We don’t need to be street preachers, or like their message, to be disturbed by this

I was looking on twitter the other day (as you do) and I came across the following post from the leader of the Reform UK party. If you’ve never heard of Reform UK, that’s fair enough, you are in some solid (and probably majority) company. It is the party that grew out of the ashes of the Brexit Party. It is currently led by Richard Tice (again, if you’ve never heard of him, you will not be alone) but he went through a period of being fronted alongside Nigel Farage in the Brexit Party and now leads Reform UK whilst Nigel, we trust, is actually retiring for realsies this time.

Anyway, you don’t have to like Reform UK nor Richard Tice to find the video he put up on twitter a little disturbing. It shows an older gentleman, clearly preaching in the street, being arrested by the police. You can view the video below.

Christian Concern have also highlighted the issue. Just as my comments on Reform UK and Richard Tice, you don’t have to like Christian Concern nor be a Christian yourself to find this disturbing. You can read an eyewitness statement about what happened at the Conservative Woman website.

The article states that the two men began preaching in Uxbridge town centre, declaring that Britain has become unmoored from its Christian heritage (whether you think this is good or not, it is undeniably true). They pointed to various examples, but most notably highlighted the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions. Again, you may or may not think that a good thing, but it is clearly a departure from both the historic understanding of marriage as well as a biblical one. It shouldn’t be as controversial as all that in reality.

But let’s just concede that it is. You might wonder whether that is the most helpful and missiologically sensitive approach to evangelism in our current cultural context. You may or may not even be right about wherever you fall on that. But that question evidently misses the point. If we are in the business of banning the public expression of controversial views, quite a lot of our print, social and visual media will find themselves out of business quite quickly. Very few of us can honestly say we have no views that wouldn’t raise the hackles of a significant proportion of people somewhere. It is obviously true because, if it weren’t, we’d all be the same religion, voting for the same political parties and holding to the same philosophies. But, of course, we don’t. And most of that is on the stuff that isn’t necessarily that controversial.

But since we have gone on a drive to protect feelings against offence and alarm – with these things very much being in the eye of the beholder – we have found ourselves in a position where we are somehow more upset about the utterings of a harmless septugenarian pastor sharing his faith than we are with the police forceably pulling him off a ladder and arresting him because someone decided they didn’t like what he was saying. As the Conservative Woman site claimed:

After a while, a number of police officers appeared on the scene, going up to Pastor Sherwood and stating that three complaints had been received about the preaching. The pastor stopped preaching to speak to the officers, in a courteous and reasonable manner for some considerable time, whilst adhering firmly to all that he had said. The accusation made by police was that ‘alarm and distress’ had been caused to members of the public. 

It would, of course, be ludicrous enough for any member of the public to be able to claim ‘alarm and distress’ had been caused by a person’s opinion and for us to consider that an arrestable offence. But, of course, we don’t actually do that. Instead, we allow certain groups on certain issues to claim ‘alarm and distress’ and consider that an arrestable offence. So, when Christians are pilloried in the media or public discourse, when people say the most offensive things about us, there is no police visit for those who cause us ‘alarm and distress’ (and, for the record, rightly so). But there does seem to be a ready and willing police visit for any who might offend the secular orthodoxies on sex and sexuality.

The eyewitness continued:

Whilst this conversation was going on, another officer spoke to me about the need to avoid any homophobic statements. I explained that to uphold God’s moral law and to speak about the dangers of sin in respect of LGBT issues implies absolutely no hatred or unpleasantness towards any individual or group of people. Indeed, it is an act of love to one’s neighbour. Nevertheless, the Bible’s description of homosexuality as sinful is plain and clear-cut.

To this the policeman responded that some matters simply cannot be referred to in public places, because there is no freedom to make statements which offend people. I responded that the police would have no objection whatsoever to a Pride parade being held in Uxbridge, yet that would be highly offensive to Bible-believing Christians. The officer did not appear to appreciate the logic behind this argument. Furthermore, there is no law stating that people have a right never to be offended.

Herein is the heart of the matter. The police have aligned themselves to particular political causes and will brook no dissent against them. The speaker was entirely right to note that the police would have no problem with a Gay Pride march and people extolling the virtues of LGBT+ lifestyles, but will not permit any dissenting opinion on the matter. Judge for yourself which is right: permission for Stonewall to publically proclaim their position and for Christian street preachers to publically proclaim theirs on those same issues. Or, for Stonewall and those who share their position to be free to publically state their views whilst denying the right of anybody else to disagree, no matter how gently or charitably? I’m not convinced gentleness and charity ought to be prerequisites for speaking in public at any rate, but even so, the pastors preaching in the street – though some may not have liked what they said – were not saying it in a particularly unpleasant and nasty way.

Now, you might be sitting there thinking, who cares about a couple of loons sounding off in town centres? I don’t do that and it has nothing to do with me! Well, maybe so. Perhaps you’re not a street preacher and have no interest in ever being one. Perhaps you don’t even have views you want to proclaim in the streets at all, no matter how right you might think they are. So, you think, maybe we should all just keep our thoughts to ourselves or find other media in which to air them.

Of course, you’d be entitled to that view. But it is naive. The problem with these attacks on street preachers – and they are increasingly common – is several fold. Firstly, leaving aside the rights or wrongs of the issue in question, most of these arrests have come about since we decided to clampdown on ‘hate preachers’. At the time that was deemed to be the likes of Abu Hamza and Anjem Choudary. The laws were intended to stop people inciting violence and yet the majority of the time these things seem to be applied against Christian street preachers who are merely sharing opinions that some people disagree with, with no threats of violence encouraged. It cannot be right that laws intended to do one thing are routinely applied against people doing something altogether different.

Second, however, we have moved on in our application of these things. We are now interested in protecting certain groups and priviliging rights. We have departed from a position of all being equal under the law and are increasingly suggesting some are more equal than others. Some must be protected in ways that others need not be. This is a problem for all of us.

Third, it might feel okay to let street preachers face the force of the law and take our opinions into other venues. But history (by which I really mean quite recent history at that) has shown that what gets banned on the streets soon begins to get banned in other public venues and, not long after, private ones. Many Christians, who have no interest in street evangelism, have argued that they don’t like the medium and believe that they were being offensive in the context. What those folks fail to reckon with is that the offence had very little to do with context and what was being deemed unsayable on the street was going to become unsayable in their churches. Scotland, who have pushed further down this line than England, have even brought forward legislation to make some of these things unsayable in private homes too. That should concern all of us too.

But fourth, and finally, the reason we should all care about this – whether we are Christian or not, whether we street preach or not, whether we even like the view being spouted or not – is that the only guarantee we have that we can say and think the things we want to do is that we allow others to do that too. If we think it legitimate to stop people saying and thinking certain things because we deem them terrible today, we have no guarantee whatsoever that tomorrow it won’t be our views that become unsayable and unthinkable. Plenty of high profile, once ‘right on’ voices have found this out themselves. None of us will be immune if we sell the principle.

So, you might have little sympathy for street preachers. You might not have much time for their message either. But if you aren’t prepared to defend their right to say what they want, you can’t be surprised if you are next.