Sydney Prayer Breakfast – “Freedom From” or “Freedom For” I think they got it wrong

This morning (30May 2018), I had an opportunity to attend the Sydney pray breakfast at the International Convention Centre in Sydney. This is an annual event, and one of many such events are held around Australia around this time of year.

The prayer breakfast has many activities during the morning, including Grace thoughtfully given by a high school student, to a beautiful set of musical items by Tash Lockhart and support musicians and then some genuinely inspirational prayers provided by some city business leaders.  We also had an opportunity to pray with people on our tables which was very helpful.

The guest speaker, Os Guinness, I had some trepidations in listening too. I found his talk interesting, but in the end in my mind, his arguments pointed to the dangers in Australia of the current movement of the so-called “religious freedom” requirements. I fully acknowledge my own theological biases in considering his speech.

He talked of the grand paradox of freedom, and the fact that one of the enemies of freedom is itself freedom, that freedom requires a framework, built around self-restraint, which often gets washed away over time. When Neville Cox, the chairman of the city prayer breakfast gave his welcome and introduction, we were shown a short video of the late Billy Graham and his extraordinary preaching when he was in Sydney in the 1950’s. When I look at lack of restraint in the Christian movement at the moment, I see one example being Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, who in my mind exemplifies why Christianity is struggling in the Western society. His lack of self-restraint and misuse of the Bible to condemn the other, to support further power to the powerful over the week, is the total opposite of what I see in the gospel.

Guinness then went on to talk about the need to be clear about what one means by freedom, is it the power to do what we ought, is it “freedom from” (a negative connotation), or “freedom for”? Where he talked about freedom for, he indicated this is a higher order, to be who we are, to be the truth of who we are, and knowing that the truth will set you free.

His third point was looking at shouldering full responsibility for that political freedom, that countries win freedom, we order freedom, but we often overlook the process of sustaining freedom. This was the segue to the importance of handing down the concept of freedom, and in our context the freedom that is given through the Bible to generations, the importance of transmitting our faith to generations behind us.

We then received the link to the underlying question, do we know and stand for a solid foundation in a society, that is, in his opinion, curtailing religious freedoms.

He left his message there, but one was left with no doubt as to the purpose and meaning of his message. At the end of the prayer breakfast John Anderson, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, a friend of Guinness, then gave the thanks and a prayer for Guinness. In Anderson’s commentary, he talked about the importance of an understanding of history and culture of our country and the need for freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. He pointed out the significance that Oz Guinness had recent access to the Prime Minister, and again we were left in no doubt that this was in connection to the context of the current enquiry into religious freedom that is currently taking place in Australia.

What struck me this morning was the juxtaposition of the prayers that beautifully enunciating the need to pray for and support for the poor and the marginalised, that our business and civic leaders need to use our Christian values as a guiding post to all that we do, and the importance of support, encouragement and learning for young people, against the underlying tone and the means of the religious freedom debate.

You see it is interesting that the churches in Australia have for decades rejected the need for religious freedom and a charter of human rights because they feared that such charters would constrain what they perceive as higher order rights.

Guinness spoke of the need to move away from the concept of “freedom from” which is negative to the “freedom for”. And yet the religious freedom movement, as demonstrated at the moment, is actually all about the “freedom from”.

What they’re wanting is freedom from LGBTIQ people, and the evidence of that is that this demand has come around because of civil union of same gendered people in Australia even though Parliament ensured that religious organisations had exemptions from having to participate in a religious marriage of same-gender people. But this very issue has been the launching pad of this desperate desire of the conservative religious movement in Australia to have freedom from LGBTIQ people.

What they’re wanting is freedom from all LGBTIQ people being employed in religious organisations and the right for Christian business people to have the religious right to not employe LGBTIQ in commercial/secular businesses. They want the right to discriminate against all LGBTIQ people actively. Now I can accept that if a person in a school was employed solely for the role of religious education within the doctrines of that particular Christian organisation, to be constrained by those religious tenants. I disagree with the theology and hermeneutics that lead them to that position, I can acknowledge that right.

But I cannot accept the right of a Christian school to be allowed to discriminate against LGBTIQ staff member force being simply who they are. How does this influence their effectiveness as an office staff member, maths teacher, cleaner, kitchen staff? You see this is where the disconnect occurs Guinness talks about when you have freedom for the truth will set you free, and yet these very people do not want LGBTIQ people to be free, they do not want the LGBTIQ people to be who they are as was said when we prayed to be recognised as made in the image of God. They don’t want all LGBTIQ people to have the “freedom for” to be who they are to be true and for the truth of who they are made in the image of God, to be set free.

We prayed for the children in our schools, and we know that in all of our schools, in the secular and the religious schools, there are LGBTIQ kids. And yet, what the religious freedom people want is not religious freedom for these young people they want freedom against them. They do not want a teacher in their school who might be gay and Christian who can support the Christian teachings and be a symbol of hope for a young gay teenager in school.

Rather than hoping the freedom for that young teenager to be who they are, to accept the truth of who they are and to be set free in who they are; what they want, is protection from the state. As governments around the world recognising that “conversion therapy” is nothing but abuse, those who are fervent for religious freedom are saying we want freedom from government interference to stop the abuse of LGBTIQ people with the horrors of “conversion or restorative therapy”, which often leads to suicide or long-term damaging mental health issues. They want the freedom from government stopping churches abusing of kids and young adults, rather than freedom for these people to be entirely acceptable of who they are.

John Anderson let the cat out of the bag, with his closing comments in thanks of Guinness that everybody should have freedom of conscience. This, in fact, is code for the Christian baker beings allowed to discriminate against LGBTIQ couple wanting to get married and have a wedding cake.

Guinness asked us to consider the need to be clear and ask what do we mean by freedom. The dangers of this religious freedom movement are, whilst its core is around the freedom from LGBTIQ people, it does not understand what it means by freedom.

What it wants to do is to break what has been a remarkable aspect of our Australian society wherein the commercial marketplace we don’t discriminate. I can’t say to a Muslim because I’m a Christian I won’t serve you in my shop. I’m also a Muslim business owner can’t say to a Jewish custom I won’t serve you because you’re Jewish. An Indian business in Australia should not be allowed to refuse to provide services to a Pakistani customer.

Should a Christian business owner who believes that interfaith marriage offends his faith have the right to discriminate against an employee on that ground?

But this is where we are heading with this religious freedom that my religious conscience is more important than your rights, because some people are so fearful of the LGBTIQ community.

The unintended consequences of this movement in the Australian context is extraordinarily risky, and is more than likely to bring fracturing and destabilising of our society and our economy because they have not thought through what their view of freedom means.

The other thing that struck me with this prayer breakfast was the focus on the Old Testament. I thought as Christians that we are the Jesus people, and yet it seemed to me that in this prayer breakfast Jesus was missing, rarely mentioned, except for in the conclusion of a prayer in the name of Jesus.

His Gospel of hope, His Gospel of inclusion, His Gospel of love, was completely missing when we were talking about freedom this morning.

And it seems to me, that if Jesus were here today, talking and engaging in the religious freedom argument, he would be visiting the people around the Wayside Chapel who are homeless. He would be asking questions of the religious leaders and the governments why are there are so many homeless people in one of the wealthiest countries in the world?

It seems to me that if Jesus were contemplating these issues of religious freedom, he would be reminding our Archbishops, our Moderators our Priests and Ministers of the story of the young man who was born blind. Today he might find a young man walking out of a counselling session at ACON Health. Jesus doesn’t use the story of the healing of the young man born blind to talk about healing; instead, the story uses the young man was the entry point into the narrative.

Remember that it was his own apostles who were asking the question at to why the man was blind because he was a sinner, and frankly how could be a sinner be born blind, or was it that his parents were a sinner and this was the consequence of their sin. This is often the line of the preachers of the those who are seeking religious freedom, where is the sin, however we need to recall that Jesus wanted none of that thinking. The religious freedom movement in Australia who want religious freedom from LGBTIQ people, fail to accept that being an LGBTIQ person is not a choice and not a consequence of sin.

I think if Jesus were healing the young man coming out of his counselling session at ACON health because he was struggling with the abuse from his church and his family because he was gay, the healing Jesus would be offering is not anything to do with his sexuality because Jesus would know that he was born in God’s image, but it would be the healing of the mental anguish from what has been done to him by others.

And we follow the story of that young man when the Pharisees of the religious leaders the Priests and the Archbishops in today’s language, were horrified that Jesus healed on the Sabbath and challenged the parents and you can see the tensions today if you have a gay child there are so many churches that follow exert this concept of religious freedom that says you have to choose between your child and our church and God, and regrettably that child ends up wandering the streets of King’s Cross and is supported by the Wayside Chapel. It was those religious leaders who threw that young man who was healed out of the Synagogue. It was Jesus who then circled back to the young man and said, hey you’re with me, come on a journey with me.

John Anderson finished up by saying we need to understand history and culture of our country to justify the demand for religious freedom. I agree with the first part; we need to understand history and culture, we also need to understand the context of the time when the Hebrew and the Gospel Bible was written. Then we might realise what true religious freedom is, it is not about lying in bed with government to allow religious organisations to exclude the other. When we understand the context of the culture of the Biblical writings, we understand this is not an attack on LGBTIQ people, we then learn that freedom is really about.

What is discovered is that freedom is the understanding of a loving God, the loving of all others with no asterisk to exclude some. We discover that when we help people be who they are, and helping people accept the truth of who they are and then knowing this truth, will, in fact, set them free and all of us free to be with Christ and God.

So Guinness and Anderson this morning I think enunciated the opposite of what they intended, because they fear the other, they will continue to fight for religious freedom to be a “freedom from” rather than “freedom for”.

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