The recent conviction in the UK of a number of street preachers who were accused of inciting violence through the message they preached has raised some interesting questions.
As Christian Concern reports:
The men were found guilty under Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, for using “threatening or abusive words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, thereby, and the offence was religiously aggravated.” (italics theirs).
Now I have read extended articles from several op-ed and journalistic sources (some pro, some anti), and I have to say I probably would not take the same approach to gospel preaching as these three men and one woman did. Indeed there seems something belligerent about the approach, and certainly they were not exhibiting the wisdom of the doves that Jesus called for in their setting.
However this conviction has placed the issue of secular philosophical arrogance firmly in the public square, and it is a dangerous arrogance indeed.
Once there was a time when the beloved Tim Keller, in his famous baritone, could tell the fabled story of the blind men touching the elephant, none of whom see all the elephant, and then chortling, remind us that the person who tells this story in order to demonstrate that no religion can see the whole picture, is maintaining for themselves a totalising view of the elephant they claim others cannot have.
And we laughed. How we laughed. We imagined pulling out that elephant story around the dinner table over a glass of red with our well thought out friends who don’t know Jesus, and who for all intents and purposes don’t have a clear understanding of how different religions work, and how they make truth claims. And most of all we used that story to gently chide them about their own unexplored presuppositions.
And it was all very friendly, very dinner party, very drawing room. And dinner at your place in a month to continue this interesting discussion, right?
Here are the words of prosecutor Ian Jackson during the four day trial:
“To say to someone that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth. To the extent that they are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth.”
Cannot? Really? It cannot?
First, the sheer philosophical arrogance of that statement is simply proof that Jackson has not been confronted with Epistemology 101. And that’s worrying for someone who holds such a lofty role in our culture. Jackson cannot see his own blinkered presupposition, steeped as it is in a secular context that claims a universal truth claim it will not allow others.
But more worryingly is that such a claim by Jackson can be a central plank of the prosecution. In other words anything that the public square deems cannot be truthful can be treated as both unlawful and a threat to public order. It’s dangerously close to “we cannot allow it to be a truth.”
Look, I grew up in Northern Ireland and I used to wince going past the corner street preachers there who are a way of life. They touched no one, were quite strident, and no one stopped to listen. So I get why they can be a pain in the neck in a much more post-Christian setting such as Bristol is, compared with places like Belfast and Portadown.
But to say “that cannot be a truth” and therefore to utilise that as a way to forward an argument for a conviction? Sheer arrogance, and a dangerous precedent. There must be a safety net in the modern culture for all preachers who make truth claims, regardless of their religious persuasion.
Perhaps that fact was lost in the noise of the “disturbing the peace” conviction, but prosecutors who claim they can see the whole elephant are placing themselves in the role of judge as well.