Positives of discrimination


Red pen circles silhouette of personThe debate about the right of church and similar organisations to discriminate in employment practices is usually framed in terms of exclusion. Have such organisations the right to exclude particular categories of people from their workforce? But a more important question needs to be framed positively. Do they have the moral right to favour applicants from particular religious backgrounds and ethical convictions for some positions?

This question is sometimes answered by appealing to religious freedom, and so to the privilege of the churches that sponsor community organisations. But it is more plausibly and persuasively answered by appealing to the benefits that may accrue to the people whom the organisations exist to serve.

What matters most to good community organisations is a deep respect for the human dignity of the people whom they serve, and the determination that this should characterise all their dealings with them. This respect is grounded in the conviction that each human being is precious and makes a claim on us, independent of their wealth, reputation and religious belief.

Respect is expressed above all in the way in which staff members relate to the people they serve. It extends also to the quality of the services they offer and of their advocacy. If you respect people you will want to offer them the best service available and to make their case publicly in the most effective way. A proper professionalism is calibrated by commitment to people in need, not vice versa.

Respect also characterises the relationships between those who work in the organisation, and so all the human exchanges that form its daily life. This high respect for human dignity, of course, is always an ideal. The reality is always flawed and partial. Respect always needs nurturing.

In organisations where the focus on respect remains strong, the staff will have appropriated an ethical code and translated it into predictable practice. By ethical code I do not mean an abstract philosophy or a set of religious teachings that are taught explicitly but rather a coherence between values and actions from which an observer would infer a consistent ethical framework.

Such codes are learned primarily by imitation and by doing, not theoretically. They are communicated in such phrases as, 'That's not how we treat people here'.

In faith organisations (and in others that are inspired by a similar overarching world view), this ethical framework is supported by tradition.

It involves the constant weaving and reweaving of the history of the organisation, stories of its key decisions and crystallisations of the faith and symbols that convey its central values, into the perplexities and struggles of staff as they meet the demands and challenges of their relationships with the persons whom they serve. Each time these stories are told, they lead to reflection on current practices and how adequately they embody respect.

Traditions are not handed on in community organisations simply to provide information about the past, still less to indoctrinate staff in the beliefs of the sponsoring church.

The purpose is to strengthen a shared commitment to respect for the people served. Given that most staff are unlikely to be active members of the sponsoring church, the stories and symbols that incorporate respect will be introduced in a style that allows participants to own them as they will.

They are important because they give the staff a common point of reference for talking about what matters most in the structure and life of the organisation. They allow people to use words like love, wonder and faithfulness that are absent from the language of welfare, but which fill out what is entailed in respect.

This process addresses the challenge faced by most community organisations: how to sustain and reaffirm in the face of change the values that mattered in their beginnings. The replacement of key staff members, growth in size and complexity, changes in social and political context and challenges of economic viability demand such a tight focus on practical problem solving that less tangible qualities like respect can fall into shade and rust away.

That is why the communication of the tradition and of a language fit to describe the respect on which the organisation is built is so important. But if it is to happen, some senior staff members responsible for passing on the tradition must have integrated in their own lives the faith and the commitment to respect.

In these cases a particular religious background and ethical values may be required for the position, not because it satisfies the demands of the sponsoring church, but to ensure that those whom the organisation serves continue to be treated with great respect. 

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. Discrimination image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, discrimination



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Existing comments

I commend you, Andrew, for your vision of respect for clients/community, and for your recognition of the inherent need for shared values and ethics. Sadly, I believe the untested legal ability of churches etc. to discriminate in employment practices (and as it relates to the largely stalled federal legislation concerning this subject) can and is often used to keep sectors of society underfoot as second class citizens. It has been my experience, working for a large NGO/faith-based organisation, that diversity has enhanced the organisation's mission, informed its practice, pushed it to become more relevant, and educated its often-insular and sometimes self-focused-to-the-point-of-being-myopic membership. Thank you, Andrew, and Eureka Street, for this article and for being open to discuss the issues.

Barry G | 18 April 2013  

"the communication of the tradition and of a language fit to describe the respect on which the organisation is built is so important..." God has evidently decreed that EVERYTHING, including Traditions, must evolve, or fossilise and die. Traditions all began when their authors did not have the data (knowledge and consequent understanding) to give definitive expression to the ideals they represented. Unlike scientific traditions which are regularly upgraded to meet new requirements, religious traditions are guarded and promoted well psst their use-by date, often to the detriment of the particular religion involved. Christianity needs to accept that it is just one way that God is calling his people,even though it responds closely to our cultural needs, and that other religions are equally acceptable to God and to the communities represented. We see their defects, just as they see ours. What we all need is better understanding and co-opration, not self-immersion and exclusion.

Robert Liddy | 18 April 2013  

A great appraisal of important issues,Andrew. English is a beautiful language rich in finesse and nuance in its usage, to the point where it may be easily manipulated and interpreted,as in the use of the word "discrimination". Discrimination is not a "bad" word but has come to have a singular "bad" meaning, easily manipulated for personal bias or advantage. Occasions do arise where discrimination is a necessary position to be adopted in many situations requiring human responsibility. As a surgeon I was trained to be rigidly discriminatory in training young doctors and potential surgeons and suffered no pangs of conscience in refusing to appoint various people to positions of surgical responsibity or failing students in examinations, on the grounds that they were frankly too dangerous to be entrusted with human life. Discrimination? Definitely - but so necessary to protect others who were powerless in their trust of the doctor. Similarly, the obligations of the Catholic education system demand discrimination. However, independence always frightens government, particularly socialist/communist governments and has to be choked in legislation. The by-product, of course, is that irresponsibility of all sorts becomes the norm as we see in so many aspects of current Western society. Time to stop manipulating the language and use some common sense!!!! (Not referring to you, Andrew!!)

john frawley | 18 April 2013  

This is an excerpt from an article entitled "Injustice not an article of faith for all churches" written by Rev. Elenie Poulos published in SMH 21 January 2013: "The miraculous healing stories in the gospels, regardless of whether you believe in their literal truth or not, are demonstrations of a love that reaches out to those suffering prejudice, a love that challenges the systems, religious or otherwise, that force people to the edges of society, where they have no chance of flourishing. The Christian church has all too often failed to demonstrate this unconditional love. We have, over the centuries, perpetrated and condoned - often by our silence - prejudice, violence and abuse. We are still a long way from blameless. It is no wonder, then, that many have stopped listening so that even when we do speak of our vision of hope, justice and inclusion, we are rarely heard, as has been the case over the last few days."

Pam | 18 April 2013  

Thanks Andy for your tireless work in your contributions to Eureka Street.

Marie | 18 April 2013  

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