Freedom of religion and thought

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.

12 thoughts on “Freedom of religion and thought

  1. I agree. Perhaps we need to be more thick-skinned when we are mocked, and more saddened when our Lord is mocked. In a democratic society we should also guard our right to point out where we disagree with other beliefs, remembering the bad laws that were enacted in Victoria some years ago.

    One of the hardest things some of us have to acept in the Christian life is that people without the Holy Spirit cannot discern spiritual things and no amount of human argument is going to convince them. So we have to put up with misunderstanding and pray that people will be enlightened and converted. Of course, many who are not Christians can recognise some of the utter nonsense that critics sometimes come up with, including that woman on Q&A.

    One of the best ways to build up a thick skin is to write letters to newspapers! 48 years of that has been an interesting experience, and more recently making online comments helps skin thickness by attracting plenty of absurd and scurrilous replies.

  2. Thanks Sandy. I agree with you, and think I do a pretty good job at not snapping back at people. Besides, it never goes well when I do!
    I wonder though if my attitude is less focused on God and more focused on avoiding confrontation. I do stew in my head a fair bit at people, and take mental glee in feeling like I have the high ground. Any suggestions for how to have the right inner attitude when acting this out? I suspect that prayer is (as always!) a key response.

    • Rachel, good to hear from you.

      I think is is helpful to keep saying to ourselves that criticism of our own positions, actions, attitudes, may often have a kernel of truth to it, even if you instinctively feel there’s a lot of chaff to blow away.

      So don’t be afraid to listen to others.

      And just be interested in people. They are made in his image, just like us, however much the image is marred by our sin. There is much that can be interesting.

      So once again listen to others.

      But then, don’t be afraid to disagree, politely and in an informed away as much as possible.

      It is not a kindness to only say nice things about people, or to pretend to agree with them.

      I wonder if my blog post on Q&A a few months back might have some other ideas too.

  3. Craig Tubman has some good thoughts on this matter too:

    [Avoiding conflict means that] just like our suburban homes, our society becomes less a society and more a collection of closed-off thought communities. Such communities include the Christian church, the gay community, the Islamic mosque and the deep green movement to name just a few. Whilst this breeds a feeling of safety for those inside it masks a much greater problem, namely this is not how societies work best!

    • Yep, I thought Craig’s article was excellent and worth a read in full. Here’s another snippet…

      Unfortunately our fences have become so high and our doors so tightly deadlocked that ‘meeting the neighbours’ in these communities of thought have turned into acts of war. To voice an alternate view is not welcomed as an opportunity for thoughtful reflection but rather a criticism which is assumed to be fuelled by hatred. As a result fences are strengthened and everyone inside the home gives each other a pat on the back for how much better their home is to the one next door. This is a fabulous structure from which to breed arrogance and self-righteousness but a terrible structure from which to build a real, thought provoking society.

  4. Pingback: Freedom of religion and thought | The Briefing | Harp and Bowl Worship

  5. A general motto I take is that we ought to offend with our message, not our conduct. We say Jesus is God, Muslims decry blasphemy. We say marriage is ordained by God, atheists call us dinosaurs.

    Thick skin we need indeed. Our lives are not at risk, so why should we fear being called a bigot for stating what we believe the Christian message is? I’m reminded of the reason why the Pharisees sought to stone Jesus during his ministry:

    The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” – John 10:33

    I surely hope our only ‘persecution’ is for ‘blasphemy’ against the powers of this world.

  6. Thanks, George. Are you trying to prove my point? I would appreciate a bit more meat in a reply. But I’m getting old, so please forgive my mystification.

  7. One reason I wrote this is that I am advocating Christians vigorously exercise our freedom of speech and religion, in peaceful and lawful ways, including in critique (informed and honest) of other worldviews and religions.

    But that means we should not be so sensitive to every slight that comes our way.

    We want to model that you can disagree vigorously but peaceably, and, mostly at least, with a kind tone.

    For example, although the tone is tough, I think Paul Sheehan makes some great points about playing the victim that many of the protesting kind of Muslims need to grapple with in today’s SMH.

  8. Very true. We need to expect opposition because of our faith, and be prepared to respond graciously. It’s a bit ridiculous that there was a lot of derision from some Christians following QandA that night. I saw a lot of content (particularly on social media) that had a superior, cocky tone and some sense of triumphalism about how humble and gracious the Archbishop was. It was quite Ironic. We should expect it and then.
    On a similar note; as you said, we definitely should not fear freedom of thought and religion. Mark Driscoll recently said something similar in a sermon; he said that we don’t need to fear that other religions or opinions will triumph. No; the truth will win out when all ideas are thrown in the mix. That’s because God is behind the truth. We must contend for the truth, but doing so requires confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ, not fear of other worldviews.

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