Look, I’ll say straight up I missed the boat on this issue. My brain was so bogged down in other things that it just stopped working! But seeing the name Andrew Thorburn is still being thrown around in conservative circles as some sort of martyr-cum-hero (hehe, cum), Mamma Kit is going to say what’s been on her mind for a while. Here’s my hot take – and I know you all love my hot takes.
The Andrew Thorburn case wasn’t religious persecution. It was poor sportsmanship and a dog-whistle to Christian Conservatives who want to feel persecuted. Big call? Let me explain.
First, a primer for those following at home.
Andrew Thorburn was the head of a big bank in Australia – the National Australia Bank (NAB). Following his departure from the bank, which had its fair share of scrutiny during his time at the helm, Thorburn took up a role as the CEO of Essendon Football club. His time at the club lasted 24 hours before it was discovered that he was also the chairman of an ultra-conservative church which had campaigned against abortion and the LGBTQIA community. Being that the Essendon Football Club espouses values of inclusion and diversity, crunch time arrived. Thorburn could not be at the helm of two organisations with opposing values. The result? He was “forced to resign.”
I gag on the words as they fly across my page.
Here’s where the other two Andrews in my corny title factor in: Daniel Andrews, Victoria’s Premier offered comment when questioned on the issue of the church’s lack of inclusivity and answered with “Those views are absolutely appalling. I don’t support those views; that kind of intolerance, that kind of hatred, bigotry is just wrong. All of you know my views on these things. Those sort of attitudes are simply wrong, and to dress that up as anything other than bigotry is just obviously false.”  (Bravo. Golf clap).
The other Andrew is Andrew Bolt: a right wing conservative commentator/journalist who, I’m just going to say it, should have stuck to writing instead of moving across to host a SkyNews show (Lie News as it is commonly known among those of us who aren’t right wingers). When tuning in to a segment I shouldn’t have for the sake of my poor, beseiged blood pressure, I heard him say that Andrew Thorburn had been sacked. Not only did it grate on me for its factual inaccuracy, it also made me recoil for one simple reason: he wasn’t sacked. He was given a choice. He chose to leave. In doing so, he chose to show us who he really is. And that wasn’t about faith per se.
Why do I say that? Because faith can be inclusive. It can be the beacon of love and reconciliation that Christ always intended it to be. But my observation on the other side of deconstruction is that church and Jesus don’t share a bedroom let alone a bed in many cases. The bride of Christ has got her own digs now and I don’t think the Big Man (Jesus) visits often.
Of course, there’s nuance in this.
I recognise that in a situation like this, it can feel like you are being made to choose your faith or your job. But in this case, it is a patently false equivalence. Here is a man earning a bucket load. Here is a man who is the chairman of his church. Here is a man who can think deep enough to lead a troubled bank through a royal commission. He is privileged up to the gills. Ironically, he left his job at the bank after “he was personally singled out, alongside former NAB chairman Ken Henry, by the banking royal commission’s final report for failing to learn lessons from past misconduct. ” 
Let’s think about that: failure to learn lessons. Isn’t that something that the church globally is grappling with at the moment? At the time of writing, Hillsong mega-church pastor is in court defending himself over the cost of covering up his fathers sexual abuse of boys. Houston Jnr. did not report the crimes of Houston Snr. He did not do his due diligence with the legal system, choosing instead to handle it in house. I read on instagram this morning that multiple C3 pastors in the States were up on child abuse charges. Names like Ravi Zacharias, once lauded for his contribution to Christian apologetics, died disgraced as abuse claims went unresolved as he headed for the grave.
Our churchianity heroes are facing their time of reckoning and realising they are not above the law. Nor are Christians in public life above scrutiny. Nor should they be! No one should be — regardless of their creed. This is an awake and evolving society that wants to care for all its inhabitants better. If you want to be a cork in the arse of progress, then you deserve to be called out for that. And you don’t get to hide behind faith, because Jesus went to the cross rather than do that. And he was fully inclusive that whole time. (Yes, I’m using Jesus as an example even though I’m not a card-carrying Christian anymore. But just saying, I’m not a jerk. I’ve also never been truly persecuted for my faith. I know correlation doesn’t equal causation but…)
Across the globe, church scandals break what seems like daily. Are we learning? Are we making our churches safer for vulnerable and marginalised people? Or are we failing to learn the lessons, thus throwing ourselves open to Judgement Day, only this time it doesn’t wait for eternity. It arrives in the form of media or the judicial system, ready, quill and gavel in hand.
One of the lessons church has failed to learn is with regard to the LGBTQIA population.
As Daniel Andrews rightly pointed out in the press conference where he addressed the Thorburn issue, “Aren’t we all God’s children?” A point well made, but there’s more to this story. In the world of law, it is said that ignorance is not defence. It is no excuse. Well here’s the skinny on what some churches stay wilfully ignorant of:
– While participation in religion can be a protective factor for straight, cisgender young people, the statistics on LGBTQA+ youth are very, very different.
– A study found that identity conflict that comes from dissonance felt between religious beliefs and LGBT identity was associated with higher risk of suicide. The sample group in the study turned up statistically significant (science speak for “concerning as heck”) elevated risk for three concerning indicators: suicidal thoughts in the last month, parental anti-homosexual religious beliefs (associated with chronic suicidal thoughts in the last month), and elevated risk of suicide attempts. “In the case of suicide attempts, the two indicators were associated with a more than two times odds of having attempted suicide in the past year.”
– While I make no allegations of whether or not City on a Hill is pro-conversion practices (as I don’t know), it has been known to campaign against LGBT rights. Thus I feel we need to drill down and acknowledge what happens when we don’t actively oppose conversion practices and make our churches safe for LGBTQIA people. One study showed young people who had engaged in conversation practices (which are now defined under Victorian law as wider than therapy alone, thank heavens), were at elevated risk of homelessness, mental health issues, family rejection, greater vulnerability to poor health and wellbeing, decreased engagement in education, sport and employment, and considerably higher risk of psychological distress, self harm and suicidality. 
– Analysis by Cornell University found the following when it came to the ‘Success rates’ of conversion therapy. “Of those, 12 concluded that CT is ineffective and/or harmful, finding links to depression, suicidality, anxiety, social isolation and decreased capacity for intimacy. Only one study concluded that sexual orientation change efforts could succeed—although only in a minority of its participants, and the study has several limitations: its entire sample self-identified as religious and it is based on self-reports, which can be biased and unreliable. The remaining 34 studies do not make an empirical determination about whether CT can alter sexual orientation.” 
So let’s put it bluntly. You can’t and shouldn’t attempt to “fix” gay. Not just because it isn’t any indication of brokenness. The only study that pointed to anything other than devastating harm with any empirical support was so biased, it was probably loaded with ticking time-bombs ready to explode. All the other evidence points to devastating and ongoing harm.
We do not get to be ignorant of this. Regardless of religious beliefs. If anything, religious beliefs should move us to compassion and empathy, and the abandonment of practices that do devastating harm.
The Third Option Available to Thorburn
When I watched the Andrew Thorburn issue play out, a few of things were immediately clear to me.
1) This was going to play right into the narrative of those who like to jump on the bandwagon of Christian persecution.
2) Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, and Andrew absolutely didn’t do that. In fact, he pretty much turned to the whole world and cried “Look, Essendon Football Club hurt my cheek!” Poor Andrew.
3) He absolutely should have disclosed this jarring clash of values in the negotiation process rather than walking in, fully informed of the clash of values and creating a pseudo-persecutory storm in a media tea cup.
But finally, another thing. There was a third option.
He could have aligned his claims that he wasn’t a bigot and he could get behind the diversity values of the Essendon Football Club by making positive change in the church he is chairman of. He could have recognised the cognitive dissonance between his job as CEO and his job as City on a Hill Chairman and chosen to make that place safer for LGBT people.
My hot take is that Essendon offered Thorburn a chance to look in the mirror and see the damage his church was doing to LGBT people by campaigning against them and maintaining a non-affirming stance, and to choose not to be part of that damage. He could have wielded his impact for good. Instead, he cried persecution and walked away, thus presenting a dog-whistle for far right conservatives to jump on the bandwagon and cry persecution. His claim was that it was now clear that his faith was not welcome in public life.
Hot take: If you have a public life of any sort, you invite scrutiny. So be a good person. Acknowledge your potential for great good and great harm. Own your values. Own your choices. Its not bullying. Its not persecution. Its good old-fashioned scrutiny. Its like my ex-husband always says “Its only persecution if it comes from a specific region in France. Otherwise its just sparkling consequences.”
So lets talk about Christian Persecution.
I’ve written about this at length in another blog post (which you can read here if you can be bothered). But to plagiarise my own work and offer you a TL:DR — a reflection: there is a big difference between persecution and good old fashioned discomfort. Discomfort is good sometimes. I’ve heard countless motivational speakers remind us that no growth happens inside our comfort zone, and I have to agree! We shouldn’t fear discomfort. It is part of life and sometimes good things come out of it!
Persecution, however, is crushing, life-altering, and in so many cases, life-threatening. Open Doors USA, an organisation that exists for persecuted Christians, has this to say on the matter: “While Christian persecution takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Jesus Christ. From Sudan to Russia, from Nigeria to North Korea, from Colombia to India, followers of Christianity are targeted for their faith. They are attacked; they are discriminated against at work and at school; they risk sexual violence, torture, arrest and much more.
In 2019 alone, there were:
- Over 245 million Christians living in places where they experience high levels of persecution
- 4,305 Christians killed for their faith
- 1,847 churches and other Christian buildings attacked.
- 3,150 believers detained without trial, arrested, sentenced or imprisoned.
These numbers are mind-boggling. But a further look into them (they came from the 2019 World Watch List) is this: Saudi Arabia didn’t even crack the top ten in terms of persecution against Christians. China didn’t crack the top twenty. The United Arab Emirates sat at number 45. Open Doors only carried the top 50 countries in terms of persecution on their list: The United States of America, Australia, and Great Britain did not make the list. Yet, at least from my observation, there is a growing idea that Evangelical Christians are being persecuted, and we seem to buy into this rhetoric all too easily.
In my humble opinion, Church and Christian leaders aren’t being persecuted. They are being confronted with loss of privilege and that is okay with me.
The idea that we, in our privilege as some of the richest nations on earth, with our human rights advancements, our employment anti-discrimination laws, and our religious freedom acts, might be persecuted ignores the very real systematic targeting of our Christian brothers and sisters in other countries like North Korea, Somalia and Afghanistan – places where confessing Jesus as your saviour may cost you your life or your safety and livelihood.
The worst I will face here, in my white Judeo-Christian privilege, is someone calling me names on the internet. Bullying or harassment, but not high-level stuff that makes me legitimately fear for my safety (apart from that one time Channel Nine put me up in a hotel for a few days after a big story, while their hotshot investigative journalist just happened to be finding out who had been threatening me to try to suppress scrutiny on my dads church. But thats…ironic in timing and in kind).
What we might be dealing with here is a persecution complex
The persecution complex is actually a worrying mental delusion. To plagiarise myself again (now you don’t need to go read the other article), the Merriam-Webster Complex Medical Dictionary calls the persecution complex “the feeling of being persecuted especially without basis in reality.”
In individuals, the persecution complex may be called a persecutory delusion and fall within a range of “delusional disorders’ in the DSM V (the diagnostic handbook of the psychological profession). In groups though, it is an interesting and perhaps dangerous phenomenon. I found a study resource online that helpfully described a persecution complex in the following way: “A persecution complex is a type of delusion. A delusion is a fixed, irrational belief that one is convinced is true despite evidence to the contrary. In the case of people suffering with delusions of persecution, the fixed irrational belief is that others are plotting against and/or following them. Signs that someone may be struggling with a persecution delusion include:
- Increased isolation.
- Paranoid behaviours
- Verbal statements that make little sense or are not rational.
- An increase in angry outbursts.”
If we were to witness this in a friend, we would have the right to be very concerned. But with the rise of cultural and political discourse in the public sphere (i.e. media), it isn’t uncommon for people to face off against a strong or emotive and opposing viewpoint. When this hit to the ego (and we all have an ego, or a sense of self) is combined with a persecution complex, things can get ugly.
So what happens when a group of people holds to the same ideals and experiences similar opposition? You have the potential for a group persecution complex to develop. You have the potential for the group to isolate itself, to believe society is against it, to develop an “us versus them” mentality, and for verbal statements rooted in the persecution delusion to be met with confirmation bias and thus become part of groups’ folklore. My fear is that this can then become the narrative of their lived experience and entrench the persecutory delusion even further.
Let me be real here: this is a terrible situation. Imagine believing society is against you, and the only people who truly understand you are part of a particular group. Imagine constantly thinking everything people write online is geared at you. Imagine the mental and emotional toll that would take. I could unpack this a lot further but I hope the case is clear: Even if the persecution is imagined, the effects of the persecution complex can be very, very real. And thats why the Andrew Thorburn dogwhistle is dangerous.
The Hot Take Wrap Up
If you are in a public role and a position of influence, don’t get scrutiny confused with persecution. How ironic, to sit with six-seven figure incomes and claim “People aren’t being fair to me” when they point out the lack of transparency or complicitness in harm to vulnerable people. There is always a third option. Andrew Thorburn’s third option was to take the hard road and enact profound and positive change for a group of people loved by God but harmed by church.
What a missed opportunity indeed.
(Thanks Essendon FC for the photo. Used without permission.)