Thursday, 18 June 2015

'Preaching the Gospel': What To Say (and what not to say...)

Extremist Christian cleric (I’m sorry but there’s really no other descriptive term for him) Pastor James McConnell of the Belfast Tabernacle Church has been given an official warning for hate speech by the police for his comments about Islam, made during a sermon in May of last year in which he said ‘Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.’

McConnell was defiant over the warning, saying he did not accept it. ‘The police tried to shut me up and tell me what to preach', he said. 'It’s ridiculous. I believe in freedom of speech. I’m going to keep on preaching the Gospel.’

I wrote a post about this in May of last year, so I’ll not go into great depth about how unacceptable McConnell’s words are, but simply reiterate that they are the worst form of sectarianism, in that they dehumanize and (literally) demonize an entire community specifically for their religious belief.

His words are not simply intolerant; they are intolerable, particularly in a context like Northern Ireland, in which incidence of racist-related crime are so disproportionately high.

But I’d like to examine McConnell’s response to his police warning, because I think it makes some spurious claims that need to be challenged:

‘The police tried to shut me up and tell me what to preach’

Although it’s becoming more and more common for certain Christians to immediately play this particular ‘persecution’ card, in fact the police are not telling McConnell what to preach. He can say anything he wants in his church, his pulpit, or his home.

The specific charge against McConnell has to do with a breach of the Communications Act 2003. Simply put, he broadcast his sermon online, which is a very different matter.

 ‘I believe in freedom of speech’

So do the rest of us, but ‘free speech’ is not, nor has it ever been, the right to say anything you want, about anything or anyone you want. The law recognizes that some speech- in some circumstances and about certain subjects- is unlawful. Hate speech is a real thing, an actual criminal offense, in that it does actual damage to society by placing certain people at risk of harm.

As has been famously said, freedom of speech does not give you the right to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded cinema.

McConnell yelled ‘Fire!’ in the most crowded cinema there is- the internet.

He declared some of the most vulnerable people in our society less than human and demonic. The police think he broke the law and now he’ll have his day in court.

‘I’m going to keep on preaching the Gospel’

This is the strangest bit of McConnell’s comments because, if my memory serves, nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus ever say anything- good or bad- about any other religious faith.

This is an important point, as Jesus lived in one of the most multicultural- and multi-faith- regions in human history, and yet the biblical text never has him uttering a peep about any of it. We can assume that, like any observant Jew, Jesus might have disliked images of the emperor or other deities but, crucially, the biblical text never explicitly mentions it.

The Roman pantheon; Mithra worship; Zoroastrianism; various Gnostic and Wisdom religions that flourished in the ancient near east…

It all goes unmentioned.

And yet, oddly, many Christians obviously believe that passing judgment on the religious beliefs of others- often to their face- is an essential part of ‘sharing the Gospel’.

It’s not enough that the Gospel be good news; it must be better news.

It’s not enough that the Gospel be true; all other faiths must be definitively false.

We don’t see this in the biblical text. Jesus never argued that the Father who sent him was superior to Jupiter. Certainly, as time went on, the Christian faith did set itself definitively against all other faiths, and went to unbelievable lengths to minutely explain why every other faith was wrong- even evil.

But we don’t see that in Jesus. The biblical text seems to imply that the Gospel that Jesus did preach- food for the poor, sight to the blind, release to the prisoners, freedom for the captives, life for the lifeless, a voice for the voiceless- need never publicly weigh in on the faith of anyone else.

If we say what Jesus said, and seek to do what Jesus did, I don’t think we’ll ever need to weigh in on the faith of anyone else either.

McConnell can hold any belief he wants about Islam.

He might even believe that he should publicly declare his belief to whoever will listen.

That’s his opinion.

But it is not the Gospel.