One of the great achievements of Western society has been its embrace of religious and political pluralism as a way of enabling peaceful diversity. Throughout history diversity has commonly been met with violence, either the state enacting violence against dissidents, or conflict between groups. We easily forget that the sort of conflicts we see between Islamic groups in the middle east today was also found between Christian groups in pre-twentieth century Europe. Pluralism operates within the framework of Western liberal values of individualism, freedom, and rights. That is, with a shared commitment to the common good and respect for one another’s freedom, diversity of religion, values and lifestyles is protected by the state and seen as a good.
For many Christians this has been a difficult experience. First, it has meant surrendering the privileged status Christianity enjoyed for many centuries. Second, Christians operate with a vision of the reign of God in which all things reflect the vision and values the Creator. This makes it very difficult for them to celebrate a pluralist narrative. Third, with the rise of secularism and other religions Christians find themselves far less influential than in the past. In November 2015, for example, an episode of the ABC’s Q and A program focussed on euthanasia. None of the panellists was a religious practitioner or faith-based ethicist. If the program had been held 20 or 30 years earlier it is difficult to imagine a religious voice being left out.
It is no surprise that many Christians have yet to come to grips with this. Rather than viewing the public space as a place in which groups with different value systems share life together in a cooperative fashion, some Christians see it as a space of conflict in which only one set of values and one vision for life can triumph. Every time Christians lose voice, and every time legislation is passed that fails to reflect Christian morality, they see it as an attack upon their faith, upon the Judeo Christian heritage of our nation, and the rise of an alternate social/religious philosophy above Christianity. Every interaction in the public space is viewed as a competition for dominance and Christians perceive they are losing. The introduction of ethics classes as an alternative to scripture lessons, the safe schools program, the possible legislation of same-sex marriage, the absence of Christian symbolism from Christmas celebrations, Muslim migration, are interpreted through this narrative.
If faith is to flourish in this environment we need to find a better way forward. In his highly influential To Win the World James Hunter Davidson argue for “faithful presence”. In the Australian context I think this works itself out as follows:
Call for justice, practise mercy, live faithfully
Micah 6:8 issues the well known declaration that what the Lord requires of us is to “do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God”. This threefold summary of godly living was reiterated by Jesus (Matthew 23:23). It remains relevant for us today, with appropriate nuancing to the context of a pluralist society. First, let us act justly in all our relationships and call on the State and corporations to practise justice. Glenn Stassen and David Gushee’s widely referenced text on Gospel-framed ethics defines biblical justice as “delivering justice”. They argue that the biblical image of justice is of people being delivered from exploitation, oppression and evil. This also happens to be a key role of governments in a liberal, pluralist society.
When it comes to public engagement this is where our focus should be. We rightly celebrate the work of William Wilberforce and the Clapham sect in opposing the transatlantic slave trade. What’s less well-known is that Wilberforce also worked tirelessly for the “reformation of morals”. This may have made sense in a State that identified itself as Christian, but it doesn’t make sense in a State that is pluralist. In pluralist States morals are not the responsibility of government; the preservation of freedoms and rights are. So let’s focus our public voice on justice. My simple rule of thumb is that this means our advocacy should always be on behalf of someone who is exploited, oppressed or marginalised. If we are not doing this our advocacy has passed from justice to the wider set of Christian values and is inappropriate.
Second, let us practise mercy. Mercy is inherently inter-personal. It is to respond to those in need and vulnerability with generosity and grace. It is to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner as suggested by Jesus in Matthew 25. It is extended to the deserving and the undeserving alike. Jesus’s justice delivered a woman caught in adultery from a mob of angry men. His mercy meant that despite the fact she was guilty of adultery he extended grace to her.
Third, let us live faithfully before God. Let’s cultivate strong, fulfilling and mutually enriching marriages; households where we learn to live together with love; honesty and integrity as we go about our work; church communities where we both challenge sinfulness and forgive from the heart.
Practising justice, mercy and faithfulness would lead us into a very different public engagement than the attempt to hang onto the last vestiges of Christian privilege or recreate a mythic “Judeo-Christian” society.
Commonality, complementarity, contrast
Second, could we not adopt a more nuanced approach to our relationships with other religions and secular bodies? Rather than a conflict narrative, would not a cooperative narrative prove more fruitful? When we look at other religions and groups in society we will find points of commonality – ie we affirm the same things; points of complementarity – ie we may not share the same outlook/value/insight but these are consistent with the Christian narrative; and points of contrast – ie our outlook/value/insight and those of the other are contrary to one another.
Rather than seeing everything through the lens of a competition for dominance, can we not accept that diversity is here to stay and look to cooperate with other groups where there is commonality and complementarity while at the same time respectfully acknowledging the contrasts? Thus would mean seeing ourselves not only as Christians but as fellow human beings and fellow citizens working together for the good of all.
What might this look like in practise? It might mean Christians abandoning the crusade against same-sex marriage and instead advocating loud and clear for the homeless, poor, disadvantaged, marginalised. It might mean Christians and Muslims working together to build mutual understanding in our communities. Although this is not widely reported it occurs frequently in many so-called “developing countries” – imams taking Christians into the mosques to protect them from fundamentalist violence and Christians helping Muslims rebuild a mosque destroyed in a natural disaster. It might mean more focus on ministries of mercy into our local communities and giving time in our personal lives to listen, care for and love people. It does not mean surrendering our distinctives but it does mean celebrating commonalities.
These approaches would, in my opinion, energise faith, build our churches and strengthen our witness.