Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Freedom of Religion and Discrimination

Life gets rather messy when two incompatible objects butt heads.

Arizona has placed themselves right in the crosshairs with its bill to allow forms of discrimination based upon religious belief.

I am none too pleased with this particular bill as I believe it is a warping of the nature of religious freedom as preserved in the Constitution.  Not only this, I believe it flies in the face of Jesus' own teachings regarding how a Christian is called to interact in society.

First, let's deal with the issue of religious freedom.  I would like to make a distinction here between religious belief and religious practice.  It's not necessarily healthy to do such a thing because usually our practices flow from our beliefs.  Yet, there is a reason I want to make such a distinction at this time.

There are a lot of world religions.  There are the major five or six, but there are a host of others throughout the world.  Many of them have particular beliefs instilled in them--among those beliefs the secondary citizenship of women (many Islamic as well as Christian sects), the marginalization of the poor (the Hindu caste system), the severe punishment of homosexuals (many sects of Islam as well as some Christians).  There are other such beliefs to be covered, but I think these few are enough to highlight a substantial problem: when religious belief clashes with guaranteed rights endowed in the U.S. Constitution.  In our nation, we do not adhere to a caste system; we guarantee the rights of women and homosexuals despite what religions believe about them.  And since the U.S. Constitution is the highest law of the land, the Constitution takes precedence over religious belief.

There might be some who decry this, especially some of my more conservative brothers and sisters of the Christian faith.  YOU say that we should deny our religious beliefs and make them subservient to the U.S. Constitution?  Not your beliefs.  Your practices--especially ones which conflict with the basic understanding of human rights (more on this later as I will try to show that discrimination has no basis in Christian practice).  Why do I say such a thing?

Let's put it plain and simple.  What happens if a religion comes along that practices human sacrifice as per the ancient Mayan and Aztecs?  Let's just say theoretically a person comes along looking to re institute such a practice.  Because we have religious freedom, should we let that person go ahead with the plan?  Should we let the person claim that it is well in line with his religion to capture people and then sacrifice them to appease the gods?

I think most of us would revolt at the idea.  I also realize this is taking this to almost an absurd conclusion; however, complete and total religious freedom would allow for such a thing to take place.

On a more concrete note of possibilities, it would be quite easy for a store owner to put up a sign which said, "No blacks allowed.  It's against my religious belief."  Back to Jim Crow with legal underpinning.  Not good.  Not good at all.  On a practical level, this law has many, many problems, and while protecting individual freedom to believe is important--it should not trump the basic human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Secondly, from my own faith tradition, I do not think such a law is compatible with how Jesus taught His followers to act.  Yes, as Christians we are to stand against sin.  Yes, as Christians we are to strive for perfection.  Yes, as Christians we are not to condone sinful behavior.  But we are called to give people freedom to sin.  We are called to give people freedom to go against God.  We are called to give people freedom to reject our beliefs and practices and do their own thing.  And we are called to keep loving them no matter what they do.

My favorite illustration to show this is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  I think we should rename it as the Parable of the Prodigal Father personally, but that is beside the point.  The Father in this parable is the main focus--particularly in how He acts toward His sons.

The first one would be considered the one living in sin.  The youngest son comes to the Father and demands his inheritance early.  Basically, he tells the Father, "I wish you were dead so I can have my money now!"

What does the Father do?  Does the Father do what most of us dads would do?  Does He scoff at His son and tell him to get back to work under threat of punishment?  Does the Father scold the son and make him feel two inches tall?


With a radical love, the Dad gives His son the portion of the inheritance and lets him go make his own way.  The consequences are dire!  The son squanders his money and has to work at a degrading job not making enough money to feed himself.  The son "comes to himself" and says, "I messed up.  I need to apologize.  I can go work for dad as a servant."

The son heads home, but before the kid has a chance to apologize, the Father comes running to embrace His son.  Before the kid has a chance to grovel, Dad is exuding love once again.  Dad even throws a party, much to the chagrin of the older son.  This welcome; this party; is an example of pure grace.

Interestingly enough, the older son, gets quite upset with Dad.  The older son refuses to go to the party Dad is throwing.  This is actually an insult to the Father as well.  The son might not necessarily be aware of it, but he is sinning just like his younger brother does.  And what does the Father do?  He comes out to the son and invites him to come in.  Grace is extended once again.

Both sons are sinful.  Both need the Father's love.  Grace rules the day.

I think one of the greatest points to be made in this parable is the Father reaches out to both of His sons and extends them love--not by telling them what to do; not by discriminating against them; not by trying to make them conform to His will, but by giving them freedom to pursue their own course.  He counts on His love being the thing which will bring them back under His roof.

This tells me a couple of things.  #1. I am not the Father.  I don't have that kind of love.  #2. This means, in all reality I am like son number one or son number two.  #3. I am either a wayward sinner or a self-righteous sinner.  #4. I am in need of the Father's love to get into the party one way or the other.  #5. If I need the Father to come to me to get me in, then I have no business being self-righteous or haughty.  Grace brought me in, not my own actions.

As Christians, we should know we are not the Father in this parable.  We should know we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  We should know we are still captive in sin and incapable of living the life God has called us to.  We should know we are no different than anyone else living in sin.

And what was Jesus' response to us when we were living in sin?  What did Jesus demand of us?  Did He say, "Get your stuff together, and then I will die for you?"  No.  He died for us while we were still sinners.

How many of us are willing to die for someone else we consider living in sin?  How many of us are willing to die to our own egos to show kindness to someone we disagree with vehemently?  How many of us are willing to be convicted by grace and humbled enough to serve someone who we consider to be breaking God's commands?

Jesus did that for us and then said, "Go and do likewise."  Through love people are brought to repentance, not through discrimination.

I, for one am hoping the law passed by the legislature in Arizona is vetoed.  I do not think it compatible with our Constitution or with Christianity.  I know others may vehemently disagree.  It's okay.  I still love you.

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