The splendid surroundings of the Speaker’s House in the Palace of Westminster in London were the backdrop for the launch of a report by the United Kingdom All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief.
I represented the European Baptist Federation at the release of “Article 18: From Rhetoric to Reality.”
The report seeks to challenge both the U.K. government and nongovernmental organizations working in the field to reduce that staggering figure of 80 percent of the world’s population, who live with some kind of restriction on their religious liberty.
APPG was only recently established, and both British and European Baptists are stakeholders in it.
In his speech launching the report, the Foreign Office Minister Lord Ahmed, himself a Muslim, paid tribute to Thomas Helwys, the first Baptist pastor who in 1612 made his famous declaration of religious freedom for all, including those of other faiths.
Rejected and imprisoned by the religious establishment of his day, Helwys died a lonely death in Newgate Prison in London. And his vision of religious freedom for all almost died with him.
As they achieved greater religious freedom, Baptists and other Free Churches were no longer sure they wanted to extend the concept of religious freedom to all Christian denominations and all faiths, and certainly not to those of no faith.
It took the 20th century decline of “Christendom” in Europe and the growth of more multicultural and multifaith societies to fully rehabilitate Helwys’ radical notion of freedom of conscience and religion, even for the “Turk, the Jew, the heretic.”
As a Baptist, I was proud to read in the APPG report that “Helwys was the first person to outline in the English language what we now know as Article 18.”
So, the prophetic voice of the early English Baptists of the 17th century (and to Helwys we, of course, add the witness of Roger Williams in Rhode Island) seems to be most directly relevant to the situation of the 21st century and the many challenges and threats to religious freedom today.
We Baptists have thus made a crucial contribution to the shaping of Article 18 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar declarations on religious freedom.
Our continuing challenge is that we do not dilute the radical nature of this commitment.
So, for example, it was heartening to see the Russian Baptists protesting against the latest making illegal of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, despite the very deep differences between them.
Other European Baptists were not so sure that we should be defending the religious rights of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in this way.
In fact, my experience is that a commitment to religious freedom for all, drawn from our identity as Baptists, is a widely appreciated contribution to the wider society today, whether in the U.K., Europe or across the world.
There is another important issue at stake here for Baptists. That is, we should not see our concern for religious freedom in isolation from other freedoms, human rights and responsibilities.
It was the German theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer who in the 1930s pointed out that we may be so grateful to be granted our freedom of worship and existence as churches that we are effectively muzzled to speak out against the violation of other freedoms and rights in the wider society.
As Bonhoeffer remarked, in such circumstances “the church is in chains, even if it believes itself to be free.”
So, turning to the Declaration’s Article 19 on freedom of opinion and expression, we see the importance of using our own religious freedom as a platform to allow freedom of speech and expression from others.
There is a worrying trend in some countries in central and eastern Europe today toward curbing press freedom in the name of a nationalist or even a “Christian civilization” agenda.
There is a need for Baptists and others to speak out more clearly against these developments.
Article 19 is a particular challenge in an era of social media and “fake news” and the clash of sensibilities of the different religious groups that make up the same society.
Perhaps in no area of human rights is it clearer that with rights also come accompanying responsibilities.
We Baptists should be among those who lead the way in showing that while freedom of speech and expressed opinion are permissible as our right, we should be wise and discerning in exercising them.
Sometimes, we must even exercise voluntary restraint when we sense that such expression will threaten the peaceful co-existence of all who are living together in the same geographical space.
Some of our Middle Eastern Baptist leaders in Muslim-majority countries are leading the way in this regard.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for Human Rights Day 2017 (Dec. 10). Previous articles in the series are: