15 December 2017

CONSIDER… “I’LL SAY WHAT I THINK!”

Our society, in an attempt to be tolerant of everyone, is becoming increasingly intolerant of free speech. The opinions and consequent statements made by numerous people could be viewed as intolerant. So where do we draw the line? Is there ever a time to silence the views of those whom we do not like or with whom we do not agree? Should we tolerate intolerance?

As Christians, these are very important questions because, as we decrease numerically in these isles, our influence also diminishes and we already find ourselves marginalised, if not victimised, for our beliefs. We see the popular press asking intriguing questions about what legally constitutes the crime of ‘incitement to racial hatred’ and what might be its impact on free speech, which as a nation we treasure so much. How long before preaching the gospel in the open air is no longer tolerated? How long before stating that Jesus is the only way to heaven is viewed as intolerant and therefore outlawed?

Quentin Letts, writing in the Daily Mail, asks the following questions: “Should a parliamentary sketch writer be allowed to describe Lord Prescott as ‘a chimp’? Or should the bottom pinching former Deputy Prime Minister (or, for that matter, the chimpanzee) be able to report the matter to the police on the grounds that it is ‘insulting’? Should it be illegal to say of former Tory MP-turned-ballroom-artiste Ann Widdecombe that she has ‘the body of a 20-year-old – a 20-year-old Skoda? Should it be punishable by law to refer to public figures in this way? Are they fair game? Is it just teasing, or unacceptable breaches of free speech? Should the forces of law and order be able to barge down the door and make an arrest, citing the Public Order Act 1986 and marching one off to the local nick to cool one’s fountain pen? I raise the subject mainly because Members of Parliament and campaigners are calling for that Public Order Act to be changed so that such teasing can no longer be deemed a crime – and the Government may well be tempted to agree with them. It includes Tories, Labour, Lib Dems and others; it embraces the so-called God-botherers of the Christian Institute and the hot-totrot God deniers of the National Secular Society. This is, indeed, a ‘broad church’. The alliance has noticed that the police have started to take it upon themselves to investigate people under the Act’s previously little-noticed Section 5, which makes it illegal to behave in a way which is deemed likely to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’.

To quote from that law: ‘A person is guilty of an offence if he uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.’”

The consequences of this are selfevident. If in preaching the Gospel we say that the Bible states that unrepentant sinners are condemning themselves to an eternity without Christ in a place which the Bible calls hell, someone listening may be alarmed or distressed by that and decide to pursue us through the courts. To quote Letts again, “You may be for the legal high jump – no matter what your intentions were. We may not be talking about a judge donning the black cap, but police charges and the stress of legal proceedings may well follow, along with lawyers’ costs running to thousands of pounds. All this in a country which supposedly has ‘freedom of speech’. A street preacher was fined £700 after proclaiming Biblical teaching which, he felt, condemned homosexuality. Away he was led by the boys in blue, for ‘insulting’ gay folk. It is Orwellian – an example of the once-sensible British constabulary over-reacting.”

As with so many attacks on free speech, on the surface the proponents appear to have right on their side. We all condemn those who persecute anybody or minority groups on the basis of race, creed or colour. However, we have to uphold the right of the individual or organisation to hold to what they believe and to be allowed to make it known. This is a difficult balance to make. Allowing either side to rule is likely to lead to totalitarianism, which is the concern expressed by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, former Archbishop of Westminster and thus head of the Catholic Church in England. He stated that secular atheists mean to wipe out Christianity in Britain. Continuing, “supporters of secular values do not tolerate dissent” and warned their ambition to eliminate religious belief was ‘very very dangerous’. “Secular values had fostered the violence of totalitarian states and the purges and wars that killed millions in the 20th century.”

The cardinal declared, “in the name of tolerance it seems to me tolerance is being abolished.” He said, “our danger in Britain today is that so-called ‘Western reason’ claims that it alone has recognised what is right and thus claims totality that is inimical to freedom. No one is forced to be a Christian. But no one should be forced to live according to the new secular religion as if it alone were definitive and obligatory for all humankind.” He added, “The propaganda of secularism and its high priests want us to believe that religion is dangerous for our health. It suits them to have no opposition to their vision of a brave new world, the world which they see as somehow governed only by people like themselves. They conveniently forget that secularism itself does not guarantee freedom, or rationality. Indeed, in the last century, most violence was perpetrated by secular states on their own people.”

This so-called C h r i s t i a n country has left its roots behind and we now live in a post- Christian era. This month, as we celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, it seems like a good time to reflect on the influence that Christianity has had on our society and to bite back on this rampant, aggressive secularism that seeks to deny our Christian heritage and wants to wipe out any vestige ofChristian morality from our midst.

Throughout these last 60 years that Elizabeth, our Queen, has reigned over us, things have changed dramatically. This is, of course true of any sixty year period throughout the history of mankind. However, the last 60 years have seen the most rapid rate of change of any in world history, whether we look at travel, communications, science, technology or moral values; nothing has remained the same. I use the word change, rather than progress, since much of what has changed does not, in my opinion, represent progress. In fact, in areas much as ethics and morality, I would say we have regressed.

From some of the comments she has made, it seems clear that the Queen herself has noted this. As Head of State she has to be guarded and diplomatic at all times, but be it in her Christmas speech last year, or speaking at Lambeth Palace in February, the tone and emphasis is distinctly Christian. Here is an extract: “Religions provide critical guidance for the way we live our lives, and for the way in which we treat each other. Many of the values and ideas we take for granted in this and other countries originate in the ancient wisdom of our traditions.

Even the concept of a Jubilee is rooted in the Bible. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly underappreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.

This occasion is thus an opportunity to reflect on the importance of faith in creating and sustaining communities all over the United Kingdom. Faith plays a key role in the identity of many millions of people, providing not only a system of belief but also a sense of belonging. It can act as a spur for social action. Indeed, religious groups have a proud track record of helping those in the greatest need, including the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the disadvantaged. They remind us of the responsibilities we have beyond ourselves.”

As evangelicals, we need to heed this clarion call from our Monarch and uphold the rights and freedom of all. In our tolerance, the love of Christ will be shown, for our actions will always speak louder than our words. We are called to stand for the truth but we must do so with meekness and gentleness and learn to object without being objectionable. What we think is not what matters, we must say what Jesus said and let Him help us cope with the consequences.