June 30, 2008
A THOUSAND conservative Anglican leaders met in Jerusalem last week, among them Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria who was reported as saying that Anglicans who preach the inclusion of homosexuals in God's church were guilty of apostasy. He is not alone in this view. In Zimbabwe, the former bishop of Harare, an ardent supporter of President Robert Mugabe, withdrew from the Anglican province in May saying he could not co-exist with so many gays and lesbians in the church.
Many of us know the passage from the Old Testament book of Leviticus that declares homosexuals an "abomination". It is one of a long list of denunciations that has profoundly affected the way three great world religions — the "People of the Book": Jews, Christians and Muslims — have responded to sexual minorities. Only in a few countries is there a strict separation of church and state, so what they teach about morality influences secular laws by which most people on the planet are governed.
The problem is that those who believe in the inerrancy of religious texts find it difficult, or impossible, to tolerate those who deny or doubt their truth. Often the reaction against apostates is explained as being for the benefit of those affected. And it is ascribed to a command from God himself.
No doubt there are some in modern Jewish society who still adhere to views such as those in Deuteronomy that advocate the stoning of apostates, but generally speaking, few Jews would take them seriously as a command for contemporary civilian law. Christians have a similar tradition. In the 1250s, in one of the first descriptions of traditional English law, Henry Bracton declared that apostates should be burnt to death. Then, in the 1770s, William Blackstone declared Christianity to be "part of the laws of England", enforceable as such. Such laws have long since ceased to be observed, although occasionally the law of blasphemy is invoked to protect an Anglican concept of God.
It is 60 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations on the recommendation of a committee led by Eleanor Roosevelt. It gave effect to one of the Allied war aims in the Second World War, upholding the right of everyone to "worship God in one's own way anywhere in the world".
For most Jews and Christians today, the thought of punishing people because they abandon or deny their old religion, is unthinkable. Increasing numbers of Australians declare on the census that they have "no religion". So even hardline believers tend to skip over the passages in Deuteronomy. Much easier to single out those of Leviticus and to denounce sexual minorities.
Still, in some countries apostasy is very much a live issue, especially in some Islamic countries. The Holy Koran does not prescribe compulsory adherence to Islamic beliefs. On the contrary, it states that "there is no compulsion in religion". God alone has the right to punish those who do not adhere to Islam or who turn their backs on its beliefs.
On the other hand, the Hadith, a secondary source of Islamic law, records the prophet as saying that whoever rejects Islam must be killed. This has become a source for civilian laws and stern punishments in some Islamic countries. Occasionally, as in Sudan, those laws appear to be used as political tools for removing outspoken opposition personalities.
In Malaysia, the constitution contains standard guarantees of freedom of religion. However, in 2007, a decision of that country's highest court, in the Lina Joy case, by majority, denied the applicant the right to record a change of her religion from Islam to Christianity on her identity papers so that she could marry her Christian fiance.
One of the foremost critics of the Malaysian court decision on apostasy was Dr Thio Li-ann, a professor of law and a nominated member of Singapore's Parliament, a Christian who took a leading part in persuading the Singapore Parliament to reject proposals to repeal the old British laws against homosexuals, based on the teachings in Leviticus. For her, refusing to permit Lina Joy to have freedom of religious conscience was an abomination, notwithstanding Deuteronomy. But the abomination in Leviticus had still to be enforced. Like most non-Western countries in the former British Empire, Singapore maintains its criminal laws against gays.
On the 60th anniversary of Eleanor Roosevelt's Declaration, we need to promote tolerance and acceptance of diversity among all the People of the Book. For the sake of the planet and survival of the species we must embrace the universal principles of human rights. It is no accident that they were promised as a foundation stone for the New World Order created by the United Nations. Without respect for such basic rights, peace and security will always be at risk.
Most of the world's great religions are founded, ultimately, on simple principles of loving God and one another. It is from those principles that religious tolerance derives.
The Nobel laureate and religious leader Desmond Tutu recently wrote a foreword to the life story of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Church. Tutu declared his acceptance of the authority of Scripture as the word of God. But he has not forgotten that the Bible had been used to justify racism, slavery and the humiliation of women. He declared: "I could not stand by whilst people were being penalised again for something about which they could do nothing — their sexual orientation."
The big challenge before us is to telescope centuries of experience, law, culture and tolerance in the West into a few decades in the rest of the world. Unless we do so, the mixture of religious intolerance and weapons of mass destruction will be a great threat to the world and everyone in it.
Michael Kirby is a judge of the High Court of Australia. This is an edited version of a speech he will give tonight, at the invitation of the La Trobe University Centre for Dialogue, at the Asia Centre, Melbourne University. He will speak at 7pm and the lecture is open to the public