Failure of religious discrimination bill prompts inward reflection

I glanced at my phone as the familiar tone signified that I had received yet another message. Over the previous few days, this had been a frequent occurrence, yet the name of the sender caught my eye. I knew it would mean news of the impending passage of the Religious Discrimination Bill through the Senate. The text was brief, ‘RDB will not go before the Senate.’

With that one line text, five years of hard work as the religious freedom representative for Australian Christian Churches was over. My reply, ‘Lost for words’ said it all. I didn’t know what to think. The unrelenting previous 72 hours of debate in federal parliament had come to a sudden halt. I checked the accuracy of the text, knowing it was true for sure, yet secretly hoping that perhaps the Bill was just delayed to another day.

However, it was soon apparent the Bill was finished, at least before the election.

My emotions immediately flew ahead of me. I felt numb and bitterly disappointed. My mind, perhaps reverting to my legal training from decades ago, began a detailed, systematic list of people and events I should blame. Unfortunately, the list seemed long.

I thought of the scores of political debates I had been in over those past years, the promises made, the rhetoric blithely uttered and the commitments pronounced with such certainty. Then that word ‘why’ appeared. Why was the Bill introduced at such a late stage of the parliamentary cycle? Why the lack of bipartisanship? The list of ‘why’ questions was certainly longer than this.

It’s quite amazing that both blame and ‘why’ by default are never directed at oneself!

When did sections of Australian society reach the point of viewing people of faith as being so intolerant?

Eventually, my overactive mind shuddered to a halt with the sounds of more text messages being received. I knew what they would say, so I turned the phone over so its face could not be seen and activated the silent mode to allow me to think about something else. Unfortunately, something far more unpalatable confronted me.

When did sections of Australian society reach the point of viewing people of faith as being so intolerant, judgmental and, dare I say, bigoted against LGBTQI+ individuals? I supported this piece of legislation and at absolutely no time during the past five years did I ever want to cause any pain, embarrassment or anguish to any other human being. I sincerely believe in every individual’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. These most ancient of freedoms, protected in Article 18 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should find a legislative base in Australian law. How did this Bill turn into an argument about gender identity, sexual orientation and the individual’s acceptance in society?

Again, my mind went to the many unchallenged false statements made about this Bill that appeared in so many press outlets by passionate well-meaning individuals.

Could the problem be me?

I should have never activated the silent mode on my phone or sought refuge in a quiet moment. It allowed me to realise that sound creates noise and noise signifies busyness and busyness stifles thought. Could the problem be me?

The mandate of my faith to love my neighbour as myself is indeed a most dangerous command. It is one that should be exercised with extravagance as opposed to restraint. It is motivated by a conviction of heart that grace speaks louder than words, love and forgiveness override judgmental behaviour; kindness, patience, goodness and gentleness have the potential to soothe the wounds of past unacceptable behaviour and humility is a strength more powerful than arrogance of speech and manner.

None of these things undermines my right to convictions without which I am nothing. However, the tone with which those convictions are expressed becomes the most powerful megaphone I have at my disposal.

Am I saying that the failure of the Bill to proceed lies at the feet of the people of faith? Certainly not. However, I am saying that before debate resumes, this time through the lens of an election, people of faith should glance into the mirror of their own heart and soul and examine whether or not love, as Jesus displayed towards all people, is truly evidenced in our identity as disciples.

Is it time to examine if LGBTQI+ and indeed all marginalised individuals are genuinely welcome into communities of faith? The front doors of most faith communities are perhaps open, but once inside, are they exasperated by being perceived as a lesser person in their faith communities?

It is time to answer them by leading their people into the realms of unconditional love without judgment.

What vexed questions these are! The answers will be found in the hearts of those brave faith leaders who know it is time to answer them by leading their people into the realms of unconditional love without judgment, without compromise of their communities’ convictions of faith and yet without the glibness of well-meaning but empty rhetoric.

Australia will not be made ‘better’ by a contentious discussion of religion, especially during an election. Australia has a progressive federal anti-discrimination framework to ensure that individuals are not discriminated against because of age, disability, race, sex, gender identity, sex characteristics and sexual orientation. I still believe this framework should be extended to religious beliefs or activities.

One of the most important roles I can play in the forthcoming debate, as a person of faith, is not merely through articulating reasonable arguments but through seasoning my speech and actions with a healthy dose of unconditional love for all my neighbours. I hope I can be brave enough as a leader to begin to change society’s perceptions of people of faith. If this is a defining moment for faith communities then I pray I will not be found wanting in this season.

It’s worth the risk after what our nation has experienced over the past few weeks, don’t you think?

Mark Edwards is Senior Minister at Cityhope Church in Ripley, Queensland.