Last night while Melbourne suffered through the Great Snowstorm of 2016 and the rest of the world chased Pokemons, Mentone gathered for quite an extraordinary evening.
The topic of conversation was ‘Freedom of Speech in Australia’, and we were privileged to have speaking, Mr Tim Wilson MHR, and Rev Dr Michael Bird. Present in the audience were members of various political parties (and of none), and people reflecting a variety of religious and non-religious world views, including of course members from Mentone Baptist Church.
The first thing I learnt last night is that the Federal seat of Goldstein, whom Tim Wilson now represents, is not pronounced Goldstein but rather, Goldstein! In other words, the ein is pronounced as mine, not bean. Apologies to everyone living in Beaumaris, Hampton, Brighton, and so on!
Electoral names aside, both Wilson and Bird presented a case for free speech in Australia that was erudite, thoughtful, and engaging. And this was followed by a time of QandA with the audience.
Tim Wilson spoke first. He offered an historical overview of Australia’s anti-discrimination laws, and articulated how ‘good law’, that which related to work place harassment, has been abused by being applied universally to public speech. A case in point is the now infamous and inexplicable Section 17 of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act.
In a defence of free speech, Wilson asked, “is it really right, just, that to exercise our most basic right we have to question whether we are going to be held in contempt of the law and then going have to pay significant legal bills to defend ourselves”
While not the topic at hand, it is difficult to speak on Freedom of Speech in 2016 without commenting on the current marriage debate. Wilson shared some of his own experiences growing up as a homosexual and of him favouring changes to the Marriage Act. Most importantly, in light of his views on marriage, Wilson said,
“I don’t think we can have a constructive conversation around the marriage of same-sex couples until both sides can say what they truly think.”
He then pushed further, pointing out, “the hypocritical nature of so many people today, when they don’t want to hear a particular argument, they declare it to be bigoted or hate speech.” Wilson then referred to Bill Shorten and Penny Wong, noting that only a few short years ago they spoke against changes to the Marriage Act, but now they can’t desist from calling opponents of same-sex marriage, bigots and hate filled.
At the other end of the spectrum, Tim Wilson offered a timely admonition to religious organisations, who though themselves call for a higher standard of morality, they have been exposed, especially in the area of sexual abuse.
As a Christian leader I affirm his rebuke, and would add that men (or women) who commit abhorrent acts on children behind clerical vestments and institutions are not representative of the Christ whom they claim to worship, but are the very manifestation of anti-Christ, for the deny him by their deeds. And yet, we need to understand that the public do not also differentiate between authentic Christians and dress-up Christians. Tim Wilson was spot on to call out Christian leaders to work harder on this.
Mike Bird employed his familiar array of jocose analogies and allusions, while driving home some pertinent truths for Australian society, as well as for Churches.
‘The future is French’, Mike asserted, in relation to where Australian religion and politics is heading. Either we will take the path of Vive la différence or that of the less desirable, Laïcité.
“I like to think our Constitution is robust enough to protect basic freedoms, and our political parties will seek to do right by all. However, people of faith can expect to receive a hard time from progressive activists and parties in the forseeable future. Religion may be sanitised from the public square.”
How should Churches respond to this paradigm cultural and political shift? Bird proposed that the future will either be Swedish or Chinese!
The reproach was overlooked by many last night, but Bird was calling out ‘liberal’ churches, suggesting they suffered from Stockholm syndrome. That is, they have lost their identity by tinkering with the tenets of the Christian faith in order to ensure religion is palatable to the powers that be.
Instead, Bird exhorted Christians to learn from Christianity in China, where it exists on the margins of society. Yet despite the oppression of Christians in China for many decades, it has witnessed exponential growth, and all without the privileges of political and public freedoms, which we currently enjoy in this country.
Michael Bird also lauded Tim Wilson’s work last year in organising the Religious Freedom Roundtable, and he suggested that we need more forums such like that.
If I were to offer any criticisms, they would be minor:
At one point Tim spoke of certain religious groups who have tried to impose their morality onto other minorities. I do not disagree that historically there have been religious groups who’ve behaved as such, but the key word here is ‘impose’. There is an essential difference between imposition and influence, or pressure and persuasion. Mike said it well, when he exhorted Christians to “persuasive and compassionate discourse.”
In a crescendo of rhetoric Mike declared that, ’Christendom is over’. I would push back on this point and argue that Christendom in Australia never was. There is no doubt that Christianity has significantly influenced Australian culture and life, but it has been tolerated rather than happily embraced, sitting there in a position of begrudged prominence.
The content of each presentation was winsome and helpful, but for me the highlight of the evening was the manner in which the conversation was conducted, including participation from the audience. The tone was respectful but not innocuous; certain hypocrisies were called out, and serious challenges were proposed, but all without the immature name-calling and shout downs that are becoming all to common in the public square.
Last night demythologised the rhetoric of some social progressives, that civil dialogue can’t be had on issues relating to sexuality and marriage. Can an heterosexual Evangelical Anglican clergyman discuss issues of national importance with an agnostic gay politician? The answer is, yes. Indeed, despite obvious differences, they shared much in common. And can a room full of people, representing a spectrum of political and religious ideologies, enjoy a robust night of conversation? Yes, and in fact, people stayed and talked so late into the evening I was tempted to begin turning off the lights.
Finally, as a poignant way to close the evening, while answering a question on how to raise children to preserve and properly practice free speech, Mike Bird responded, ‘Love God, love your neighbour.’
Of course, these words comes from the lips of Jesus, who in turn was affirming the Old Testament Scriptures, and they remain the model for how Christians relate to others in society. I cannot speak for those of other world views, but this is how Christians must participate in both public and private. This Golden Rule does not build a staircase to Heaven as is sometimes believed, but rather, it is the life response of a person who has been captivated by the grace and mercy of God in Christ Jesus. It was fitting way to end such a rewarding night, “Love your neighbour as yourself”.