INTERVIEW | Kaley Payne
Tuesday 9 February 2016
When Common Grace started up in 2015, it wanted to begin a “Christian movement passionate about Jesus and justice”. Now, one year in, they’re thinking about what comes next. Jess Smith and Kylie Beach from the Common Grace team say they want the organisation to be about “what we have in common” rather than what separates us, and to be a “positive, gracious voice” that calls our leaders to account on issues like gambling reform, climate change, Indigenous rights, and the treatment of asylum seekers. Their aim for 2016 is clear: “More Like Jesus”.
What are you personally most excited about for Common Grace in 2016?
Jess Smith: I’m excited about this next phase for Common Grace. A year ago we were just an idea. Now we’ve tested it out and we’ve built a community and there’s still so much potential ahead and what we could explore. So it’s really exciting to think about what we could be in a year’s time. We’re thinking about who are the people we can build this community with, what do they want to be involved in and what will they do in their communities as a result?
Tim Costello, who is on our board, has been really involved with Common Grace, and we’ve been partnering with the Alliance of Gambling Reform around poker machines. We’re concerned about people in great poverty who are addicted because these machines are predatory. But you can imagine a church community getting really excited about those reforms, and engaging their communities to see real change. And there are so many different places you can see that potential.
Are there big themes Common Grace is focusing on in 2016?
Jess: What we’re longing to see is the Australian Church overflowing in beautiful acts of justice for Jesus. That’s what we’re looking for. The church is already doing lots of amazing things. For us, year one was last year and we’re still experimenting with what Common Grace looks like. This year is going to be about continuing to build a movement of Christians who are passionate about Jesus and justice.
There are multiple things we’re always doing to that end. We’re on about helping Christians follow Jesus well and to hear his words to love your neighbour, care for the poor and the oppressed. We want to celebrate where the church is already doing great things, and we want to mobilise more Christians in these areas.
Kylie Beach: The big picture is always that we want to help Christians understand why justice is a key part of being a Christian and equip people with resources to continue to grow in that part of their faith. We see that overflowing into a positive, Christian conversation in the public conversation.
We’re looking to take the opportunities to contribute a positive, gracious, voice on the issues we’re facing in Australia.
What do you think are those ‘big issues’ that Australia is facing?
Kylie: I think our campaign teams probably indicate those priorities for us. We have an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Justice Team; a team for people seeking asylum; a team for caring for God’s earth; domestic and family violence; and a “Love Thy Neighbour” team which is about seeking a generous Australia that is not divided by race or class but working together.
We want to answers why these issues matter for Christians and how we can be involved in a way that is consistent with what we believe and what Jesus would like us to do.
Are there particular issues you’re looking at because it’s an election year in 2016?
Kylie: To be honest, we don’t actually talk a lot about politics and about parties and elections. We’re not a political lobby group.
It’s issue by issue. On seeking asylum: What does the Bible have to say? What’s already being done? How can we engage in this?
It’s the same for Indigenous incarceration rates: what does God ask of us in this situation? It’s issue by issue, which I think is a helpful way of not ending up aligned with a party but keeping your allegiance to Christ first.
I think this is a new way. You don’t have to just go down a party line. We want to take a step back and look at each issue and advocate on each issue.
By all means, let’s call our leaders to justice, like Christ’s kind of justice, and let’s ask them to represent us and let’s affirm them when they do. And let’s call them to do better when they don’t.
How do you pick the issues you’re focusing on?
Jess: I guess the issues we have came about because the people in our movement are excited about those things, or have a heart for responding to them. Or there’s a big priority issue that’s happening in our nation that Christians aren’t responding to and that the Christian contribution can be quite specific.
So, for example, there’s a climate movement, but where are the Christians calling out to care for our earth? We feel that’s an issue we can contribute too.
In 2015 we put on a conference that pulled together the lots of different Christian organisations working on this. Their message can be buried a bit. So coming together and championing what they’re doing and offering them a megaphone is something we can try and do.
You mentioned that part of what Common Grace wants to do is to equip Christians to be able to respond to justice issues. What do you think Christians are missing that you could provide in order for us to do that better?
Kylie: I think there’s a range of things. Awareness is something. We all lead busy lives. Christians want to do good, they want to love their neighbour, but sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. And we want to bring into focus some of the domestic issues we have here, discuss their complications and work through them biblically and carefully and then give clear ways for people to act, that might work for the level of engagement that they’re ready for.
You can’t ask people to do something that they’re not ready for. So if you’re just starting to get a revelation that Christ calls us to be his hands and feet when it comes to justice on the earth, what’s the next step there? We want to provide that small next step so they can continue to grow and take the next step, and the next.
Are Christians difficult to kick into gear?
Jess: I think what’s interesting is that it’s really complex to know how to start to respond to some of the issues we’re dealing with. So, for example, at the end of last year we had 16 days of prayer for domestic violence, and we offered education within that around domestic violence. Some of the feedback we got was fabulous, along the lines of “I didn’t know where to start with this, but this gives me the words to take this before God.” This is a journey. We’re learning about domestic violence and we’re praying about it. And hopefully that will spin out to write to your MP, or to speak out in your community about this issue.
So, is it hard? Yes, though no harder than for non-Christians. But you have to be smart and not ask things that aren’t realistic. Start small.
Kylie: My experience is that Christians are generous and sincerely wanting to live out their faith. I want Common Grace to be a trustworthy source for them to engage with issues in a way that works for them. Like the mum at home who has an hour on Facebook while her kids are having their afternoon nap. Where does she start? If we can be an entry point for her to think about what’s going on in the world, and offer a way for her to connect with her faith and start engaging, then that’s what we want to do.
Have you seen a divide among the Christian community along the lines of those who are concerned with ‘social justice’ and those engaged in ‘moral issues’?
Jess: I guess we’re trying to say that it doesn’t need to be a one or the other thing. We don’t want to talk in those two categories. Following Jesus means I want to live a holy life, turning from sin and following him. But part of that call is also that I want to live a holy life that overflows with love for my neighbour. I think Jesus wants both of those things from us. And those divisions have led us astray. The church doesn’t buy into those categories, I don’t think. So we don’t want to pull them apart either.
But the issues you’re focusing on – refugees, domestic violence, Indigenous rights – are certainly in the ‘social justice’ bucket …
Jess: Yes, but we’re just one part of the puzzle. For most Christians, hopefully, they’ll be called to support what their church is speaking about too. Part of where we came from is to answer the question: ‘Who is speaking on climate change or Indigenous issues?’ and filling a gap within the Christian body in speaking into those issues.
I’ve heard criticisms from those speaking out against same-sex marriage or abortion, for example, who say those issues are also about social justice and who question why groups like yours aren’t speaking out in defense of marriage or life. What do you think about that criticism? Why aren’t you speaking into the debate on same-sex marriage?
Kylie: I really feel like lots of people would like to tell us what our priorities should be, and put us into a certain lane. But we feel strongly that the lane we’re in is what God has asked us to do, which is to ask people to focus on what we have in common. We have so much in common: an experience of grace, a common saviour. To continually let the Christian voice in Australia be dominated by what we don’t have in common is, for us, not a great use of our energy. And it’s not a great way to show people who don’t know Jesus yet what Jesus looks like. We want to be a voice that calls for people to love and causes people to praise.
That’s not to say that same-sex marriage isn’t complex, or that there shouldn’t be debate. But we don’t want to be forced down a road of something we don’t think God has asked us to do.
Jess: We’re calling for grace for those people who’ve been marginalised and outcast. At this moment, that’s how we understand who we are. We want to be a body of unified Christians focusing on what we have in common and using it for the loving service of our vulnerable neighbour.