

I am convinced that the discourse on this issue has become so heightened because the emotional stakes are high. It has become a battle of identities; conservative Christians vs. homosexuals. Sexual orientation and religious affiliation are so integral to so many people’s identities that it is understandable that some are feeling threatened and acting out.

Disappointingly, I observe many Christians leaning towards ‘No’ primarily out of fear. Fear of ‘what ifs’, fear of what the legalisation of same sex marriage will lead to in schools, in churches, in courts, in the workplace. I think what is behind this fear response is the sinking feeling, and overdue realisation, that Christians are no longer a moral majority in Australia. For hundreds of years Christianity has sat firmly at the centre of Western culture, with the church being protected and privileged by the State. Christian views have been considered mainstream and respectable, and people holding Christian views have had power and influence. This is ironic, given that the early church were heavily persecuted, and in the rest of the world that is more akin to the contemporary Christian experience.

It’s never nice being relegated to the margins; as the LGBTIQ community thoroughly understand. But perhaps it’s something we Christians need to get used to. Australian society is getting more diverse and less religious overall, decreasing the influence of the church. The 2016 Census reported that Christian affiliation had fallen to a record 52%, down from 74% in 1991 and 88% in 1966. Of the Australian population identifying as Christian, research indicates only a small proportion actually practise their faith, which suggests that not all Christians would hold to church teaching. In 2016, nearly one third (30%) of all Australians selected indicated ‘no religion’ on their Census form.

With such changes occurring, a biblical worldview is becoming less and less relevant to the broader population, regardless of what Christians think. We live in a secular representative democracy, so increasing derision of any distinctly Christian position in the public sphere should be expected.

Who owns marriage?

A person’s view about same sex marriage essentially comes down to what they believe marriage to be. Christians generally view marriage primarily through a biblical lens, as a sacred institution created by God at the beginning of time. The union of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis – one male, one female – is considered to fundamentally define the marriage relationship, and is frequently cited as the basis for opposing same sex marriage. However, in insisting that a biblical definition of marriage govern national law, many Christians neglect to acknowledge that marriage in Australia is no longer distinctly Christian in nature.

As a result of the decline of religious affiliation in Australian society, outlined above, the proportion of Australians opting for religious marriage ceremonies has markedly decreased. In 2015 75% of marriages were overseen by a civil celebrant rather than a religious one, with civil celebrants having overseen the majority of marriages since 1999. To seek to impose a biblical definition of marriage on a population which, for the most part, intentionally chooses not to align their marriage with the church, seems strange to me.

Cultural and historical factors

Many Christians refer to maintaining ‘traditional marriage’ when opposing same sex marriage, however marriage – including Christian or biblical marriage practices – has changed markedly over time, and has, in the past, exhibited features that today would cause us to cringe.

While it is important to note that marriage has, as far as I am aware, been universally the domain of a opposite sex couples throughout history and culture, more recent changes in gender roles and technology mean that, for the first time in history, same sex marriage makes sense. I agree that traditional marriage has been defined in large part by its capacity to produce children; but the fact is that today children can be successfully conceived, nurtured and raised without necessarily having both male and female parents present.

In Western societies for much of history, women were not really meant to work outside the home and were charged with full time care of children and ageing relatives. There was no state subsidised child care, no comprehensive welfare state, and no equal pay for women, so a male breadwinner was absolutely necessary to survival. At the same time, the only way to get pregnant was to have sex with a man, and staying with that man was pretty central to social acceptance.

Today, women work for (nearly) equal pay, access child care and can get welfare if they need. They therefore do not need a man to live. Men and women can also have children in a number of socially acceptable ways, including IVF, foster care and surrogacy. The opposite sex is not actually needed for this part either. With more flexible gender roles, both men and women can fulfil all the requirements for conceiving, nurturing and raising children without need of the opposite sex.

Think of the children

Many would argue that the male-female parent combination provides benefits beyond simply the fulfilment of traditional gender roles regarding provision and nurture; a key argument against same sex marriage is that it will hold negative psycho-social impacts for children. However, what this argument presupposes is that a male-female parent combination is always both possible and preferable. Indeed, cohabiting biological parents are few and far between anyway as a result of divorce, recoupling, abandonment and death. Cohabiting opposite sex parents in general are more common, but single parent families are widespread, as, now, are same sex couples families, regardless of whether or not they can marry.

To argue that a change to marriage law would be harmful to children not only neglects to account for the raising of many happy, healthy children in diverse family situations, but also ignores the fact that many opposite-sex pairings result in adverse outcomes for their children, whether through domestic violence or abuse, or through emotional absence, lack of discipline or poor example. It also assumes that a same-sex pairing is essentially unable to provide the kind of environment children need to thrive. Not only does this assumption defy anecdotal examples in my life and considerable existing evidence, but it also neglects to understand the diversity and complexity of family and upbringing.

I agree that it is important for children to, where possible, know their biological roots, and that having positive role models of both sexes is important to developing a health self-perception and interpersonal skills. However, as an only child of divorced parents, I am very aware that this can be achieved outside of a traditional nuclear family environment. I was predominantly raised by my father, but was able to spend quality time with my mother, and had a range of male and female adults in my life who supported and nurtured me.

Same sex couples can just as easily ensure their children are in touch with both their biological parents, where possible, and that they have a range of positive role models in their lives of both sexes. The two same sex couples I know with children value and implement both of these principles. Indeed, marriage encourages stable relationships which can only be positive for children. A healthy, balanced upbringing depends only on the willingness of the parents to make it so, not on the specific structure of the family.

The important matter of religious freedom

In addition to uninformed and vitriolic commentary from both sides of the debate, genuine concerns regarding religious freedom have emerged. Indeed, in recent weeks, religious freedom appears to have become the main gist of the ‘No’ cause. Overseas and local examples certainly highlight the importance of treading carefully as the legislation is changed and implemented. While positions in the ‘Yes’ camp vary, I am certainly of the opinion that religious groups, adherents and celebrants should have their right to disagree for religious reasons protected.

However, the most recent Bill proposed for same sex marriage was, in my opinion, comprehensive in its protection of religious freedom. Given the strength of the ‘No’ vote both in the public and within Parliament, it is highly unlikely that religious communities will be thrown under the bus. Indeed, there will be pressure to expand provisions to apply to religious communities, but I think that this is a different question to whether or not the definition of marriage should be changed under the law. Unlike many Christians, I do not believe a ‘No’ vote on same sex marriage will in any way address these risks. If anything, it gives more radical components of the ‘Yes’ movement more cause to disregard religious freedoms.

Separation of church and state

A frequent response from Christians when I indicate my support of same sex marriage is ‘show me the Scriptures that support your argument’, sometimes said defensively or facetiously, sometimes asked simply out of genuine interest and concern. For me, that is not the right question. The starting point for my position is, however, Scriptural; that is, the New Testament principle of the separation of church and state. This Scriptural starting point then enables me to look at same sex marriage from a faith perspective, but in the context of historical and cultural realities that affect our society beyond any biblical interpreteation,

I am a strong believer in the separation of church and state, based on Jesus’ refusal to challenge the state or start any political movement. Jesus was on about personal transformation and instructed believers to ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’.

Furthermore, when I look at history, some of the worst atrocities and injustices took place when church and state were too closely connected. History teaches me that the best scenario for both religious freedom and social justice is a healthy separation of church and state, where church is free to determine the parameters for its constituents, without interference from the state, and state is free to make laws and policies without having to please the church.

This does not mean that I think Christians have no place in the public square; quite the contrary. I think Christian politicians and constituents should allow, and be allowed to, let their faith inform their political views. I think a balanced and respectful national conversation regarding same sex marriage is important, and I have no problem with my brothers and sisters exercising their democratic right to vote ‘No’ in the upcoming postal plebiscite. However, I will be voting yes, because I believe, as do many other Christians, that an essentially religiously framed view should not be able to dictate legislation regarding the rights of a social group that does not fall within the jurisdiction of the church.

The last word

I have voted ‘Yes’ today. If you have not done the same, or you plan to vote ‘No’, I refuse to judge or criticise you for it. I hope you will extend me the same courtesy. If you plan to abstain, let me encourage you to reconsider, and to exercise your democratic right thoughtfully and with conviction. This ‘vote’ is not binding, nor is it necessary or appropriate in my opinion. But the power lies with each one of us to make it as accurate a reflection of the status quo as possible, given the circumstances. We have until 27th October at the latest; let’s make the most of it.

Useful links

Robert, H. and Kelly, F. ‘Marriage v de facto partnerships in Australia: the legal differences explained’, The Guardian Australia, 21 September 2017.

Stephens, J. (2017) ‘We do not want to live in a world where you are fired for disagreeing with your boss’, Mamamia, 20 September 2017.

Jones, T. ‘Breaking news: marriage has very little to do with religion (and vice versa)’, The Conversation, 15 September 2016.

Harris, B. ‘We need more analysis and less emotion in the marriage equality debate’, The Guardian Australia, 14 September 2017.

‘Being gay during the same sex marriage plebiscite’, Gay and Christian Blog, 12 September 2017.

McFarlane, L. ‘I’m a Conservative Christian, and I intend to vote “Yes” to same-sex marriage’, Towards the Light, 4 September 2017.

Higgins, S. ‘It is not about my view of sexual morality: Why I believe Christians should consider saying no to the no case and yes to the yes case’, scottjhiggins.com, 3 September 2017.

Edser, S. ‘To those voting no’, Medium, 1 September 2017.

Jennings, M. “Welcoming, but not affirming’: Being gay and Christian’, ABC News Opinion, 30 August 2017.

Sandeman, P. ‘Marriage equality will mark society’s move from tolerance to acceptance of same sex relationships’, Adelaide Now, 28 August 2017.

Cowdell, S. ‘Why ‘traditional’ marriage has room for same-sex couples: A theological perspective’, ABC Religion and Ethics, 24 August 2017.

Buckingham, R. ‘The postal vote on same-sex marriage: Some considerations’, Rob Buckingham’s Blog, 22 August 2017.

Higgins, S. ‘The meaning of marriage’, scottjhiggins.com, 11 August 2017.

Hutchens, G. ‘Most Christians in Australia support marriage equality and want a free vote’, The Guardian Australia, 21 July 2017.

Ngu, S. ‘Those who leave, those who stay: 4 Queer Christians in New York City tell their stories of leaving and staying in non-affirming churches’, Sojourners, 30 May 2017.

Gilmore, J. ‘Opinion: The logic fail of Christian opposition to marriage equality’, news.com.au, 21 October 2016.

Gushee, D. ‘Tackling the hard questions’, Sojourners, January 2015.

Is performance culture behind a Christian mental health epidemic?

(Originally published in Ethos Engage.mail)

Nearly half of all Australians will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lives. In a twelve month period, an estimated one in five people will be experiencing mental health challenges (Australian Bureau of Statistics, National survey of mental health and wellbeing, 2007). How many members of your congregation does that equate to? In my Sunday service of around eighty, that is roughly sixteen of the people I see every week.

Research indicates that religion and spirituality can promote hope and resilience and offer adherents a range of other resources to strengthen and protect their mental health (Harold G. Koenig, ‘Religion, spirituality and health: The research and clinical implications’, ISRN Psychiatry, 2012). However, for many Christians, the expectations that come with involvement in a church community can contribute to their mental health challenges.

As a Christian who has both experienced a mental health condition and cared for someone who has, I have found one of the key challenges facing Christians with a propensity to, or lived experience of, a mental health condition is the pressure to perform. By this I mean the external and internal pressure to live up to a particular Christian community’s expectations of what it means to be ‘a good Christian’.

The church as a stressor

I have been a member of three churches from three very different denominations, and have friends from a wide range of churches, many of which I have visited. From my observation, being a ‘good Christian’ in any evangelical, Protestant setting includes three main components: attendance (at church on Sundays and a weekly cell group); service (in one or more formal ministry roles); and personal devotion (involving daily prayer and Bible reading).

There is nothing wrong with these disciplines in themselves; they are practical applications of the Scriptural principles of gathering together, serving one another in love, living prayerfully and being guided by His Word. However, it is important to note that the Bible does notmandate how, or indeed specifically how frequently, we should do these things. We should therefore be careful not to judge a person’s spiritual worth by these standards. And yet we do.

If you think your church is immune, consider this. How do you, or others in your church community, react when someone begins to skip more Sundays than they attend? Or declines every invitation to join a ministry team? Or confesses that they are struggling to spend time with God? More to the point, what do you think(because, if we’re honest, what we say and do in the context of church sometimes fails to truly capture this!)?

I would be willing to bet that most of us have, to at least some extent, judged ourselves and others as ‘bad Christians’ for failing to perform the expected ‘duties’ mentioned above. We have probably questioned at least one person’s level of commitment, level of passion, order of priorities, even their salvation, on this basis. And we might have been correct in these assumptions. However, have we ever considered that something else could have been going on?

If you have ever experienced a mental health condition, or supported someone who has, you would probably understand that rest, self-care and saying ‘no’ are very important. The church’s specific expectations regarding attendance, service and personal devotion can appear impossibly overwhelming to someone just struggling to get by with the basics of life. Attempting to meet these standards could result in panic, exhaustion or embarrassment. On the other hand, refraining from participation can produce feelings of guilt, shame and worthlessness.

How much of this anguish is perpetuated by well-meaning Christians promoting church involvement without sensitivity to individual circumstances? Let’s just say, the many people in our midst experiencing mental health challenges could avoid a lot of heartache if we focused less on spiritual performance in our sermons, studies, schedules and conversations. If we not only taught and believed grace, but also practiced it with one another.

Performance culture in the church

Pastor and author Peter McHugh explains that the world sends us strong messages about performance from an early age. From childhood, we are rewarded when we do well, and punished when we do not. As we grow up, the need to compete for recognition and reward can place performance at the centre of our identity and self-worth (A Voyage of Mercy, 2015).

In adulthood, KPIs and competitive recruitment processes combine with a consumeristic drive for more money, more fame, more health, more pleasure, resulting in a constant pressure to be, and do, what is expected by our society. When these patterns inevitably overflow into our spiritual lives, we view ourselves and others according to spiritual performance (Peter McHugh, Above the Line, 2010). It is, according to Chuck Swindoll (The Grace Awakening, 2010), classic legalism:

Legalism says, “I do this, or I don’t do that, and therefore I am pleasing to God”. Or, “If only I could do this or not do that, I would be pleasing to God”. Or perhaps, “These things that I’m doing or not doing are the things I perform to win God’s favour”. They aren’t spelled out in Scripture, you understand. They’ve been passed down…

‘But we preach the gospel!’, I hear you cry. ‘Grace not works!’ I should hope so. However, I would argue that acceptance regardless of performance is something we’re very good at spouting intellectually, but often don’t really believe deep down. We still hold ourselves and others bondage to unnecessary religious rules, forever feeling spiritually inferior. As Kevin DeYoung muses, ‘I think most Christians hear these urgent calls to do more (or feel them internally already) and learn to live with a low-level of guilt that comes from not doing enough’ (Crazy Busy, 2013).

What this means for our mental health

As DeYoung indicates, some people are able to withstand or deflect the pressures of a performance culture. However, many of us have a personal or family history of mental health issues and may be more susceptible to experiencing chronic stress. If we push too hard, past our individual limits, with church commitments, on top of other competing responsibilities such as work, study or family, we are likely to burn ourselves out.

In preparing this article, I asked a set of questions to five friends and relatives, of diverse ages and denominational backgrounds, who expressed an interest in this topic. All are living with a diagnosed mental health condition, and all except one cited that pressures from their church involvement had been unhelpful. They have learned the hard way to pay strict attention to how much is ‘on their plate’. And this has not always been received well by other Christians. Here is what some of them had to say, in their own words:

The underlying culture amongst many Protestant communities that ‘doing’ is good and lots of activities are a sign of faithfulness has in some contexts caused problems for me. In some churches or Christian groups I have desperately struggled to maintain the fine balance I need of participation, rest and reflection to maintain a more healthy life, regardless of whether I am in an episode of major depression. (Female, 30s)

When I was doing formal ministry, leading youth group, I was constantly battling with the thought of failing…I often felt extremely guilty if my anxiety/depression made me not very enthusiastic, not prepared enough, not godly enough etc etc etc…I think the weekly late nights and the intense exhaustion of going on camps a few times a year also took a toll. (Female, 20s)

[For three years] I was engaged almost not at all in ministry activities. Since then…I have guarded my health and mental health and thereby preserved it; but this is partly by not engaging in activities as much as colleagues/church members would like and I sense there is some frustration with that. (Male, 40s)

I’ve managed to resist pressure to become involved in setup/packup and other activities while needing to take things gently with myself. (Female, 50s)

It is also important to note, however, that all five people I spoke to mentioned the importance of being pushed to participate once in a while as a positive thing for their mental health, especially as participating was a doorway to the aspects of church life that made them feel better – worship, prayer and community. So the line between encouragement and pressure can, it seems, be very fine.

Where to from here?

I hope my analysis of performance culture in the church does not come across as a scathing critique. In this article, I have focused on the challenges my contemporaries and I have faced living with a mental health condition in a church context. However, being part of a church community has, for all of us, been absolutely central to our ongoing wellbeing. And everyone I spoke to referred to Christians in their lives who had been understanding and supportive.

But how can we reduce the pressure on people living with a mental health condition in our churches? How can we support them to participate in the activities that strengthen and comfort them, while being sensitive to their potential need to pull back? Here are some suggestions:

1. Critically evaluate your church culture

Consider what is taught (and caught) in your church about participation and performance. What are members expected to ‘do’, and how are people who don’t live up to these expectations viewed? Are people in your church living balanced lives, incorporating rest and leisure as well as church activities and work, study or family?

2. Talk about mental health

The more people know about mental health, the more understanding they generally are about its impacts. Addressing mental health in sermons, cell group discussions and general conversation can create a safe, non-judgemental environment where people living with a mental health condition may feel more accepted and better able to share their experiences and needs.

3. Ask, don’t tell

When someone confides in you about mental health issues they are experiencing, try not to jump to conclusions that ‘if only they prayed, trusted, read their Bible etc. more’ they would feel better. The last thing a person feeling like a spiritual failure needs is another call to perform. Listen to understand, not to provide unsolicited advice. Ask them what helps them to manage, and encourage them to persevere.

Lastly, if you are, or someone you know is, experiencing serious and ongoing distress, please seek professional help. For information about treatment options, talk to your doctor. If you’re in Australia, call beyondblue on 1300 224 636 or visit http://www.beyondblue.org.au.

If you are thinking about suicide or experiencing a personal crisis, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

This article will also appear in the forthcoming Zadok issue on ‘Precarious and Predatory World’. You can subscribe to Zadok here.

The Big Sick: a film with much more appeal than its name

(Originally published on Ethos Blog)

I’m just going to put it out there: The Big Sick is my favourite rom-com in years, and I’m not alone. While I’m always up for a cheesy chick flick, I can probably count on one hand the number of romantic comedies I would actually rate as films in their own right.

So what do I like about it? First, it’s based on a true story, pretty rare for its genre, which means the relationship depicted is actually rather realistic in its ups and downs. Second, it’s part of an emerging body of work led by non-white actors and comedians (think Aziz Ansari’s Master of None on Netflix and Benjamin Law’s The Family Law on SBS) that is bringing much needed diversity to our screens. Finally, it deals with some pretty serious subjects – racism, unemployment, relational breakdown, major illness – with a perfect balance of humour and compassion. You laugh, you cry, you laugh again, and, at the end, you just feel generally good about life.

Written by, and starring, American-Pakistani comedian Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick recounts the ups and downs of a couple negotiating cultural differences and health problems in modern day Chicago. It has a pleasantly gritty, indie feel, despite featuring some big names (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). Overall, it just feels satisfyingly contemporary, and manages to be relatable for a millennial like myself while also engaging for my parents’ generation. My husband and I went to see it with my dad, aunt and uncle, all of whom have completely different tastes in film. We all adored it.

Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, a struggling stand-up comedian and part-time Uber driver whose traditional Pakistani parents are working overtime to find him the perfect match. When a white girl called Emily heckles him at a gig, it is love at first sight, even though Kumail knows his parents will never accept her. After engaging in the awkward to-and-fro of modern dating for a while, the parent issue becomes too much. Enter ‘the big sick’, a sudden onset of serious illness that completely changes the course of their relationship. While Emily’s life hangs in the balance, Kumail sticks around and befriends her distraught parents, both realising, and proving, his genuine love for her.

It’s pretty hard to find a romantic comedy with a decent message, but this one takes the cake. It condones honesty, tenacity and love through thick and thin. I really resonated with Kumail’s fraught relationship with his family’s cultural heritage, not because of my own experience, but because of the many friends I have who, like Kumail, are second generation migrants and who have grappled for years with split loyalties, somewhat resenting the cultural expectations of their parents and community, while feeling more at home in Western society where they are still considered ‘other’. I also feel for Kumail and Emily – as someone who also has a partner from another cultural background to my own, and who has experienced the pain of disapproval from some relatives. In a multicultural society like Australia, cross-cultural relationships are becoming increasingly common, so it’s timely to see them explored and normalised in film.

Kumail’s support of Emily throughout her illness also highlights the importance of sticking by loved ones through the hard times, ‘in sickness and in health’. It’s not a glamorous picture, but it’s one of the only times I can recall this aspect of a relationship depicted realistically on screen, complete with all the ups and downs, the hopes and doubts. Throughout the film, it is clear that Kumail and Emily’s relationship, while by no means perfect (there is a lot of arguing, swearing and general selfishness), is not just about the excitement of sexual attraction, not just about warm and fuzzy feelings, but about genuine connection and commitment to each other, to the point of sacrifice. It’s rare to see this kind of model of relationship in a romantic comedy.

I, for one, hope this refreshingly honest, multicultural comedy will pave the way for many others like it.

Why I oppose a postal vote

Let’s face it, a postal vote regarding same sex marriage is just a cheaper, non-compulsory version of a plebiscite that will therefore deliver inferior information.

Like its more expensive, mandatory predecessor, a postal vote will not result in a binding decision, but will simply enable a free vote to take place in Parliament. Determining the (not particularly reliable) ‘will of the public’ could therefore be a complete waste of time and money, if the Parliament votes the other way.

I would like to publicly address some common arguments in favour of a plebiscite/postal vote that I have been contesting lately in the comments sections of friends’ Facebook posts.

1. ‘Why let politicians vote on such an important issue and not voters?’

Because that’s what a democratically elected Parliament is for. I don’t consider myself a political expert, however I understand our system enough to appreciate that we freely elect individuals and parties (through, albeit, an imperfect process) to represent our views and interests. Our resulting Parliament keeps the ruling party to account through a range of checks and balances. If the public aren’t happy with their representation, they can use their vote to change things at the next election, or seek influence through other democratic methods – eg. protest, petition, appeal, meeting with or writing to a local member or Minister, or simple free speech via media or social media.

Our parliamentary system may not be perfect, but it does have a degree of accountability regarding its role in representing the populace, and generally has more access to information, evidence and stakeholder views than the general public. In my opinion Parliament is therefore better placed to make such a significant and sensitive decision as legalising same sex marriage.

2. ‘But plebiscites and referendums have been used before, so what’s the problem?’

Yes, plebiscites and referendums have been used in the past to make state and national decisions. However, to my knowledge, the only precedent for a plebiscite or referendum on such a sensitive social issue affecting an historically vulnerable population was the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal rights, which had some key differences. Firstly, constitutional changes require a referendum, so a national vote was a necessity, not a choice. Secondly, as far as I understand, it was more or less a formlity, as a landslide ‘Yes’ vote was expected.

Unnecessarily putting the decision regarding same sex marriage to a costly public vote indicates that everyday Australians should have the power to determine the basic civil rights of individuals who may have nothing to do with them. Simply put, this is an inappropriate use of such a tool.

3. ‘Denying a public vote prevents an open, public discussion about the issue’.

Actually, I think this topic has been discussed to death. News and social media have constantly addressed that full range of views on same sex marriage for a long time now, especially since the plan for plebiscite began. There have also been a number of polls establishing strong national support. What else could a postal vote, costing millions of dollars, really offer? I agree that open and respectful conversation is critical, however I don’t think a postal vote (or plebiscite) is necessary to gague and express public opinion. We have had enough opportunity to do this already.

4. ‘This Government was elected on the promise of a plebiscite. Don’t we always criticise governments for backing down on their promises? Why would we encourage them to do so in this case?’

Australian politicians (not only Australian ones, I’m guessing!) are well known to regularly break promises, especially election promises. As a result, the voting public has developed a healthy scepticism about any kind of promise, especially when it is made before an election. Obviously, this is not ideal, but it is a feature of our political system. On the one hand, politicians and parties with the best intentions can face a range financial and political pressures and changes while in government, along with competing demands and interests, and therefore be forced to back down from their promises. On the other (admittedly more cynical) hand, parties have to compete for voter support and will use their words strategically to gain or hold power. So broken promises are unavoidable, especially on a rapidly developing social issues like same sex marriage.

Finally, if you voted for the current Government on the basis of their promise to hold a plebiscite on this issue, it is certainly your prerogative to hold them to account. However, we are faced with imperfect choices come elections, and there will be many people who voted for this current Government but disagree on the plebiscite. Further, many more people explicitly voted against the current Government for this reason and/or another. Why should the latter two groups be expected to hold the Government to promises they never endorsed in the first place?