A topic that has caused a lot of concern in press and media in the last year is religious freedom. As I read various articles and statements about it, I notice that it seems like most of the disagreement arising from it is not about the topic itself, but over the fact that everybody seems to define it differently.
If you look it up in various dictionaries Freedom of Religion is defined as the right of all individuals, groups or communities to choose, worship, practice and observe the religion (or no religion) that they choose for themselves, without restriction or suppression by government.
Australian Law places limited guarantees on this principle. We are a signatory to the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which affirms every person’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This freedom is limited, though, and subject to ‘such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.’ So, we have this freedom, but only where it does not endanger others, or restrict their freedoms and rights.
The tinder that started the fire in recent times in Australia was the Marriage Equality debate. Arguments stated that if one person’s religion expressly forbids a certain form of marriage, then if the Nation’s laws allow it, their religious freedom has been impeded. Those who wanted that form of marriage to be available counter-argue that unless it is permitted, then their own freedom of belief is being restricted. The problem is deciding whose rights of belief should be given preference when they conflict.
Over the centuries, the definition of Marriage itself has been constantly changing and diversifying. In our Scriptures, men could have many wives. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). As in most of the ancient world, nobody got to choose who they married - this was decided by their ‘Patriarch’ and family heads. Slaves and servants married as instructed by their masters, and their children became the property of that master. If a girl was raped, she had to marry her rapist. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). It appears a man could divorce his wife if she ‘displeased him’ but a woman had no such right.
Another point to note is that in the Scriptures, marriage was not a religious ceremony, it was a social celebration carried out by the couple’s families. Marriage by the Church is a practice that has arisen since perhaps the 6th to 7th centuries. In fact, following writings such as St Paul’s, the church for many centuries placed a higher value on celibacy and remaining unmarried than on being married. This is the principle behind the celibacy of Catholic priests, monks and nuns.
A further complication in the arguments comes from the assumed purpose of marriage. Is it a commitment of people who love each other? Is it the ‘proper’ way to have children? Is it the ‘building block of our society’? Is it the ‘license to have sex’? I have heard it defined in these ways and many others. The problem is that each of these definitions can conflict with each other, and each one alone does not stand up as a full definition of the state of marriage. Is it all these things? Equally – must it be all these things?
In the end, the issue with Religious Freedom is not about the principle itself, but the limitations of pragmatism that must apply to it. Firstly, does somebody having different beliefs to mine offend against my freedom? If their beliefs become a principle of law, does that bring my beliefs into conflict with my civic duty to observe the law? What if my beliefs become the law? What am I doing to those whose beliefs are different to mine? Am I any different to the Crusaders of past centuries who chopped the heads off ‘infidels’ and believed in their divine right to do so? Or in our modern era, those who bomb mosques, churches and temples around our world in the same belief.
If we look for guidance in our Christian Scriptures, I feel the first principle is ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ with the story of the Good Samaritan as your guide. Then accepting the next principle that follows ‘love your enemies’. I like that one, even though it is probably the hardest instruction Jesus gave, because it is self-canceling. If you love an enemy, that very love wipes out their status as your enemy. I especially like a Facebook slogan that is going around: ‘If your religion calls you to hate anybody – you need a new religion.’
Is religion ever a freedom, a right? If it is, then there is no wonder that it is so complex an issue with so much potential to cause conflict. Yet Jesus never seemed to say that. His proclamation was: “repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” My beliefs are about my relationship with the God who created me and sustains my life. My beliefs are about my acceptance of all God has done for me, centred on the mission of Jesus as the Christ – the one who comes into the world, to guide me back from my own waywardness into the presence of that loving God. I do not see my relationship with God as a freedom or a right – it is a wonderful gift of grace, that will never cease to amaze me.
I believe the only way I can respond to that love is to love my neighbour whether they are a believer, a doubter, another faith, creed, colour, orientation or even an enemy, but whatever – they are a child of God just like me.
Venerable Bill Beagley
Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)