The Edict of Milan and religious liberty

1700 years ago in early 313, the Edict of Milan was issued by the Roman emperors Constantine (from the west) and Licinius (from the east). The decision reversed a 200-year-old policy of the Empire against Christians, which involved discrimination and persecution.

Christians, with their monotheism, their refusal to treat emperors as divine, and for other distinctive practices, were seen as disloyal to the state and the Roman gods. As an example of the previous policy, a recent emperor in the East, Maximinus, had encouraged petitions against Christians, and oversaw their imprisonment and the confiscation of their property.

The Edict speaks of granting “full authority to observe that religion which each preferred”. Local authorities were instructed that, “any one of these who wishes to observe Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation.” It directed that church buildings should be restored and Christians compensated for property confiscated. Notably, Licinius was a pagan, and Constantine a Christian. But each wanted toleration of other religions.

The 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan seems relevant still. Currently, updated anti-discrimination legislation is proposed in Australia. It seems to reduce freedom of religion, for example, in employment practices of religious organisations. There was also a provision proposing discrimination can be claimed over conduct that insults or offends another person.

We might not enjoy being offended. We are rightly upset if Jesus Christ whom we worship is insulted. But I agree with ABC chairman and former chief justice of the NSW Supreme Court, Jim Spigelman, who said last month: “The freedom to offend is an integral component of freedom of speech. There is no right not to be offended.”

Our existing laws against such things as libel or inciting violence are sufficient to regulate free speech. We need to criticise stupid or offensive opinions, not ban them. I want people to be free to insult Christianity (although I might not enjoy or like it) and I want to freedom, peacefully, to critique them right back, to promote the gospel freely, and to advocate views on morality. Ultimately, God will judge us all for our speech, even the careless words!

In addition, there are times where some discrimination is appropriate. The ALP should not be forced to employ someone opposed to unionism. Women’s health clubs should not be forced to admit men. And Mosques should not be forced to employ Christians.

There’s an important point for us Christians here. In Luke 6:32, the Lord Jesus instructed, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” We’re to love and do good to our enemies, to lend without expecting anything back (v35). So we must also defend for others the good freedoms of speech and religion we want for ourselves, even if they do not do it for us!

So for example, it worries me to find Christians leading opposition to the building of a mosque somewhere in suburbia, unless it is for strictly urban planning and amenity reasons. In that case, to be consistent, they’d presumably also oppose erection of a church building!

In her biography of Voltaire, E. B Hall writes as an illustration of his views: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. It’s still a great approach.

In the New Testament, we do not see Christian campaigning for the introduction of anti-blasphemy laws to protect them from insult. Instead we see them determining to follow the example of Jesus; not to retaliate when mocked or treated unjustly, yet determining to speak up for the truth of the gospel, without fearing human opinion, whatever the cost.

Comments are closed.