Guardian acknowledges that UK authorities are hounding Christianity out of the public space

Cheetah in Namibia. Courtesy of https://www.maxpixel.net/Namibia-Hunt-Africa-Blood-Cat-Prey-Cheetah-2859582
Cheetah in Namibia. Courtesy of https://www.maxpixel.net/Namibia-Hunt-Africa-Blood-Cat-Prey-Cheetah-2859582

Observer columnist Kenan Malik this week wrote a creditable article in the Guardian in which he acknowledged that the UK authorities are in some cases actively hounding Christianity out of the public space.

The opinion piece here was published on Sunday and was commenting on the high-profile Ashers bakery case which has again been in the news as it is now being deliberated over by the supreme court. We will say something about this case shortly.

“The law is in a muddle when it comes to questions of free speech, religious freedom and discrimination. It seems to require people to facilitate views with which they disagree but deny others the right to express their beliefs.”

Kenan Malik, The Guardian, 6 May 2018

However, an important point which Malik makes in his article is that the UK authorities have been actively hounding Christianity out of the public space. This is something that has been clear to many Christians for some time now, but which is rarely acknowledged in the mainstream media.

In this the Guardian is fulfilling the duty which is implied in its name — that is, of telling things as they are, and of “speaking truth to power.”

The Equality Commission, to whom gay rights activist Gareth Lee took his case, sued Ashers for discrimination. Perhaps they were right to do this. Oddly enough the way one arrives at fair and just laws in society is often by testing existing laws. It’s only as laws get examined, and re-examined, and scrutinized in the legal process that holes and inconsistencies emerge and can be ironed out: the definition of law is an iterative process, a constantly self-examining process. It may well be that this case exposes an ambiguity or grey area in existing Equality law.

Malik highlights, however, other recent instances where the UK authorities have rather ludicrously brought Christians to court for preaching Christianity.

The authorities, both in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the UK, have long attempted to censor religious material regarded as offensive. In 2015, a Christian pastor from Belfast was prosecuted for “hate speech” for a sermon in which he claimed that Islam was “satanic”. He was eventually acquitted, but the case should not have come to court at all. Other Christians prosecuted for preaching hatred include Michael Overd, convicted at Bristol crown court of quoting homophobic passages from the Bible, and Shawn Holes, fined for preaching on the streets of Glasgow that gays deserved the “wrath of God”.

He might in fact have mentioned the February 2017 conviction of Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell in Bristol Magistrates Court for a “religiously aggravated public order offence” following a public sermon delivered in Bristol’s Broadmead Shopping Centre in 2016 — a conviction that was later overturned on appeal.

The overturning of this conviction is particularly important in view of the argument by the prosecution lawyer in the original trial, that publicly quoting from the King James Bible in modern Britain should “be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter.”

Are the UK authorities hounding Christianity out of the public space?

It is hard not to see the above actions by the UK authorities as one-sided against Christianity. The case against Messrs. Overd and Stockwell seemed to be based on the idea that their public preaching was offensive.

Now let’s turn this around and imagine that someone was publicly preaching a message denouncing, even ridiculing, Christianity. Imagine that the person doing so is Jewish; imagine they are Muslim; imagine they are Hindu; imagine they are atheist: it doesn’t particularly matter.

It’s hard to imagine the authorities prosecuting them for their mockery of Christianity with the same zeal as seems to have been happened in the cases above.

“Because of its position as the ‘established’ religion, it seems that when it comes to religious mockery, Christianity is fair game.”

Indeed, Christianity is mocked and derided with amazing regularity on our TV screens, in cinema, in theatre, in popular literature, in the social media space. The Independent Online regularly prints utter nonsense about Jesus and about Christianity, often devoid of anything that could be described as historical facts.

Much of this is genuinely offensive to Christians. But nobody gets prosecuted for it, nor do we ask them to (more on this later).

Indeed, Malik makes the point that “when it comes to Holocaust denial or cartoons about Muhammad, people are more likely to be censored for expressing their beliefs than compelled to do so. In many European countries, Holocaust denial is a criminal offence. And while the Muhammad cartoons are not banned by law, few newspapers or magazines wish to cause offence by publishing them.”

Because of its position as the ‘established’ religion, it seems that when it comes to religious mockery, Christianity is fair game.

Now I don’t believe that there is a high-level government conspiracy to drive Christianity out of the public space. We are not seeing here some deliberate UK government policy — surreptitious or otherwise.

“Probably what is more significant, however, is that some local authorities and public bodies are running scared of the Twitterpolitik.”

There are of course a great many local authorities that make up the machinery of government and public service. It is statistically likely that some of these local authorities will have come under the influence of those who are ideologically opposed to Christianity in the public space, and be acting accordingly. (Just as it is also statistically likely that there are some local authorities in which the reverse is happening.)

Probably what is more significant, however, is that some local authorities and public bodies are running scared of the Twitterpolitik.

Facebook recently asked me whether I thought that it (Facebook) was a ‘very positive,’ a ‘somewhat positive,’ a ‘neutral,’ a ‘somewhat negative,’ or a ‘very negative’ thing. I answered with the last option.

I did so because, whilst it is true that social media can be a real positive force — an obvious example that comes to mind is the part it played in the Arab Spring — there is no doubt that social media also severely degrades the quality of public debate. Any reasoned and cogent argument is likely to be drowned in a tidal wave of online shouting; whilst public and corporate decisions that have a serious effect on the lives of individuals are often made on the back of a Twitter backlash. In the world of Twitter, the ‘tyranny of the majority’ is alive and well.

What is the Ashers bakery case really about?

It behoves us to say something about the ongoing Ashers bakery case.

Fundamentally this case was never about being ‘anti-gay.’

“The Ashers case was never about the identity of the customer: it was always about the message he wanted Ashers to promote, against their deeply held beliefs.”

Daniel McArthur, the bakery general manager at the heart of this case, has stated publicly that Ashers had served Mr Gareth Lee previously and would be happy to do so again.

So it was never about the identity of the customer: it was always about the message he wanted Ashers to promote, against their deeply held beliefs.

As Malik correctly points out in his article,

[a]t the heart of the case are two issues that have got muddled. The first is that of discrimination against an individual by virtue of his sexuality or religious or political beliefs. The second is the freedom to express one’s beliefs. Such freedom must necessarily include also the right not to express a view with which with one disagrees.

Hence, if the verdict of the supreme court goes against Ashers, it will have far-reaching consequences for freedom of speech in this country. That is precisely why prominent LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell has come out in support of Ashers in this case.

What do we, as Christians, believe about freedom of speech in the UK?

I would like to finish by stating what I believe about freedom of speech in the UK. I am not for a moment going to claim that this is the view taken by all Christians. But I would at least like to think it is the view held by most Christians.

“I want to say very clearly that we affirm and support the right of people to free speech. And that necessarily includes people’s right to say things with which we fundamentally disagree.”

I want to say very clearly that we affirm and support the right of people to free speech.

And that necessarily includes people’s right to say things with which we fundamentally disagree, or that are deeply offensive to us.

So we affirm the right of Gareth Lee to campaign for gay marriage. We affirm the right of people to campaign against faith schools in the UK. Yes, we even affirm the right of the Independent Online to print the sheer nonsense it regularly produces about Christianity.

As Christians we don’t expect other people to agree with us, or to be compelled to do so.

Christianity, after all, was born in exactly this position.

When Christianity started, it was a belief held by a tiny group of comparative nobodies in Galilee and Judea, who had met the risen Jesus. It was from its inception a minority viewpoint.

And Christianity was born in persecution. The Jewish and Roman authorities conspired to nail Jesus to a Roman cross, and the followers of Jesus received similar treatment. Only this morning I was reading the account of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.
Acts of the Apostles 7:54-58a[1]

As Christians we don’t want to be those who stop our ears at the suffering of others; we want to be those who affirm the rights of others — including the right to freedom of speech.

But aren’t Christians just those who want to stone everybody to death?

The charge is often levelled against Christians that we are the people who want to stone everybody to death for various moral offences.

Biblical passages such as Deuteronomy 22:20-21 are quoted as evidence against us:

But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

But this is fundamentally to misunderstand the Bible and what Christians believe.

“That God commands something in the Old Testament — particularly in the ‘law’ books at the beginning of the Bible — it does not follow that Christians expect that to be obeyed by people in the UK today, or even in fact by ourselves.”

Passages such as the above were given in the Old Testament, to the nation Israel. Much of the Old Testament — probably the bulk of it, in fact — is concerned with God’s dealings with the nation. Thus the commandment quoted above was a law for the nation at that time.

That God commands something in the Old Testament — particularly in the ‘law’ books at the beginning of the Bible — it does not follow that Christians expect that to be obeyed by people in the UK today, or even in fact by ourselves.

When we say that, it isn’t some clever mental gymnastic we’ve done with the Bible text. The New Testament itself doesn’t expect of Christians that they should follow these laws. Indeed it explicitly denies that some of these laws are binding on Christians.

So far be it from us to expect people in the UK today to observe and keep these laws which are often levelled against us.

*                               *                               *

As Christians what we want to do is to affirm and support other people’s right to freedom of speech, as well as our own.

And within that framework of freedom of speech, we want to tell people about the life-affirming Jesus in whom we believe. As Christians we believe that we have a wonderful message that is of vital importance for the world. We want to be people who affirm the rights of others — as Jesus did — and tell others about him.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14[2]

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+7%3A54-58&version=ESVUK

[2] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+1%3A14&version=ESVUK

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