The debate in Australia about religious freedom is surely a sign of the times. Social ‘conservatives’ accuse ‘progressives’ of pushing a ‘hard-left’ social agenda, exemplified, for instance, by the recent marriage plebiscite.
Society now views churches far more negatively than in the past. Vocal critics in the media find a willing audience. Pressure is increasing, in places like Victoria, to purge religion from the public space. For their part, churches don’t help when they give inadequate, opaque responses to real questions about historical abuse, particularly by clergy. Meeting victims of such abuse has shown me how destructive it truly is. When churches respond poorly, it adds fuel to the fire of those who claim that for society to make real progress, religion must become a purely private matter.
This public debate, however, is strangely at odds with the situation most of us know and experience. Despite declining numbers, in many places, especially in smaller communities, churches are the glue that hold people together. When the banks, schools, service stations and supermarkets have left, churches are still there. Local Christians give countless volunteer hours and massive resources to support the community. Local churches, embedded in their communities, return that generosity by being beacons of hope during dark days, giving comfort in times of distress and confidence in times of doubt. They care for the sick, the needy, and the homeless. Christians do the voluntary work in society that governments and corporations simply don’t have the people or the purpose to do. Every week, millions of Christians participate in the ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ. Their work builds and sustains our collective social capital.
Let’s draw a distinction, then, between such Christ-centred lives and ‘religion’. Religion – the belief that humans can become God’s favourites because they believe, say, and do the right things – is the antithesis of a life lived in faith (Matthew 23).
Subtle and insidious, the religious opinion that I am better than others slowly accumulates like a poison. It shows itself when someone does the wrong thing by me. It could be as commonplace as when someone jumps me in a queue, or cuts me off in traffic. It’s so easy to be indignant and seek justice, or maybe even retribution. That’s what religion does. It makes us feel superior. We fail the test of serving others as Christ serves us (Matthew 20:25–28, Galatians 5:13–15).
God’s answer to our human condition does not lie in religion – the art of making God pleased with us – no matter how hard we try. It lies with Jesus, the perfect Word of God made flesh, voluntarily taking our place, drawing the evil of this world upon himself on the cross. He’s the one God is well and truly pleased with. He makes us his body, a church in which he gladly receives everyone who turns to him. He freely shares his love and gives us eternal life, setting us free to serve others just as he has served us.
We believe in this church. We won’t give it up, whatever happens in the public square. Our job, as church, is to go on loving, to go on caring, and to continue to serve the world, no matter what, just as Jesus continues to serve, nourish and redeem us.