Grace and gracelessness

I’ve edited this to reflect the version that was subsequently published on the ABC Religion and Ethics Website in Australia. Nick, 15 July 2016.

The term “Evangelical” is notoriously hard to define. Grace features somewhere in most definitions; graciousness is occasionally in shorter supply.

In a poorly-timed opinion piece, Michael Bird wonders when “social progressives” will realise that they can’t simultaneously support LGBTI rights and oppose Islamophobia. Some Muslims have appalling views on homosexuality, ergo, Muslims must by rights suffer when social progressives come after Christians and other religious communities (as he thinks they surely will).

More precisely: if progressive political parties like the Australian Greens try to bring religious groups into the purview of anti-discrimination laws, Muslims will suffer, and social progressives’ heads – unable to bear the “paradox” – will simply explode.

I’m not sure the Social Progressive Cabal would let me join their bid for global domination, but I am a fully signed-up liberal democrat. So, I suspect, is Michael Bird. And while debates about the place of religion in pluralist liberal democracies will always be complicated, I’d like to suggest that it’s not quite as hard to walk and chew gum as Bird appears to think.

To live in a liberal democracy requires an act of sympathetic imagination – particularly from those who belong to majorities, and even more particularly from those who belong to powerful ones. For example, middle-class men of European descent (like me) need to imagine how we’d see things if, by accident of fate, we found ourselves in a minority – particularly in a small and powerless one. What respect and dignity would we want the majority to accord us, our way of seeing the world and our way of doing things? What could the majority reasonably expect of us in return?

It’s not my intention here to suggest that there’s something inherently virtuous about being in the minority. A temptation into which minority groups sometimes fall is to glory in victimhood and indulge in fantasies of revenge (or even its realisation). This kind of ressentiment runs deep in Christianity’s DNA, but there’s plenty to go around elsewhere. It clearly underwrites the stories that a certain kind of Islamism tells about itself as well. It’s even common among majorities who feel as though they’re losing their grip on power. That may be why we find a striking incidence of this pathology among men of European descent at the moment.

Likewise, it’s worth acknowledging that sympathetic imagination can only ever be approximate. Different groups identify and prioritise their values differently. To imagine yourself into the place of another group will always require a kind of translation, and translation, as Michael Bird knows, never works perfectly.

On the other hand, translation gets us most of the way most of the time. Fortunately, it’s helped by the fact that few of us belong straightforwardly to one group or another. So I’m not just a middle class man of European descent. I’m also a gay man, and a (lacklustre) Catholic. My experience in the latter two minorities gives me some inkling of what it might feel like to be a Muslim in the present climate. I’m also lucky enough to have good Muslim workmates and associates with whom I can talk about this, however tentatively (though I don’t want them ever to feel as though they have to justify their place in the universe, any more than I want to feel I have to justify mine).

I can’t claim anything more than a superficial understanding of Islam, but I do understand very well what it’s like to have ignorant majorities windily opine about what “people like me” think and do. This is why I viscerally detest both Islamophobia and homophobia.

It’s also, incidentally, why I would strenuously oppose most (though not all) attempts to restrict religious freedoms – especially as religious belief becomes a minority avocation in New Zealand, and maybe soon Australia. If that “not all” seems a slippery out, I’d ask Bird whether he thinks religious freedom should be entirely unfettered. Should Evangelical husbands of a certain ilk have the right to physically “discipline” their wives, as surely once they did, and still occasionally do? Should migrants from northeastern Africa have the right to mutilate their daughters’ genitals? If, as I’d guess, his answer is no, then this is not a debate between “social progressives” and “religious” people, but between citizens of a liberal democracy.

But if the rights and freedoms of liberal democracy seems too dull and cramped a framework in which to continue this discussion, then I’d suggest that generosity and graciousness of spirit would get us a lot further than unlovely attempts to divide and conquer.

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