The Student’s Desk

That we may know Christ

Religious Vilification in Australia

Synopsis:

The following essay addresses the issues of religious tolerance in Australia. It briefly explores the ethical theory that makes religious pluralism and multiculturalism possible before rejecting this theory for its incompatibility with Christianity. An alternate ethical approach is then developed based on the Bible exploring Old and New Testament attitudes to alternate belief systems, and their theology behind them. It is found that the Old Testament had little tolerance toward alternate belief systems, while the New Testament was more tolerant, though not within the church. The reasons given for this are the identity and mission of Israel, and the theological changes that occurred with Israel being personified in Christ. On the basis of these theological changes, there is now no biblical basis for the suppression of other belief systems, yet still recognises the need to limit religious freedom, though finding a basis for such demands without a Christian framework may prove difficult.
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Australia is recognised as a country with ethnic and cultural diversity with no state religion.[1] This implies that within Australian society there is representation of a large variety of beliefs and religions. As such, civil values include the ‘respect for the equal worth, dignity and freedom of the individual’ and ‘freedom of religion and secular government’.[2] That is, Australians are able to choose to practice any religion of their choice, or none at all, and not to harbour intolerant attitudes to other religious groups. Australians are also to share equality under the law regardless of ethnicity, culture, religion or political background.[3]  Such civic values pose interesting questions for those who believe the Bible as the authoritative word breathed by God, and wish to advance Christian beliefs and values. Issues of maintaining the exclusive claims of the Bible and advancing Christian beliefs in a multicultural and pluralistic society come with difficulties. While falsehood is a concern for those who are zealous for their beliefs, fairness between religious groups also needs to be maintained so that one group does is not subjected to vilification by another, or one group is shown favouritism over another. The underlying issue is in such a pluralist society is one of truth. Religious intolerance would restrict the advancement of falsehood, although this would also imply the advancement of Christian beliefs and values would need to be forfeited. Religious toleration would not restrict the advancement of falsehood, although presumably, Christians would share equal opportunity to advance their belief and values. Hence a tension exists between the claims of the Bible, and the rights of an individual. In order to establish an ethical response from a biblical perspective, the Bible’s attitude toward other religions in both the Old and New Testaments needs to be considered. However, it is also necessary to consider the ethical theory which has developed the contemporary values of Australian society.

The ethical theory which multiculturalism and pluralism have come from is most likely situation ethics as many of the features are consistent. Joseph Fletcher developed the theory in response to the failures of legalism and antinomianism.[4] The principles of this ethical theory are: 1) pragmatism – the criteria for discerning right answer is love. This principle is recognised in the representation of tolerance between belief systems. 2) relativism – the avoidance of absolute statements. This can be clearly seen in with religious toleration as it does not recognise any one group of having the truth in any absolute sense. 3) Positivism – that a person comes to faith through the exercise of reason or free will. 4) Personalism – the benefit for people is prioritised.[5] It is these measures which allow differing religions to co-exist. Such an ethical theory presents difficulties for Christianity. To be able to resolve these difficulties, a biblical ethic needs to be developed.

According to Song, The Christian church historically has not been tolerant of other belief systems. He cites Augustine arguing for the ‘use of coercion for the sake of the salvation of souls’; Thomas Aquinas arguing that the of ‘rites unbelievers and Jews should not to be tolerated’, and that heretics should be ‘constrained both for their own sake and the protection of others’; and John Calvin maintaining that part of the purpose of civil authority ‘included the protection of the outward worship of God and the defence of sound doctrine and the standing of the church’.[6] John Stott also mentions briefly the atrocities committed in the Spanish Inquisition as an indication of the intolerance that has occurred historically.[7] The commands in the Old Testament for the destruction of the Canaanites and their religion (Exodus 23:23-24; 19:1; Deuteronomy 7:1-5; 31:3-5) have been used in the middle ages to justify such intolerant positions.[8]

However, to use a deductive method to apply Scripture to the contemporary context has serious faults. Such methods do not give consideration to the context in which the Scripture was written, thus allowing the Scripture to be applied any way the reader sees fit; and neither does it give consideration to the contemporary context where the Scriptural and contemporary contexts can be compared and contrasted. Rather, before Scripture can be applied and thus deducing an ethic, a biblical theology of the Old Testament followed by the New Testament, through which the Old Testament is to be understood, must be developed.

To understand the purpose of the commands to destroy the Canaanites and their religion, consideration must be given to God’s relationship to the world, and Israel’s role in that relationship. The Bible asserts first and foremost that there is one God who made the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). This allows for ethical simplicity in that humanity is not answerable to competing authorities, thereby causing confusion. Rather, there is one God to whom humanity must give an account (Genesis 9:5; Psalm 33:13-15; Proverbs 5:20). Secondly, the world has fallen into sin through the rebellion of humanity (Genesis 3:1-19; Romans 8:21). Instead of destroying what had been spoilt through sin, God chose to redeem creation (Genesis 3:15; Romans 8:23). It is the second point that is most crucial, as it is within this that the program of redemption of Israel and God’s commands to Israel are to be understood. Israel was raised by God out of slavery in Egypt in fulfilment of the Abrahamic Covenant, and would become the people in the land as a blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:1-3). The way Israel would fulfil the Abrahamic Covenant was through her identity and moral obligations (Exodus 19:4-6). As a kingdom of priests, the entire nation of Israel assumed a mediatory role between God and the nations. It would be through Israel that the nations would come to know God and come to God. This implicated Israel’s moral obligation as a holy nation. In order to fulfil her mission as a kingdom of priests, Israel had to remain distinct from the other nations. This had implications for not only Israel’s religion, it also had implications for every aspect of her nationality. Israel’s distinctiveness ought to be attributed to her mission rather then her race. It would be through Israel’s nationality and relationship to the other nation that God would be revealed.

If the nation of Israel was to be a blessing to all nations, it seems contradictory that God should command Israel to destroy the Canaanites. However, Wright asserts that God’s blessing in eschatological terms and “… does not eliminate his prerogative to act in judgement on particular nations…”[9] Similarly, the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants did not prevent God from taking against future generations of Israelites in judgement. In fact, the destruction of the Canaanites was consistent with Israel’s mission. The purpose of God exercising judgement was that the God would be known (Ps 9:16; 59:13; 83:16-18; Isaiah 26:9; Ezekiel 11:10-12; 12:16), and making God known was part of Israel’s priestly office. The Canaanite nations and their religions contravened the first principle of biblical ethics by denying their accountability to God by worshipping a plurality of god’s which is inconsistent with the assertion of Scripture. This needed to be demonstrated historically. It should also be noted that it was not only the Canaanites who were liable to such judgment. In similarly manner, those within Israel who worshipped other gods were judged (Deuteronomy 13), and should the nation as a whole disobeyed the decrees set by God, they would be ‘vomited’ from the land as the Canaanites were (Leviticus 18:24-29). At the very least, these commands are not to be thought of as ‘racist’ or a basis for religious bigotry. Rather, they should be perceived as having their primary concern in the revelation of God.

However, despite the biblical-theological framework given for the Old Testament, these commands can not be directly applied to modern pluralism and multiculturalism for two reasons. Firstly, these commands were directed against a particular people group, and lack application to any other people group. The most likely reason for this is the destruction of the Canaanites had been anticipated from the days of Abraham for their sin (Genesis 15:16 [referred to as Amorites]). Secondly, in the course of redemptive history there has been a shift in the definition of the people of God and the locality of Divine revelation. While Israel defined the people and the locality of the revelation of God in the Old Testament, they failed in their mission through sin and rebellion (Isaiah 52:5; Ezekiel 36:20-21). It was only when Israel was personified in Christ that the identity and mission was fulfilled. Therefore, the people of God and the locality of the revelation of God is no longer political or national, rather they have been personified in Christ. It is Christ who has become the blessing to all nations, and not a political initiative. For this reason, Jesus refrained from political activity (John 6:15) and separatism (Luke 15:1-2; Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 5:25-34), taught extensively that the Kingdom of God is not what people expected (Matthew 13:1-52), and that it is not of this world (John 18:36). However, Christ did make political comments (Mark 12:14-17; John 19:11). Instead, he advanced his kingdom through preaching and teaching (Mark 1:38).

This shift in the definition of the people of God and the locality of Divine revelation influence the New Testament church. Nowhere in the New Testament is the church found to be lobbying political pressure, or suppressing a people group or belief system outside their own. While it needs to be acknowledged that the first century Roman Empire did not allow for such political lobbying, and the church’s numbers were small in comparison, the theological reasons based on the person of Christ cannot be overlooked. The result in influence was different belief systems became an opportunity to explain the gospel (Acts 17:16-34), and while partaking in sacrifices offered to idols is forbidden, eating meat that had been sacrificed to an idol then sold at market is left to a question of conscious (1 Corinthians 10:18-33). Therefore, a greater extent of tolerance is present in the New Testament.

However, this new founded permissiveness does not allow for theological ambiguity. The Old Testament’s concern for the people of God was for their purity of life and doctrine, and the New Testament share’s the same concern. Throughout the New Testament, reprimands can be found against those who live impurely (1 Corinthians 5; James 3:5-12), and those who would introduce false doctrine into the church (Galatians 5:1-12). Leaders of the church are also told to guard their doctrine (1 Timothy 1:3; Titus 2:1). Such instruction is not extended to those outside the church.

The fact that these instructions do not extend to those outside the church does not deny the relevance of the gospel to them or the impending judgement against them. However, it is no longer the prerogative of the people of God to enforce this judgement as it was in the Old Testament (1 Corinthians 4:5). It is now Christ’s prerogative to execute God’s judgement (Matthew 3:12; 25:31-34).

Considering that the Old Testament expectations have been fulfilled in the person of Christ, who now is the only one who has the prerogative to execute God’s judgement, there is no biblical basis for justifying religious intolerance against non-Christian groups. Anti-vilification laws for religion should be understood as compatible with the Christian ethos, not because of the legitimacy of other belief systems, rather, because of the limitation of jurisdiction of the church. Instead, the church ought to focus its attention to its own purity of life and doctrine. Yet, this does not mean the church ought to be isolationist in its attitude since the New Testament church was involved with welfare (Acts 6:1-6). Apart from this, it is very difficult to deduce from Scripture how rights to religious expression are to be limited. Clearly the church can not indorse such practices as murder, mutilation or infant molesting. Yet without a Christian basis it is difficult to refute such practices. In Australia, such practices have been outlawed, so there is a basis for agreeing what is ethical. However, there are issues, such as homosexuality, on which there is no agreement in law. In these situations, the New Testament church simply aimed to persuade people’s opinion through appeal (Acts 17:16-34; 1 Thessalonians 1:3). While there are difficulties in such a method, this is perhaps the best way the Christians can advance their beliefs and values, while maintaining the dignity and respect for others.

Bibliography:

 

Adam, P. H. J.                   ‘Jesus’, in Dictionary of Christian ethics and pastoral theology. Edited by David J. Atkinson and David H. Field. Downers Grove, Illinos: InterVasity Press, 1995.

                                          Becoming an Australian citizen. Commonwealth of Australia, 2007.

Cook, E. D.                       ‘Pluralism’, in Dictionary of Christian ethics and pastoral theology. Edited by David J. Atkinson and David H. Field. Downers Grove, Illinos: InterVasity Press, 1995.

Cook, E. D.                       ‘Situation Ethics’, in Dictionary of Christian ethics and pastoral theology. Edited by David J. Atkinson and David H. Field. Downers Grove, Illinos: InterVasity Press, 1995.

Hill, Michael.                      The how and why of love: an introduction to evangelical ethics. Kingsford, Australia, Matthias Press, 2002.

Sherlock, C. H.                  ‘Holy war’ in Dictionary of Christian ethics and pastoral theology. Edited by David J. Atkinson and David H. Field. Downers Grove, Illinos: InterVasity Press, 1995.

Song, R  J.                         ‘Religious Toleration’ in Dictionary of Christian ethics and pastoral theology. Edited by David J. Atkinson and David H. Field. Downers Grove, Illinos: InterVasity Press, 1995.

Stott, John.                         New issues facing Christians today. London, Great Britain: HarperCollinPublishers, 1999.

Vardy, Peter and Paul Groesch, The Puzzle of Ethics. London, Great Britain: Fount, 1994.

Wright, Christopher J. H.    ‘Old Testament Ethics’ in Dictionary of Christian ethics and pastoral theology. Edited by David J. Atkinson and David H. Field. Downers Grove, Illinos: InterVasity Press, 1995.

Wright, Christopher J. H.    Old Testament ethics for the people of God (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004.

© The Student’s Desk


[1] Becoming an Australian citizen (Commonwealth of Australia, 2007), 1, 5.[2] Becoming an Australian citizen, 5.[3] Becoming an Australian citizen, 6.[4] E. D. Cook, ‘Situation Ethics’, in Dictionary of Christian ethics and pastoral theology. Edited by David J. Atkinson and David H. Field. (Downers Grove, Illinos: InterVasity Press, 1995), 794.

[5] Peter Vardy and Paul Groesch, The Puzzle of Ethics (London, Great Britain: Fount, 1994), 125-126.

[6] R  J. Song, ‘Religious Toleration’ in Dictionary of Christian ethics and pastoral theology. Edited by David J. Atkinson and David H. Field. (Downers Grove, Illinos: InterVasity Press, 1995), 851.

[7] John Stott, New issues facing Christians today (London, Great Britain: HarperCollinPublishers, 1999), 55.

[8] C. H. Sherlock, ‘Holy war’ in Dictionary of Christian ethics and pastoral theology. Edited by David J. Atkinson and David H. Field. (Downers Grove, Illinos: InterVasity Press, 1995), 448.

[9] Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament ethics for the people of God (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 473.

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January 18, 2008 - Posted by | Essays, Ethics, Religious | , , , , , , ,

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