Freedom of religion and thought

31 Oct

[This post is courtesy of Sandy Grant, posted on The Briefing 18th September 2012.]

The theologian and social critic David Wells suggests that we have seen a significant rise in the language of victimhood in both society and the church. He suggests ‘playing the victim’ comes from being overly sensitive to individual rights. We often excuse our behaviour by noticing every insult or injustice that comes from others. Wells warns that when everyone is a victim—as it seems many feel—it trivialises real victims.

I want to apply this insight to the question of freedom of religion. Many nations around the world recognise freedom of religion as a fundamental human right. Article 18 of the United Nations’ famous Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

I believe Christians can gladly recognise the wisdom of governments who adopt this approach, since we believe in persuasion, not compulsion or force, in commending the gospel of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Tragically, some countries around the world make it illegal to change one’s religion. In others, you suffer serious discrimination for your religion, for example, when it is made difficult to meet for public teaching and worship.

However freedom of religion does not mean freedom from criticism of your religious views. There is no universal right not to be offended. And I think Christians need to be a little more thick-skinned about this. We should always be saddened when God is dishonoured or the reputation of Christ is attacked. But Jesus told us to expect mockery, not to be surprised at it.

It’s like most rugby league supporters! We notice all the bad decisions that go against our team, even the tiny ones and 50/50s. But we tend to gloss over it when we get the benefit of the doubt, or other teams are being harshly treated. And in out society, there are as many other groups out there that feel hurt or as marginalised as Christians.

For example, I keep hearing that the ABC or the Sydney Morning Herald is biased against Christians. No doubt many journalists are biased. In fact, we all have our biases. For example, the other night on Q&A, an atheist comedian was dreadfully rude to our Archbishop. And Peter Jensen set a great example of being calm, polite and humble in response, while also explaining Christian views with faithfulness, firmness and clarity.

There are a couple of things to notice there. Firstly, it was the ABC moderator who gave the Archbishop the last word—which he used to focus on the love of Christ—and insisted the comedian stop interrupting him. Secondly, the Archbishop expected people to vigorously express different opinions than himself. That’s what freedom of religion and thought means. So he did not jump to take offence, or play the victim. He listened respectfully and carefully.

When we are badly treated, Jesus encourages us to turn the other cheek. We do not match insult for insult. We love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us! I think it also means being ready to speak up for the protection of others, when they are being picked on.

There is a notorious incident in John 8:1-11, where a woman is caught in adultery. But Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. As the accusers all drift away, he adds, “Neither do I condemn you, now go and leave your life of sin.” Jesus showed you could stop people bullying someone, at the same time as disagreeing with their morality.


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