Rev Elenie Poulos
The other day I represented the Uniting Church in Australia at the Religious Freedom Roundtable hosted by the Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson.
It was a privilege to be at the table with a wonderfully diverse group of people of different faith traditions, denominations, religious communities and secular groups.
Media coverage of the event focussed entirely on some provocative remarks by Attorney General George Brandis about the treatment of the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. This was a shame, because what happened at the Religious Freedom Roundtable after Senator Brandis left was much more worthy of attention.
The conversation around the room was largely about the intersection between sometimes-competing rights – freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination, and the rights to freedom of speech and conscience. We grappled with the question of how we balance those rights in a way that upholds the dignity of all people and contributes positively to social cohesion.
There was talking but there was also a lot of listening. We learned things about each other’s religious traditions. We heard what was important to believers and those with no religious belief about how we live together.
There were sad and unsettling stories about discrimination and religious vilification, especially being experienced by Australian Muslims. Throughout, we talked about the values we have in common and the kind of society we should be. We began to explore what would need to happen to move beyond the idea that, in the balancing of rights, there will only ever be winners and losers.
Christians believe that in God’s eyes everyone is of equal value, and the requirement to love our neighbour as ourselves is at the heart of Christian living. That said, the church has a shameful history of persecution and discrimination that spans centuries. And still we’re not always good at practicing what we preach.
In the Uniting Church, we’ve developed language and processes that have helped us journey through our own theological and cultural diversity over the years. This means living out our commitment to oppose all forms of discrimination.
This commitment, made to the nation at the time of Church union in 1977, has inspired us to do all we can to celebrate our diversity and underpins the non-discriminatory employment practices of our community services arm, UnitingCare. We relinquish exceptions granted to religious agencies under various anti-discrimination laws, and Church agencies like UnitingAgeWell in Victoria now require all aged care staff to undergo training on how to care for gay and lesbian people.
My colleagues in multicultural ministry talk about creating the ‘space for grace’ – a safe space where cultural and theological differences make way for relationships, as we try to find the best way forward for all.
For Christians, the rights of all our neighbours to be acknowledged, listened to and cared for – to be loved – should transcend all other rights.
By this measure, the right claimed by a vocal few in this country to express a bigoted or hateful opinion of someone else is no right at all. We need to keep making this clear, especially in the face of the increasingly inflammatory outbursts of shock jocks and the shrill newspaper headlines designed to divide.
Where will the Religious Freedom Roundtable process lead us?
I hope it will be a useful forum to build bridges between people who, while they hold their values, beliefs and traditions as central to their identity, seek to build a vibrant and cohesive society where everyone is valued.
If it helps focus our minds on what we must forgo in the interests of others, I think it will help make us be a more harmonious multifaith, multicultural nation.