What’s the difference between “offensive” and “grossly offensive”? Is it, as is said of the erotica versus pornography, the difference between using a feather and using a whole chicken?
Last week in Belfast, it was left to District Judge Liam McNally to decide whether a solitary quill or an entire bird had been deployed by an Evangelical preacher who, in May 2014, told his congregation that Islam was a “Satanic” doctrine and that he did not trust Muslims.
Pastor James McConnell’s sermon caused considerable controversy, which escalated when he appeared on the BBC’s Stephen Nolan show and refused to back down. Then-first-minister Peter Robinson, of the Democratic Unionist Party, attempted to pour oil on troubled water by saying he wouldn’t trust a Muslim on the big issues, but he’d happily send one down to the shops for him.
Anyway, more than a year later, in June 2015, prosecutors charged McConnell not, as one might imagine, with incitement to religious hatred, but with causing the sending “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.
That is Section 127 of the Communications Act, a law which, as has been pointed out here and elsewhere many times before, was designed to prosecute heavy breathers harassing telephone operators in the 1930s. It was not ever supposed to be used against fire and brimstone preachers in Northern Irish megachurches. At the time, this column questioned the Public Prosecution Service’s use of this instrument. The PPS must have thought this was the best means of securing a conviction, but it is odd that an online stream of a sermon should be singled out as a grossly offensive message, and a rather dangerous precedent for broadcasters, news publications, bloggers and, as we have seen many times before, social media users. If a recording of a sermon available on the web is liable to prosecution under the Communications Act, why not, say, a newspaper column, or even a documentary in which “offensive” views are aired?
As it turned out, McConnell was found not guilty by Judge McNally last week, on the basis that the judge was unwilling to attach the “grossly” description that turns being offensive into an offence. In a judgment, which hinted at irritation with all parties, McNally made it clear that yes, the pastor’s statements were offensive, and that offence could have been avoided:
“He is a man with strong, passionate and sincerely held beliefs,” the judge found. “In my view, Pastor McConnell’s mindset was that he was preaching to the converted in the form of his own congregation and like-minded people who were listening to his service rather than preaching to the worldwide internet. His passion and enthusiasm for his subject caused him to, so to speak, “lose the run of himself”. Having said that, I am satisfied that … he must have realised that there was a risk of offence being caused and, unfortunately, ignored it.”
He also hinted that McConnell was ignorant about Islam — that he did not demonstrate any theological justifications for his views on the religion.
But McNally’s conclusion raised a question over why the case had come up: “The courts need to be very careful not to criminalise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances. Accordingly I find Pastor McConnell not guilty of both charges.”
This is a fine and cheering judgment in an age when we could reasonably have expected it to have gone the other way. McNally has grasped, one can see, that the state has no place interfering in free expression of thought and belief, barring perhaps the prevention of imminent violence.
In the same week as this little triumph for free speech, we marked the first anniversary of the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket.
One braced for repeats of the equivocation that followed the murders last year, and sure enough, Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford University obliged, writing of the slain Charlie staff in the Times that: “Even if we have a legal right to spit on other people’s sacred cows for the sheer, malicious fun of it, we have no moral permission.”
What’s fascinating about Biggar’s vicarish utterances (he does at least concede “Charlie’s journalists certainly didn’t deserve to die”, which is good of him) is the idea that someone is, or should be, in a position to grant permission to others regarding what they can or cannot say, write, or draw. The men who carried out the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo certainly believed they should decide who is allowed say what: one suspects in their own way, the likes of Nigel Biggar’s do too.
It’s this authoritarian impulse, whether carried out with weapons, secular laws or smug religious entitlement, that should be confronted. A recent Irish Times editorial addressing the issue of offence and the McConnell case, expressed this sentiment well, stating that ultimately it is the reader who decides “how civilised debate will be conducted. Not the courts, regulators, overzealous prosecutors, politically-correct civil society groups, or even over-prescriptive press councils”.
It is to his credit Judge McNally understood this as he let the unpleasant Pastor McConnell walk free. We should carry his lesson with us into 2016.
Belfast’s Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle is one of those things that makes a soft Southern Irish atheist Catholic like me think I’ll never truly understand Northern Ireland.
Every week, Ulster Christians flock from across the province to the 3,000-seater auditorium, there to hear Pastor James McConnell preach his Christian message. Not the Christian message of the BBC’s Thought For The Day, however; you may hear Beatitudes at Whitewell, but it’s not a place for platitudes. This is the real deal, fire and brimstone; damnation and salvation. If you’re not going to Whitewell, you’re going to Hell.
It is a comforting message, and actually, a very modern one. Think of how many politicians these days talk about how they work for hard-working-families-that-play-by-the-rules. Hardline evangelical Christianity is the epitome of that idea. We don’t refer to the “Protestant Work Ethic” for nothing.
But what we tend to forget when discussing hardliners from the outside is that there is a strong apocalyptic element in orthodox monotheistic religion. This is particularly true of Christianity. The closer to the core you get, the more you find Jesus’s teachings are essentially about the end of the world, not some vague being-nice-to-one-another schtick.
For some time, Christians have fretted over Matthew 24, in which Jesus apparently tells of the signs of his second coming, that is, to, say, the end of the world. What worries them particularly is Matthew 24:34: “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.”
Does this mean Jesus was telling his apostles that the world would end in their lifetime? CS Lewis, in his work The World’s Last Night, seemed to believe so, and went so far as to call the Messiah’s assertion “embarrassing”. Lewis wrote:
“‘Say what you like,’ we shall be told, ‘the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘This generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.”
“It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement ‘But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.’ The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side.”
Lewis, though himself a Northern Irish Protestant, was clearly not of the same cloth as Pastor McConnnell, Ian Paisley, and the other preachers of their ilk. Orwell disdained Lewis for his efforts to “persuade the suspicious reader, or listener, that one can be a Christian and a ‘jolly good chap’ at the same time.” The booming pastors of Northern Ireland, and other Christian strongholds such as the US’s Bible Belt, are very firmly convinced that the end is imminent. And thus, they do not have time to be “jolly nice chaps”. There are souls to be saved, right now.
It’s this attitude that has got Pastor McConnell into trouble in the past week. Recently, at Whitewell, inspired by the story of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman reportedly sentenced to death for converting to Christianity, McConnell told the thousands assembled at his temple that “”Islam is heathen, Islam is Satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell.”
In an interview with the BBC’s Stephen Nolan, McConnell refused to back down, claiming that all Muslims had a duty to impose Sharia law on the world, and suggesting they were all merely waiting for a signal to go to Holy War. A subtle examination of modern Islamist and jihadist politics this was not.
The PSNI is now investigating McConnell for hate speech. Northern Ireland’s politcians have been quick to comment. First Minister Peter Robinson backed McConnell, first saying that the preacher did not have an ounce of hate in his body, and then managing to make the situation worse by saying he would not trust Muslims on spiritual issues, but would trust a Muslim to “go down the shops for him”.
Insensitive and patronising that may be, but Robinson also touched on something more relevant to this publication when he said that Christian preachers had a responsibility to speak out on “false doctrines”.
The issue raised is this: if we genuinely believe something to be untrue, no matter how misguided we may be, do we not have a right to challenge it in robust terms? In politics we often bemoan the fact that leaders will not call things as they, or we, see them: indeed, Tony Blair, the bete noire of pretty much every political faction in Britain (a bete noire who oddly managed to win three election) has found grudging praise from across the spectrum this week for suggesting that rather than “listening to” or “understanding” the xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party, politicians should tackle their arguments head on.
But in religion, we tend to hope that no one will upset anyone too much, in spite of the fact that, for true believers, theological issues are far more important than taxation or anything else.
When Blair’s government proposed (and eventually passed) a law against incitement to religious hatred in Britain, the opposition came from a coalition of secularists and some evangelical Christians, both groups realising, for different reasons, that being able to call an ideology false or untrue – and in the process criticise and question its adherents – was a fundamental right. The trade off in that is acknowledging others’ right to question your truths, something I suspect, judging by the recent controversy in Northern Ireland over a satirical revue based on the Bible, Pastor McConnell and his supporters may not quite excel at.