‘Religious liberty is human rights’

Jarrod Stackelroth reflects on freedom and how the quest for religious freedom turned his forebears into immigrants, seeking the right to worship in peace.

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The Immigrants sculpture in Adelaide, South Australia. (Credit: Adelaidia | visit www.adelaidia.sa.gov.au)

“These people had been falsely labelled religious bigots and mystics.”

Sound familiar. There has been lots of talk about religious freedom in Australia and the Church lately. Many Christians may feel they’ve been falsely labelled.

The independent commentator continues.

“I could not admire [enough] their steadfastness in remaining true to their faith after eight years of daily persecution, even when they couldn’t meet together as a congregation, after their preachers had been driven away from them. If they were discovered, they were penalised with heavy fines.”

Those people were my ancestors, who came to Australia to escape religious persecution in Europe.

Now, as an Adventist, it is easy to resonate with the story of these humble people who only wanted to worship as they felt convicted. This is why we advocate for freedom of religion throughout the world. As a Church, we believe our unique doctrines and practices will bring life-threatening persecution down upon us.

This is why at the end of May, at the 17th Annual Religious Liberty Dinner in Washington, DC, religious liberty advocates told attendees that the “fight for freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all people is not an option”.

Dr Ganoune Diop, who heads the Adventist Church’s Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, said this: “[Religious freedom] is a divine attribute reflected in humans. Freedom of conscience is connected in fact to what it means to be human because love cannot be forced; love needs freedom.”

Love needs freedom. Religious freedom is painted as a conservative concern alone, while the Church is accused of bigotry and discrimination. Religious freedom is seen as competing with other “human rights”. Some, even Christians, have accused the Church of sacrificing compassion on the altar of protecting the organisation. But to do this falsely paints religious freedom as the opposite of compassion.

Freedom concerns should in fact be the driver of our compassion. For people to have the choice to worship freely, they must be educated, fed, clothed, autonomous and protected from hatred and prejudice.

As another speaker at the dinner declared: “Religious liberty is human rights.”

Back to the story of my forebears. Captain Hahn, captain of the Zebra, continues to describe the conditions they had left behind.

“The people then had to use up most of [their] money . . . because they had no work. These events plunged many of them into great poverty. There were parents among them who had left their children behind; but there were also children, admittedly adults, whose parents had been left behind.”

Sounds like the story of many who have attempted to come to Australia recently, desperate for freedom, running out of money to get here and at the mercy of people smugglers. People around the world are becoming more and more polarised. Inside and outside of religious groups, we are fracturing into those who are driven by and dictated to by fear.

As a result, many are suspicious of the “social gospel”. Those who fear challenges to religious freedom often dismiss ideas—like appropriate treatment of refugees, environmental care or [insert social cause of your choice]—championed by groups they see as threatening that freedom.

We must continue to keep society and governments accountable on freedom of religion and conscience. And we must challenge policies that lack compassion and don’t allow others the freedoms privilege affords.

We are not called to be partisan but to call all to follow a higher path, a Kingdom path, the Way of Jesus. God gave free will and models freedom in the way He treats us

Today is World Refugee Sabbath. In this issue we have the amazing story of a family who, given a chance at freedom, have chosen to join our faith community (p10). We must continue to champion compassion and freedom as found in God’s Kingdom.