I think it’s helpful to learn and hear how others perceive Christians when we argue for religious freedom issues. It may be increasingly difficult for Christians to get a fair hearing, but there is value in us learning about the fears, concerns, and attitudes the unbelieving society is expressing.
A piece in Saturday’s The Age attempted to draw together several issues including the State Liberal leadership, proposed legislation targeting Christian Schools and the Conversion Practices Bill which passed earlier this year.
I know nothing about alleged promises made between Michael O’Brien and the ACL and these things are not my interest here.
As I read, I noticed that one of quotations came from me, although it wasn’t attributed to me (from The Age 5/12). I mentioned this to the reporter (who by the way has been doing excellent reporting on the pandemic in Victoria) as well as a brief summary of why Christians are rightly concerned by the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 . I noted how Churches agreed with aspect of the Bill while explaining how other aspects are overreach and misguided.
With the same degree of surprise as someone jumping into sea and expecting to get wet, the Twitter community bandied together to object to what I said. Their objections were telling. For instance, one person used the issue of child sexual abuse in churches to argue Christians have no right to engage in conversation and dialogue,
“Christian faith had no right to use prayer institutions to groom, abuse, assault, persuade and then cover up child sexual abuse for decades either. Stay out of people’s sexual choices. You lot lost any moral right to have anything to do with persuading (bullying) people.”
While I disagree with how they conflate issues that are very separate, it’s worth listening to the comment. The harm caused by evil people who worked their way inside some churches is truly insidious. Though their abuse may have taken place many years ago, it will have an ongoing effect for many years to come, and possibly for generations. In the first place, the damage inflicted on victims of these crimes is both real and abhorrent. Second, the damage these actions has caused to the reputation of Christ and churches is real. We may say, as I have myself have pointed out, churches are overwhelmingly safe and that such behaviour contradicts every fibre of Christian faith. Indeed, the Bible warns us how people with evil intent will worm their way into churches and cause harm both by their words and by their actions. And of course, issues of sexual abuse are widespread throughout every part of society. Nonetheless, we need to understand how these sins and the manner in which some churches at times overlooked abuse, has understandably marred peoples’ view of Christianity.
Second, there are members of the community who genuinely believe Christians have no right to speak and practice our religion publicly. These voices range from the anonymous Twitter account through to high-profile social commentators and one can mount the case that this is becoming an adopted view inside the current Victorian government.
For example, a few responses to my tweet stated that Christians have no right to persuade anyone,
“In this context, those “offers” are unquestionably acts of psychological abuse, deliberately inflicted on vulnerable people. That you would defend this as your “right” is a damning indictment. Disgraceful. You’re not a victim, stop pretending otherwise.”
The problem is one of framing. I mentioned this issue last week in relation to the Victorian Attorney General’s announcement of forthcoming legislation that is targeting faith-based schools. Instead of supporting the rights of religious organisations to employ people who affirm their values, the Government, using it’s own theological priorities, is seeking to insert its own preferences onto faith-based schools and other organisations.
Similarly, the Conversion Practices Act attempts to remove what are common sense and essential aspects of Christian faith; namely the freedom to persuade and to pray. The lead up to the debate on conversion practices was framed according to a narrow and at times misleading narrative. The Government told stories of so called Christian practices that are horrible (and these are horrible especially to Christian ears). The problem was, these practices were either only ever practised by a small number of marginal religious groups many years ago, or never at all. Instead, what happened is that a straw man was built out of thousands of plastic straws and with a couple of strands a genuine hay. This predominantly false presentation was used to justify making illegal activities that are not only congruent with 2000 years of Christian history, but also congruent with a civilised and pluralistic society that encourages persuasion and conversation and prayer. Does the government have any right to tell me who I can pray for and what I can pray for? It somewhat bemusing to hear ardent secularists approve of political means to step into the religious realm and legislate against prayer and conversation. In the name of equality, Victoria is again moving to diminish freedom and equality and tolerance.
I have been saying for many years that society and sometimes churches have not always treated gay and lesbian neighbours in love and with the respect due them. Every Christian who is a born again Christian is aware of the fact that we only come to know God‘s wonderful forgiveness and the gift of reconciliation because of His undeserved grace and love towards us in Christ. This grace doesn’t motivate hatred toward others, but desires to see people doing well. Of course, the narrative that now controls much public discourse is that you cannot love another person and uphold the Christian view of marriage. It is said that one cannot hold to a Christian view of sexuality and truly want the best for others. The megaphone may be loud, constant, and popular, but it is no more true than those who claim the earth is flat or those who argue that the climate is not warming.
One thing Christians in Victoria need to realise is that we no longer hold a place of respect or authority in our society. Of course, that is a generalisation, for there many Victorians (even among unbelievers) who still value the contributions of Christians and who believe in healthy pluralism. Nonetheless, we need to comes to terms with the fact that culture is shifting The answer isn’t for Christians to pine for yesterday. The answer isn’t to ‘reclaim’ our political or social position. These attempts not only usually fail, they often lead to further polarisation and to muddying the Christian message. There is a place to contest unfair laws and unjust governmental intrusion, but these avenues should be pursued by reasonable minds not by angry activists. Rather, Christians need to be doing what Christians have always done at their best and that is, humbly walk before God, and being persuaded by the Bible keep living out God’s good ways, and with patience, grace and clarity, keep speaking God’s good news, and keep loving our neighbours no matter who they happen to be.