Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Am I alone in wondering what is happening to free expression of thought and honest debate in liberal western democracies, even (potentially) in Australia?

I mean, in this country we are in danger of getting a Bill of Rights containing the kind of anti-vilification rules that might possibly make it an offence to challenge someone else's religious beliefs. Already the State of Victoria has vilification laws that resulted in a pastor being tried for comments he made about another belief system.

An amazing variety of people seem to think that this is a good idea. But a groundswell of opposition is gathering momentum.

Speaking personally, it would obviously be nice from my point of view - just sometimes - for there to be a little less vilification of the Christian faith in our newspapers, in the broadcast media and in the art world. Do you remember how in 1997 we had to put up with "Piss Christ", Andres Serrano's photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine, on the basis that it is a "work of art"? Back then many people thought it was a real hoot that Christian leaders across the spectrum were upset. At the time I said to someone that maybe Serrano should demonstrate his convictions in a thoroughgoing manner and turn his work into a series with pictures of Buddha and Mohamed suspended in Serrano's urine, alongside "Piss Christ". Well, in all likelihood the Buddhists would have been as harmless as the Christians. But wouldn't it have been fun to watch the Muslim reaction! (Remember the Danish cartoonist?)

Now, I happen to think that in a multi-religious and multi-cultural society we should all learn to scrutinize each other's cherished views and opinions, while simultaneously respecting people's basic rights. This is surely a matter of developing the kind of sensitivity and respect that cannot easily be legislated and that probably includes stopping short of suspending symbols of anyone's belief system in urine!

Christians who survived the experience of growing up in robustly secular and cynical post war Australia are actually stronger as a result of constantly rethinking our beliefs and experiences in the light of the micky-taking received from friends, work mates, neighbours, the media, and the arts. So, I can honestly say that I don't want my beliefs to be artificially protected by the law of the land. They don't need to be. But I don't want anyone else's beliefs protected like that either! Why should ANYONE (Christian, Muslim, Secular Humanist or Atheist) be above the scrutiny of vigorous debate? I want the right to say when I think other people believe foolish things, accepting that their right to say so about my beliefs is a fair trade-off.

Unless this right is protected, the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth is in real danger.

My guess is that as this debate continues, a lot of Australians will see how unfair they have been to practising Christians. This point was made very well by the Australian social commentator Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute, who - in 2006 - reminded his readers that the MELBOURNE AGE

"editorialised that Serrano's image of Piss Christ was 'warm and soft and beautiful' and supported 'the exhibiting of his work'",

and that

"When the exhibition closed early due to an attack on Serrano's work by several vandals, The Age editorialised that this was the "the road to madness and the death of art".

Henderson continues:

"Fast forward to the present. Last week Age cartoonist Michael Leunig supported the decision not to publish the Danish cartoons on the grounds of respect, of course. He depicted the images of the Prophet as "taunts". This is the very same Leunig who has previously taunted Jews by equating the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in 1942 with democratic Israel in 2002. And this is the same cartoonist who has offended Christians by caricaturing Christ on the cross.

"Last week in Federal Parliament, Greens Senator Kerry Nettle wore a tee-shirt emblazoned with the message: 'Mr Abbott, Get your rosaries off my ovaries.' The reference to the Catholic prayer, the Rosary, was nothing but a sectarian attack on the Catholic Health Minister Tony Abbott. Maybe all is fair in love and (political) war. But would Nettle wear a tee-shirt bagging, say, the Koran? Not likely - despite the fact that most believing Muslims are more socially conservative than Abbott.

"In this controversy, Denmark's conservative prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been more straight-forward than many journalistic outlets. He has asserted the absolute right to free speech of the media in democratic societies. The problem with some editors and producers is that they now assert a qualified right to freedom of speech. This entails that it is proper to upset some religious followers (i.e. Christians and Jews) but improper to upset other believers (i.e. Muslims). If genuine respect is to prevail, it must be universal."

Go HERE for Henderson's complete article.

I will post more on this topic tomorrow.


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