Since when has Christianity been so concerned about religious freedom?

Fairfax Contributor, Matt Holden, has asked the question,

“since when has Christianity been so concerned about religious freedom?”

With a skilful display of not letting truth get in the way, he has answered,

“Not ever, really, is the short answer.”

The question is not, have forms of Christianity ever led to the diminishment of peoples’ religious freedoms, for history gives us such examples. However, history give many more examples where Christianity provides the philosophic undergirding for a genuine pluralist society. Holden cites the campaign against the Bendigo Mosque in 2016, asking, where were the Christians then? The truth is, there were Christians in Bendigo doing the very thing Holden alleges did not happen. Perhaps he should be asking, why did the media not report it? More recently, when Waverley Council in Sydney refused the building of a Synagogue in Bondi, Christian groups were vocal in calling for the Council to change their position.

 

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In a recent article for the Gospel Coalition, Dr Russell Moore (President of Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention), wrote,

“when we say—as Baptists and many other Christians always have—that freedom of religion applies to all people, Christian or not, we are not suggesting that there are many paths to God, or that truth claims are relative. We are fighting for the opposite. We are saying religion should be free from state control because we believe every person must give an account before the Judgment Seat of Christ.”

Have Christians always done this well? No, but more often they have, and the reality is, the social pluralism we enjoy in this country relies upon a Christian worldview. It is not irreligion that brought religious pluralism to our shores, but the Christian view that we ought to love our neighbours, and that authentic belief in God comes about through persuasion not coercion. This is another unfortunate mistake made by Holden. It seems as though he has swallowed the now popular myth that Christians are forcing their views onto society and that evangelism amounts to bullying. The reality is very different. By definition, Christianity is a conversion religion. No one is born Christian, but people become convinced by the claims of Jesus Christ; that he is true and good. Christianity is a persuasion religion, speaking and articulating and convincing others of what the Bible says.

Holden gives himself away when he insists, “‘the best guarantee of religious freedom is keeping religion out of politics”. In other words,  he doesn’t want religious Australians having the freedom to present their point of view. As it is, we enjoy one of the safest and most stable society’s in the world, where people of faith and none are free to express their beliefs, and to persuade others of their opinion. Holden says, those days must end.

He adds,

“This sudden defence of religious freedom by churches and religious lobby groups just doesn’t wash.”

I’m not sure how Holden would define ‘sudden’, but 116 years ago, in 1901, the framers of the Australian constitution used Judeo-Christian principles to establish a secular nation. By secular they did not mean banning religious thought from politics and public discourse. true secularism means the freedom to speak regardless of ones religious affiliation, or lack thereof. Indeed, this understanding of religious freedom can be traced back to the Bible and to the teaching of Jesus Christ.

The issue is, certain elements of the community don’t like what Christian have to say on about marriage and other social issues, but instead of engaging reasonably with argument, folk like Matt Holden are aiming to shut down those who disagree. Whether he is aware or not, Holden is not proposing secularism, but State imposed atheism; it is anti-pluralism. If the only permitted discourse must void of language deferring to God and religion, then what we have is exclusive and intolerant atheism.

We know how anti-religious world views have had a shot at taking charge of nations, and they have produced for the world Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and North Korea. I’m fairly sure that this is not the kind of country most Australians are wanting to become.

Last year the Victorian Government attempted to pass legislation that would have taken freedom from religious organisations in hiring staff. It was, as Dr Michael Bird explained at the time, an example of Secularized Erastianism, a philosophy which asserts that the State shapes and controls religious belief and practice. Is this the direction Australia wants to head?

Finally, despite various politicians and social commentators insisting that same-sex marriage has nothing to do with freedom of religion, they are dedicating an awful lots of words to argue how opponents of same-sex marriage are all haters and need to be silenced. Two weeks ago another Fairfax Columnist, Aubrey Perry, argued that the debate on marriage has everything to do with religion, by which she meant, let’s use marriage as a weapon to remove religion from public life altogether.

Pluralism in Australian will only continue so long as those in authority allow alternative views to be expressed publicly, without fear of litigation or threats of violence. To the surprise of many, the global movement in the early 21st Century is not away from religion to irreligion or from faith to reason, but away from philosophical pluralism to both religious and secular authoritarianism.  We are a long way from where things could lead, but we are no longer standing from the sideline and pontificating the possibilities. As Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘the game is afoot’. This should concern all Australians, not because pluralism is god, and not because we are moral and spiritual relativists, but because we believe a healthy society requires its citizens to argue and persuade, and to allow others to make up their minds.

 

 

 

In accordance with s 6(5) of the Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Act 2017, this communication was authorised by Murray Campbell , of Melbourne, Victoria.

Turkey, Anzac Day, and Disappearing Religious Freedom

While Australia prepares to once again remember the Gallipoli landings, the very same day, April 25th 1915, brought Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to national prominence in Turkey. As the Australians troops waded ashore and clambered up the bluffs overlooking what would become Anzac Cove, the few Turkish defenders were gradually pushed inland, until reinforcements arrived led by Mustafa Kemal.

“I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die.”

With this extraordinary command, Kemal prevented the Australians from advancing further, and the two sides began digging into the ancient soil for what would become 9 months of death and horror.

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Mustafa Kemal survived the war, entered politics, and in 1923 he closed the final chapter on the 600 year old Ottoman Empire, giving birth to a new and secular democracy.  It would be a misjudgment of history to ignore the social and religious tensions that Turkey has balanced over that century, especially when it comes to minority ethnic groups in the Eastern regions of the country, and yet Turkey has avoided much of the turmoil and bloodshed that almost every other Middle Eastern nation has experienced over the same period.

As Australia commemorates Anzac Day, Turkey is on the edge of democratic suicide, as her people vote on a referendum that will introduce sweeping changes to their constitution.

Since the failed coup d’état in July last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tightened his control over the country. Many thousands of people have been imprisoned, journalists arrested, and Christian missionaries deported. Five months following the attempted coup, President Erdogan announced a referendum, proposing 18 changes to the nation’s constitution. In short, a yes vote (which appears to have won the day) will give the President new powers over judicial appointments, cabinet appointments, calling and dissolving Parliament, setting the nation’s budget, and all without need of Parliamentary approval. Opponents are concerned that genuine democratic freedoms are already slipping from the populace and should these constitutional amendments become law, Turkey will in effect become an autocratic state. Many people also fear that Turkey is transitioning from being a secular state with a Muslim majority, to an Islamic State with a non Muslim minority.

Prior to 1915, most Australians thought of Turkey as a far away land, filled with ancient history and splendour. From April 25th our history became enmeshed with theirs, and our blood mingled with their blood. Today, Turkey doesn’t feel so remote, and yet we may not automatically see the relevance of this week’s decision.

We would do well to remember that the tide of history has often set its course from this land where East and West intertwine. For six centuries prior to the Dardenelles campaign of 1915, the Ottoman Empire ruled over much of the Middle East and North Africa, serving as both a thorn and flower to Europe. For nearly a thousand years before the Ottomans, the grand Byzantine Empire flourished, a child of the Christianised Roman Empire. This clash between East and West is an ancient one, with Alexander the Great defeating Darius across Turkey, first at Grancius and then at Issus. A thousand years earlier, the shores of Turkey were the setting of Homeric poems and the tales of Troy.

As the sun sets over the Bospherus, we would be mistaken to think that Turkey’s situation is an isolated one, for all over the world we are seeing the expulsion of pluralist societies in favour of authoritarian secularism and religious monocronism. Both are absolutist and exclusivist, with the latter however showing transparency about their religious commitments and the former hiding them behind thin sheets of quasi intellectual and moral neutrality.

Jonathan Leeman is right when he asserts, “secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps even as liberal authoritarianism. it depends on beliefs without conclusive evidence.”

At the beginning of the year I began using the phrase authoritarian secularism, as a way of making distinction between true secularism and what we now see being practiced in Australia.  When our nation adopted the language of secular, as in Section 116 of the Constitution, the intent was that the State would not create or be controlled by any given religious persuasion. Today, the language has been hijacked by popularists who allege religion has no place in the public square, whether in politics or education and even in the workplace. Such a position is not derivative of constitutional law or of reason, but the sheer and persistent belief in unbelief.

My own state of Victoria is the sharp edge of progressive politics in Australia, and it is so because authoritarian secularism has substantial sway culturally.

What is happening is this: society has begun limiting free speech in order to push out beliefs that don’t fit the current cultural milieu, and the intent is to fill that space with the agenda of the sexual revolution. What is true of Victoria is true for most other parts of Australia, and is happening across much of the Western world. The tensions are not ours alone, but with no greater zeal in Australia than what we are witnessing in Victoria.

Christians are among those feeling these cultural shifts acutely because the movement is away from cultural Christian. This is not to be confused with Gospel Christianity for the two are not synonymous. Neither, however are they impervious of the other.

It is not as though the current Victorian Government is entirely anti-religion; rather, it wants a sanitised religion and for it remain outside public discourse. In other words, progressive politics wants religion controlled. There is clear evidence of this intent, as demonstrated, for example, by the proposed amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act last year. The ‘inherent requirement test’ would have required all religious organisations, including churches, to justify before a Government organised tribunal, reasons why it is necessary for employees to subscribe to the particular religious beliefs of the organisation. In other words, a Church could be held to account for refusing employment to a Hindu, and a Mosque find itself on the wrong side should they refuse employment to a Christian. Thankfully, the Bill was unsuccessful in the Legislative Council, being defeated by a single vote!

A pluralist society, which Australia is, only continues so long as those in authority allow alternative views to be expressed publicly. The fact is that a State Government, and a number of mainstream political parties across the nation, are not only questioning freedom of religious practice, but have begun issuing policies to quell views and practices that don’t conform to the new morality.

To the surprise of many, the global movement in the early 21st Century is not away from religion to irreligion or from faith to reason, but away from philosophical pluralism to both religious and secular authoritarianism.  We are a long way from where things could lead, but we are no longer standing from the sideline and pontificating the possibilities. As Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘the game is afoot’. This should be of concern to global communities, not because pluralism is god, and not because we are moral and spiritual relativists, but because we believe that the State should not dictate religious belief.

As a Christian, I believe in persuasion not coercion. I believe in religious freedom for all, for if not for all it is not freedom at all. It is true though, Christianity can function and flourish in the midst of even ignominious regimes, because the Christian hope does not ultimately depend upon particular political structures, constitutions, and dictates. Our hope rests in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This victory-over-death hope gives us freedom to submit to a harsh Government, and freedom to dissent when they do wrong to a neighbour.

The people of Turkey are in my prayers this week. As we take note of this history turning land, we should not be ignorant of our own proclivities. Religious freedom is being contained and controlled from Canada to Cairo, and from Russia to Riyadh, and similar intent is now being verbalised politically and socially on our own shores.  I am not arguing for freedom of religion as some ultimate axiom, but as scaffolding on which a healthy society may grow, by enabling debate and disagreement, and the contest of ideas.

Saying No to a Registry for Muslims

According to media reports, political advisors close to Donald Trump are exploring the establishment of a registry for Muslim immigrants to the United States. The policy may extend as far as requiring all Muslim Americans to be signed up to a Government register.

No doubt such a decision will find many supporters, even among some Australians. It is likely that Trump policies may give greater voice to certain groups in Australia, and so as a way of pre-empting such conversations here, let me give 4 reasons why a Muslim registry is a really bad idea.

1. Lessons from history

When a Government decides to impose itself on a religious minority, hatred and intolerance is incited and people suffer. Is this not one of the plagues of the Islamic State? Indeed, in many Islamic nations non-muslim citizens are marked out and carry the burden of having to pay the Jizya.

Some commentators have already raised the example of Nazi Germany. On the one hand, I find it somewhat duplicitous  that ‘left’ leaning journalists are outraged when conservative commentators cite the example of Nazism, and yet they seem to have little qualm in using the analogy when it suits them. In this instance though, while being careful not to overdo the comparison, the question is not completely absurd.

2. Most Muslims are not terrorists

It would be foolish to deny a connection between Islamic beliefs and current terrorist activity across the globe. Whether it is IS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and many others, one of the common threads is Islamic religion.

It is also the case that many nation states adhere to strict forms of Islam, and while we exchange trade and business with these countries, internally they impose a religion on their citizens that is often harsh, and where women are mistreated and non believers denied rights.

Without ignoring real ideological issues that are often found in cultures where Islam is dominant, this does not mean that the populations living in those countries are content with the status quo, or that they are potential insurgents laying in waiting. The reality is, millions of people are fleeing these countries in order to find a new life, a  better life.

Muslim people have been living in Australia since the 19th Century, and for the most part they are hard working contributors to our country. They are friendly, kind, and are important members of our diverse and pluralist society.

Should the many suffer indignity because of a few? Indeed, those few persons who are of concern to the Government, are they not already highlighted? If so, what is the point of another register which will require all Muslim people to be participants?

3. The hypocrisy

There is a hidden hypocrisy at work here, both in the political and religious arenas.

Over the last decade across Western Governments we have witnessed increased intolerance towards people whose religious convictions don’t conform to the secular humanist worldview, especially when it comes to the issues of sexuality and marriage. This has been evident both in the USA and Canada, and my own State of Victoria is among the leading examples of this Erastian movement. Those who have been working to remove Christian ethics in the public square may well cry foul over this proposed registry, but they do so from a position of illegitimacy.

This works both ways. So when Christians speak up and seek to defend their freedom of religious thought, speech and life, do we deny it for others?

It will be of no surprise to readers that I disagree with Islam, mormonism, atheism, and many other belief systems. These theologies hold a view of God that contradicts the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, and yet nation states are not Churches, they are (in our modern history) secular and pluralist institutions. As such, a functioning and maturity society will find ways for this diversity to cohere, and encourage public spaces for people to disagree and to debate with fervour and respect.

4. Threats of a registry creates fear and makes people vulnerable.

Would I like my own family to live in fear and with uncertainty, not knowing how the Government may act toward us, given our race or religion?

I know for a fact, many Victorian Christians have felt apprehension as our Government continues to pressure our children out of public schools, and we are experiencing uncertainty as legislation is introduced to control Christian Churches and organisations. Would we wish that on another minority group?

One American Muslim has written this,

“This is what it feels like to me now that the republican nominee is now the president elect.

He is the abuser. We are trapped. We are circling the wagons, trying to mitigate the damage by finding allies and waiting for the abusive behavior that we know is coming. We are sharing strategies on how to parent our children now that our president elect has taught them that being a racist, sexist, fear mongering, money hungry bully will get you the highest office in the nation.

We are trying to find the way to rebuild the inroads amongst ourselves while finding the strength and power to strategize how we can get free.

This is a far different place than I thought our nation would be today. I saw hope, I saw people of color being treated fairly. I saw refugees and immigrants being embraced for their unique potential; I envisioned a path towards unity. I live and breathe the mantra, Stronger Together every day.

Now I look out my door and wonder, which one of my neighbors thought it was a good idea to elect a president who wants to implement a Muslim registry. A database of anyone who practices Islam, so they can be watched and rounded up whenever he believes we need to be put in check.”

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Christians must speak up for our Muslim neighbours, not because we agree with their religion, but because they should not be discriminated against for their religious beliefs. They are citizens of our countries, and they are human beings who ought to be treated with dignity and kindness.

There is no doubt, Donald Trump’s ascent to the Presidency has sent many social progressives into cardiac arrest. What many thought was an inevitable social engineering quest from the left has become not so assured. Perhaps the rise of Trump will only prove to be a temporary swing of the pendulum, but for now, the shift is real and no one yet knows how far it will move.

Many Christians will be thankful that they may find some reprieve after years of pushing and shoving from social progressives, but I don’t believe we should be rejoicing at the prospect of a Trump Presidency.

As calls are made for a Muslim registry, Christians would do well to remember people like Naaman, the Samaritan woman, and the jailor in Philippi. Ask ourselves, how do we love our neighbours? Should we cause them to fear, or should we protect them? I reckon we would do well to reread Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan,

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

(Luke 10:25-37)

Incoherent ‘inherent requirement’ test

Two months ago I sat in a packed room where Mr Tim Wilson MP and Rev Dr Michael Bird addressed the topic, ‘Freedom of Speech in Australia today’. During the conversation Mike Bird said that the next issue facing Victorians will be in relation to religious schools and discrimination policies. This week my non-prophetic friend was proven to be right: the Victorian Government announced that it will reintroduce the ‘inherent requirement’ test, impacting whom religious organisations may and may not employ.

The test was originally introduced by the previous Labor Government in 2010, but was removed in 2011 by the Coalition Government.

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This explanation is offered on the Premier’s website:

“The test was scrapped by the former Coalition Government in 2011, which left many Victorians vulnerable to discrimination when seeking employment with religious bodies or schools, particularly because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The inherent requirements test will limit the ability of a religious body or school to rely on a religious defence to discriminate in the area of employment because of a person’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or differing religious beliefs.

The defence will be limited to circumstances where religious beliefs are an inherent requirement of a job, and an employee or job applicant does not meet the requirement because of a specific personal attribute.

The test will not force religious bodies or schools to employ people with attributes that conflict with its religious beliefs and principles. However, it will require them to demonstrate a necessary connection between their religious beliefs and the requirements of a specific role.”

This latest move from the Victorian Government is disturbing, although not surprising. I appreciate and at times laud the Government’s move to ensure particular social minority groups are protected, including LGBTI people. But one may be forgiven for concluding that some of the extreme measures have less to do with the principle of inclusion, and more about exclusion.

For example, removing SRI from schools had nothing to do with advocating sexual equality. Indeed, the list of anti-religious of measures is growing, and one can only wonder where and if Mr Andrews’ will draw the line. Over the last two years many Victorian families have come to feel as though they are being pushed away from public schools, and now it appears as though the same Government is set on invading the religious school space also, and that of any religious organisation. It is yet unclear whether Churches will be protected from this test or not.

The inherent requirement test is a deeply flawed concept:

First, the notion of ‘inherent requirement’ depends upon imposing a secularist view of religion. The test presumes a separation between what is considered spiritual work and what is not. It is surmising, for example, that a gardener or an office administrator is not doing specifically Christian work because they are not teaching the Bible, etc. This is a false dichotomy that does not exist in Christian faith, nor in many other religions. Every role is an expression of commitment to God and is a valuable part of the whole which serves a common purpose.

Second, this test wrongly assumes that because a particular role does not have a direct theological or spiritual teaching component, it therefore does not matter whether the employee agrees with the organisation’s ethos, beliefs, and vision. This is purely illogical. Why would any organisation or company employ a person who does not support the basic values and vision of that association?

Equal Opportunity doesn’t mean sameness. I’m not doubting the Victorian Government’s commitment to ‘equal opportunity’, but their paradigm of equal opportunity is flawed, and represents an ethic that is not ultimately about diversity, but about conformity.

During that cold July night when Michael Bird pre-empted Mr Andrews’ announcement this week, Tim Wilson offered an idea which deserves consideration as the Victorian Parliament wrestles with this legislation. Mr Wilson believes that the question of whom religious organisations employ is better dealt with through contracts rather than through law. He said,

“In terms of hiring and firing people, I don’t think it’s best dealt with through law. I fully accept that religious institutions have a right to preserve the environment and the value systems of people who embody those value systems.”

“It is the right of children and parents, to raise their children in the culture, traditions and customs to which they hold dear.”

Finally, the question needs to be asked, is it reasonable for a Government to determine what constitutes required religious adherence or not? Is it the Government’s role to dictate theology and ministry practice? Does the Government have the necessary skills and knowledge required to adequately understand theology and therefore make the right judgement regarding the question of what is inherent?

Looking to the Russian Winter

News of the Russian Olympic drug scandal has reached the ears of the media and is being rightly exposed, but flying under the radar is another Russian story, one of tragic Dostoevskian proportions.

Two weeks ago President Vladimir Putin signed into law measures outlawing evangelistic activities of religious groups in Russia. Under the guise of ‘anti-terrorism’, the Russian Government has banned churches from communicating their beliefs outside of sites officially designated by the state.

Charges can now be made against individuals for inviting people to church, for distributing literature in the community, and for presenting in peaceful ways, a persuasive case for one’s religious convictions.

Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Thomas J. Reese, has said,

“These deeply flawed anti-terrorism measures will buttress the Russian government’s war against human rights and religious freedom…They will make it easier for Russian authorities to repress religious communities, stifle peaceful dissent, and detain and imprison people. Neither these measures nor the currently existing anti-extremism law meet international human rights and religious freedom standards.”

Thousands of Churches across Russia are holding prayer vigils, but with little hope of seeing the Government return to any sense of reasonableness.

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Most Australians will recognise these measures as alarming, draconian, and unbefitting of any nation claiming to be a pluralist society and a liberal democracy. Whether Russia would consider itself to be these things is disputable, but surely we would never witness such restrictions here in Australia?

Before we ask Dale to tell the world of the hole we haven’t dug, we must recognise that Putin-like voices can also be found in Australia, on both poles of politics. The ideology is different, but the desire to control and limit religion is similar.  In the media, politics, and education there is a growing murmuring, arguing that religion is tolerable in private, but has no place in public discourse, and certainly not in politics and in our schools. For example, both the Greens and the Sex Party are famed for policies that will reduce religious freedoms, and the current Victorian Government has done more to legislate against Christian freedoms than any other Australian Government in living memory.

Then there is the now infamous example of Section 17 of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act, and how it was used to attack the Catholic Archbishop, Julian Porteous. What was so intolerable that the weight of law was required to come down on him? Well, Porteous published a pamphlet for Catholics, explaining a view of marriage that is congruent not only with Catholic beliefs, but which also reflects the legal definition of marriage in Australia.

It is possible to prohibit religious speech through law, and it possible to achieve the same goal by bullying and slandering those who hold religious convictions. In the lead up to the Federal election there were notable voices telling the Australian people that public dialogue about the Marriage Act was impossible. Ironically, the very same people proved their point as they employed insults and derogatory words against those who dared suggest a plebiscite might be a good idea.

Secularists wants us to believe that the public space is a purist place free from ideologue, which of course they define as atheistic humanism.This could not be further from the truth, for there is no public vacuum free from assumptions and beliefs informed by world views.  The Australian public space is pluralist, and invites people to contribute, not by leaving their convictions and consciences at home, but by bringing them to the conversation. The epistemic and moral superiority of secular humanism is as mythical as the pokemon, and yet we are chasing after it.

There is a distinction established in Australia’s Constitution between the secular state and religious institutions, but it does not denude the role of religion in public, but simply protects the State from either being controlled by or instituting any single Christian denomination.

“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.” (Ch5. Section 116)

This Australian dichotomy between government and religion is easily sustained for Christians, given that the distinction exists because of the Christian world view. For the Christian, Jesus is Lord over all of life but the church is not the state and the state is not the church. There is an entity called the  ‘Church of England’, which is the unfortunate outcome of various historical quirks, rather than theological necessity, but it is not the situation we have here in Australia. To what extent other religions can manage this distinction, is a topic worth exploring.

During the recent Symposium on ‘Freedom of Speech’, hosted by Mentone Baptist Church, the new member of Goldstein, Tim Wilson, remarked,

“we need a lived culture of open discussion”.

It was as though someone had finally solved the congestion issues on Melbourne’s roads, such was the freshness.  Mr Wilson gave example to this value by addressing the marriage debate, saying, “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.”

I couldn’t agree with him more.

A darkness is descending on Russia. For so much of her history the Russian people have been oppressed by one totalitarian rule or another. The light of democracy that dawned late last century is now disappearing over this vast steppe. Australians can assume the naive posture of ‘never us’, but the seeds of religious intolerance are already planted, and without due care it will grow and choke free speech. 

Not imposition but persuasion; that is the mark of a true liberal democracy. Progress cannot be achieved when the State bullies its own citizens and stifles disagreement; it only further polarises people. We would do well to heed Tim Wilson’s exhortation. More than that, perhaps we should return to the words of the Christian Scriptures’ that many Australians now deem as irrelevant, ‘speak truth in love’. Imagine, grounding a society upon that ethic?

‘Vive La Australia’: Freedom of Speech in Australia

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.

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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.

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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”.

The talks an be downloaded here and the QandA here

Walk a Different Path to One Nation

In the wash out from Saturday’s election I found this gem from a Facebook friend:

“It’s time for Christians to show some empathy for our Muslim neighbours. Christians cry “persecution” at the drop of a hat, but can we even imagine how Muslims must feel knowing there’s a whole party dedicated entirely to attacking them in the senate?!”

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In the midst of growing suspense as to who will Govern Australia for the next three years, emerging out of the smoke is Pauline Hanson. Hanson and her One Nation party are set to claim between 2 and 4 seats in the Senate (thanks a lot Queensland!). A centre piece of their campaign strategy are  policies relating to Muslims, including prohibiting further Muslim migrants and banning the building of Mosques.

The reality of fear mongering is that there is almost always a speck of truth to be found, but it is swamped by swathes of hyperbole, caricature, and untruths. Yes, there is a problem within Islam, as we have seen again in Baghdad, Dhaka, and Istanbul. As a Christian, I disagree with the Islamic view of God and of the world. But do we not realise that fear and hate breed only more fear and hate? Are we benign to the fact that our words are rarely hypothetical, but relate to real human beings? We can assume many Australian Muslims are today feeling apprehensive at the prospect of having in Parliament a block of Senators whose agenda targets them.

It is important to realise that fear tactics are not owned exclusively by Pauline Hanson; we have seen them employed by many and on issues ranging from asylum seekers to marriage, and dare I suggest, Medicare?  There is however, something particularly ugly about One Nation’s platform.

If One Nation’s aim was to win votes, the strategy has clearly worked. If however, their design is to create a better nation, their failure is inevitable because their ideology is premised on hate. This is a growing concern across the political spectrum as people refuse difference of opinion.  A democracy without dissent has lost its soul. Other groups can speak for themselves, but it is all very well for Christians to speak about preserving freedom of religion for ourselves, and yet in denying it for others, are we not in danger of falling into hypocrisy?

Christians must not only resist One Nation’s Muslim policies, but we must counter them by walking a different path.

One day Jesus was questioned by the legal and social commentators of his day, and he responded to their scrutiny by saying, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The pundits agreed, that is, until Jesus gave expression to this principle,

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

This is how Christians ought to relate to our Muslim neighbours.

Freedom of Speech

The topic of ‘Freedom of Speech’ grabbed national attention in last week’s Federal election.

Newly elected member of Goldstein, Tim Wilson, and Dr Michael Bird (of Ridley College) will be speaking at the public event.

Just one week to go.  Reserve you tickets here

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The grass is not always greener on the other side

“Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”

    For it is not wise to ask such questions.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10)

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In my view, Christians should not be so entrenched in a political ideology that they cannot in principle move to another party and viewpoint;  after all, Gospel values can not be boxed into particular  political ideologies, and the current political landscape in Australia is an example of this. Many Christians are rightly dismayed by the Coalition’s policies on asylum seekers and cuts to foreign aid. Similarly, there is significant concern with Labor’s position on asylum seekers, as well as positions on marriage, sexuality, and freedom of religion that is being platformed by both Labor and the Greens.

Of course, there are a thousand economic issues which should not neglected either, for economics contribute impacts societal good and order, and vice versa.

It feels as though our politicians are digging tunnels in the mud, in a race to the bottom of the quagmire.

I don’t disdain politics, nor those who are prepared to serve the public in what is often a much maligned profession. As Christians, we believe we should honour those in authority and to pray for them. This we do, and without denuding these things, in our democratic society we also have opportunity and responsibility to articulate our concerns.

As a Pastor, I have never suggested to others how they should vote, nor do I disclose my own vote. I do however believe it is important for voters to be aware of  agendas their vote will be supporting.

In any Government there is the good and bad, but the bad in our political parties right now is so appalling, it is leaving many voters (not only Christians) despondent and with little enthusiasm for tomorrow. Not only so, the gravity of the issues at stake have provoked more Christian commentary than I have seen in any previous election.

Chief among the issues is religious freedom, which most popularly framed in terms of the debate on marriage, however there are other related issues. For example,

Earlier in the election campaign, opposition legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus referenced one of his own party’s policies, saying, “Labor believes that no faith, no religion, no set of beliefs should ever be used as an instrument of division or exclusion… Condemning anyone, discriminating against anyone, vilifying anyone is a violation of the values we all share, a violation which can never be justified by anyone’s faith or belief.”

Thankfully, Bill Shorten backed away from these comments, albeit in a somewhat imprecise and noncommittal manner.

One of the more bizarre moves I have seen is of some Christians giving weight to the Greens Party whose platform includes taking freedoms from Christians.

On this, I have gently chuckled at the irony of some of my Baptist colleagues, who on the one hand are the most ferocious defenders of church and state separation, are sometimes the most keen to talk politics and in a few instances, happen to be vocal supporters of the Greens.

Perhaps if the Greens stuck to policies on asylum seekers and the environment there may be good reason to offer support. These are issues of grave significance. However, it would be simply naive to vote for these policies without considering the fact that a vote for the Greens is a vote against religious liberty.

Firstly, the Greens’ intention is to limit religious freedoms in Australia; that is without dispute. They themselves have said so:

“Our anti-discrimination laws offer good protections to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities, but they come with a gigantic exemption for religious organisations. Successive Labor and Coalition governments have maintained these exemptions, which mean that a religious hospital can refuse to employ a gay doctor, and a faith-based homelessness shelter can refuse to accept a transgender resident.

The Greens have fought against these exemptions at every opportunity, and we believe they should be eliminated. Anti discrimination laws should apply to everyone”

Nick McKim, Greens Senator, has said “The fundamental principle here is that Australians should be treated the same, whether or not they’re of one particular religion or another or whether in fact they’re not religious at all’.

I don’t disagree with the words as such, but the question is, what meaning and agenda is imported into these words? Let’s not be fooled by the rhetoric, this is not about treating all Australians the same, this is about forcing a narrow secular humanity worldview onto all Australians. The existing exemptions are not designed to give special privileges to certain groups, but to protect freedom of conscience.  In that light, this issue concerns not only Christians, but any Australian who believes in freedom of conscience.

Second, the Greens have not (to my knowledge) defined the extent to which they will remove religious exemptions from the anti-discrimination laws; this is most concerning. Their platform doesn’t site any exemptions, although the examples provided refer to religious based hospitals and schools, and not churches. I suspect though, these examples are carefully chosen, ones that very few people would take issue with. But that’s all they are, examples. They do not stipulate with any precision how far they intend to take these redactions.

Even if they promise not to intrude on Churches and para-church organisations, there remain serious questions relating to religious based hospitals and schools, including:

Will religious based schools be forced to employ persons who do not affirm the values of their schools?

Will religious affiliated hospitals be coerced into providing procedures, such as abortions, against good conscience?

As Andrew Katay has rightly pointed out,

“a basic principle of political theology is the commitment to a pluralist state, where conscience is not coerced.”  The Greens platform betrays this essential democratic ideal, trouncing conscience and forcing people to betray the deepest convictions, and with that bringing “the punitive power of the state to bear against those who seek to follow their conscience.”

Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are not the only serious issues deserving our consideration tomorrow, but we are blindsiding society’s health and freedom should we ignore these matters

While I am grateful for the privilege of casting a vote at the ballot, tomorrow’s task will have little joy in it. Like so many people my heart and mind is scrambling together a retrieval ethic in order to find the least objectionable of choices. And yet even this moral dilemma, we should give thanks that we still have such freedom to choose.

Whatever the outcome, the reality that does gives Christians great joy is that our faith and hope does not lie in the electoral process nor its outcome, but in the Lord of life.  The Australian landscape may well be changing;  the Greens, and any party for that matter, can do their damned best to subvert and silence the Christian hope, but history’s story cannot escape God and the power of his amazing Gospel. 

SBS and the not so inclusive “exclusive”

On the weekend it snowed on the outskirts of Melbourne, and it appears as though some of that snow fell on the Central Coast of NSW and clouded the vision of one SBS reporter.

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An article was published on the SBS website late this afternoon, aiming to discredit a group of FIEC churches on the Central Coast. These Churches use facilities in local schools after school hours, especially for Sunday services

Journalist, Robert Burton-Bradley, has accused the Churches of promoting a ‘homophobic’ message, and he then proceeds to prove his case by providing a list of quotes from various sermons. Unfortunately, his evidence looks more like a JFK conspiracy theory than material fit for publication on a respected Australian media website.

To begin with, the headline states, “Claims evangelical Christian churches preach gay hate in public schools” and has the accompanying tag line, “Exclusive: Serious allegations have emerged that gay hate messages are being preached inside public schools by evangelical groups.” It sounds truly outrageous and, these headings are sufficiently vague to lead readers to believe that the following ideas are being taught in these schools, which is not the case. The content of these sermons is for a church, not for children in the classroom.

Secondly, in light of the evil mass murder in Orlando, the media have reported various Muslim leaders who believe homosexuals should be executed. In the midst of these  stories, it appears as though Burton-Bradley is portraying these Christian Churches  as if they are preaching a similar hate message. He writes,

“One recording of a sermon on homosexuality and the Bible’s book of Leviticus from the Lakes Christian Church, based inside the Berkeley Vale Public school on the NSW Central Coast, includes references to the “death penalty” as a punishment for the “sin” of homosexuality.”

Taking words from their intended setting could potentially be seen as slanderous, which leads to a third point,

The article quotes statements from various sermons with no regard for the context in which they were spoken.

Anyone can cut and past a few words from a sermon, and give readers all manner of impressions. I once said in a sermon, ‘sex is good’; I guess one can only assume I’m a member of the sex party. I’ve also declared my dislike of cats, perhaps someone ought to report me to the RSPCA for possible future animal cruelty!

Not only does the article ignore context in which words were spoken, there is no understanding here of biblical theology, by which I mean, how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament, of how God’s holiness and love relate, and of the way the cross of Jesus Christ is the key to understanding Christianity and Christian thought and attitudes toward other people. Nowhere does Robert Burton-Bradley bring his readers to the conclusions that are offered in the sermons.

Christians do not hate homosexuals, and from what I know of the Churches in question, neither do they.  If I may repeat words that I wrote last week in a piece relating to Jason Ball,

“A Christian cannot hate because we have been on the other side, we have belonged to the crowd who have hurt others and thrown stones of hate, pride, and greed. Christians, if they are Christian, confess their spiritual and moral destitution, and yet we have come to experience the undeserving and loving grace of God who forgives our trespasses through Jesus. Once the human heart has experienced Divine forgiveness, we can not walk back into old attitudes of disdain for other people, nor hold onto some cold and languid acquiescence toward popular moral thought. When God replaces hate with love, it is a commitment to affirm what is good as defined by God. Can not love lead us to disagree with fellow human beings? Can a desire to see people flourish not include aspects of nonconcurrence, as we find in the life of Jesus Christ?”

What lessons should Churches be learning from such reporting?

First of all, be mindful that our sermons and websites are available to whoever is interested, including whacky atheists, angry secularists, and agenda driven journalists. In fact, this example is a helpful reminder for preachers and pastors. How do our sermons  come across to unbelieving Australia? Indeed, how is skeptical Australia reading our blogs!?

Secondly, be mindful of the fact that uncritical and biased reporting is a reality, not always, but it is common place. Such impropriety ought to disappoint us but not surprise us.

I’m not a fan of media bashing, and so I’m pleased to be able to say that on most occasions when I have dealt with the media, the experience has been positive. One time, a major newspaper even revised a headline to more accurately reflect my argument, and I remember the time when  Derryn Hinch stepped off his bandwagon to publicly acknowledge he had misunderstood something I’d said. Sadly though,  I think we can expect more fractious reporting in future days, as our society closes the door on fair and civil public discourse.

This is extremely poor journalism; no wonder the schools and churches didn’t feel obliged to speak to SBS. I hope SBS’s editorial team will have the common sense and decency to remove the piece and apologise to the parties involved.


UPDATE: I believe SBS have taken down the article from their website. Thank you to SBS for their wise deliberation and response. (June 30)