3 Brief Reflections on the Case of the Convicted Street Preachers

Yesterday two street preachers were convicted of public order offences. They were preaching in Bristol’s Broadmead Shopping Centre last summer. They appeared to get into some heated debate, the police intervened, and they were charged under Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act – “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.” Now, I wasn’t in Bristol that day, and I haven’t closely followed their trial, but here are just three very simple observations/reflections:

  1. Let’s neither divinize nor demonize street preaching. Some may wish to uphold these street preachers as persecuted heroes. From the little bits of evidence I’ve seen and heard (see here) they did appear to be conducting themselves in a way that may have been unnecessarily provocative (whether it was threatening or abusive is unclear). The content of our speech is one thing, the tone another. Their conviction seems to be more about how they said, than what they said (but more on that below). But neither let us demonize street preachers. I have a friend who works for the Open Air Mission and having seen him speak in public, he is one of the most gentle and winsome people I know. Most of his work is done in one-to-one conversation. He’s always respectful and polite, and never rude, pushy, or dismissive.  And, as far as I know, he’s never had a problem with public or police. There surely needs to remain a place for civil dialogue in the public square, whatever our beliefs.
  2. Let’s highlight inconsistencies. If appropriate freedoms are to be enjoyed we should try and help the authorities spot the places where they are being inconsistent or contradictory. An interesting example occurred in this case where the prosecutor, Ian Jackson, stated, “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.” Take note of the inconsistency. The prosecutor makes a claim about truth – that claiming Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth, or that Jesus is the only way to God cannot be truth. He uses an absolute truth claim to shut down absolute truth claims. Now, I uphold his right to make a claim for truth, but only on the basis that other truth claims are also permitted. To pick and choose which truth claims are permitted is arbitrary and possibly tyrannical. In public dialogue people should be able to make competing claims for truth, and should be free to respectfully discuss and disagree.
  3. Let’s not be afraid to speak up, but do so with gentleness and respect. The Evangelical Alliance and Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship recently put together a little booklet entitled Speak Up: A Brief Guide to the Law and Your Gospel Freedoms. In the booklet they highlight Articles 9 & 10 of the Human Rights Convention – articles which protect freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and expression. And they also give suggestions on how we may appropriately share our beliefs with others. Advice includes: listen well; be gentle; be respectful; be non-judgmental, be sensitive; treat others as you would have them treat you.

Yesterday’s judgement should not make people fearful of sharing their beliefs and values with others (in public or private), but it should encourage us to think carefully about how we do that. We might not always agree with one another in these things, but we should keep fighting for one another’s freedom to talk about them.

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