The free speech versus blasphemy issues precipitated chiefly by the Sax Appeal magazine are finally drawing to a close, but the vulgarity with which it all began is still being matched by Christians hell-bent on making it an ongoing cause for shame. On a more benign front, Errol Naidoo collated all of his thoughts into a propaganda piece in Joy Magazine, but more shockingly, a debate on UCT officially flopped, but culminated in an odious mud-slinging match behind the scenes.
Sax Appeal Dies Down
The May edition of Joy Magazine featured some rather hysterical emotive writing from Errol Naidoo on the blasphemy issue. Unfortunately, it is little more than a combination of his original email about Sax Appeal, and a later rant about alleged media bias. It shows remarkably little growth as a result either of the public discussion of the issues, or, more pointedly, of our behind-the-scenes interactions — I appear in the article as ‘an evangelical theologian’ under the ‘Confused Christians’ section, but all of the scriptural and political problems that I raised were ignored.
Christian Living Today this month features a small article that I wrote representing the ‘other side’. It is a very brief look at some of the scriptures that might compel us to take a more gracious approach to outsiders, regardless of the ingraciousness we might receive from them. Amusingly, my article has a large red box at the end urging readers to air their views about what I said. It has the mood of a warning label. The magazine decided not to print a longer series of anticipated objections to my position, and my attempt at providing pithy answers. For all those still interested, and for anyone who happened across this page as a result of reading Today magazine, that article is reproduced at the end of this page.
A Pastor Blows Up
In addition to the magazine articles, some of the Christian societies attached to the campus challenged the UCT Atheist and Agnostic Society to a ‘friendly’ debate, scheduled to take place at the end of April. After shambolic organisation by the Christian organisers, and after the AAS had had their requests and protests routinely ignored and over-ridden, the AAS decided to pull out of the event on the day before (at which time the advertised venue had just been changed, and no chairperson had yet been organised).
A Pastor Michael Nlandu, apparently from Campus for Christ, who was the organiser, used the departure of the AAS as an opportunity to hurl countless serious accusations and insults at the society, at one of the speakers, Jacques Rousseau, and at atheists in general. Ridiculously, he also proclaimed the event a victory for Christians, claiming that the atheists were scared of debate, could not defend their ‘brilliant ideas’, and were running away. Here are some of his choice comments:
don’t run away before the time, ok? all you know is to Blaspheme God??? and insults people???? can you defend your Brilliant ideas??? Why Hate Debate??? it will rumble
i am just asking you why do you run away? this is not treatening and you showing us how disappointing you can be, so no one can trust even your teachings of Atteism. don’t change the Topic: The Topic is that you have Blasphemed, and we want you to explain that according to your rights and ideas!!! This proves to us that we are right and you are Wrong!!!!!! But, i tell you that if you pull out for your pretending reasons, i will have the answer for you and you will give account to that. i am cancelling the Meeting! you have lost before the Time! Hopefully you will no longer Treaten Christians with your Harmful Ideas! because we are winners over Atteists from This Day!!!
And so it goes on. You can read most of the corresondence, including all of Michael’s rants, here: http://aas.uct.ac.za/files/blasphemy_debate.txt.
After experiencing much alarm and embarrassment at the shameful behaviour of this pastor, I took it upon myself to write a rebuke to the man, explaining from scripture that this is both ungodly and counter-productive to the goal of winning these people for Christ. I also pointed out to him the irony of combatting blasphemy in a way that provokes his opponents to blaspheme. The response that I got from him claimed that the Devil was able to twist the scriptures, and that I don’t know what God said to him about this matter. He also questioned whether I was a Christian, and certainly doubted that I am a fellow pastor. He warned that I was playing God, trying to suppress the gospel, and that if I emailed him again that he would trace me and contact my superiors. I emailed him a second time reminding him that it is to God he must answer, not me, and an invitation to contact my superiors, with the relevant telephone numbers.
So, while Sax Appeal is forgotten, Christians continue to treat atheists like enemies who are to be vanquished, rather than the lost who must be found. We continue to blaspheme the Lord in our behaviour, and cause others to blaspheme him on our account. Upsettingly, I haven’t found any of the vocal protagonists amenable to biblical discussion, nor introspective upon rebuke. I’m willing to believe that my rebukes have been incorrect or heavy handed (it wouldn’t be the first time), but it is not only perfect rebukes that should meet with the fruits of the Spirit. My engagements recently have hardly even found the milk of human kindness. If our Christian apologists and evangelists are so off-putting to me, I wonder how they’re received by their ‘opponents’?
ADDENDUM: Today Magazine Q&A
Here are some common slogans and statements used to oppose free speech, and reasons why they’re false.
“There should be laws against blasphemy.”
In the wake of the UCT blasphemy, Christians have been suggesting that the government should regulate free speech. What we seem to ignore is that legally regulated speech puts us at the mercy of whatever the government finds acceptable. We seem to assume that regulated speech will suit us, but are we sure that asking non-Christians to determine for us what we can say is a good idea? If they outlawed all public religious speech, what right would we have to appeal it?
This has already begun to happen in our country. One of our busiest websites, mybroadband.co.za, has received so many complaints of blasphemy that they have decided to ban religious discussion on the site entirely. It demonstrates that the easiest way to deal with religious complaints is to keep it out of the public sphere. Sure, no one can blaspheme, but no one can share the gospel either. By demanding an end to blasphemy, Christians are becoming the greatest threat to the Great Commission.
“I believe in free speech, but it must be subject to human responsibility.”
Free speech advocates agree that we should learn to treat each other well. But to whose idea of ‘human responsibility’ should free speech be subjected? The Apartheid government thought that certain races were by nature not responsible enough to have freedom of speech, and they thought that speaking down to the ‘lower races’ was the responsibility of the ‘superior’. Similarly, many men thought that women were not responsible enough to have an opinion, especially not to vote. Free speech was instrumental in overturning those errors.
The way in which people show themselves to have (or to lack) responsibility is by having the freedom to voice their opinions. If an opinion is indecent, who will teach responsibility but those who are responsible, and who have the freedom and maturity to correct others?
“Blasphemy is hate speech.”
Hate speech has a legal definition that includes direct incitement to violence as one of its core components (even if my statements lead to violence, it’s only incitement if I called for violence). Blasphemy rarely incites violence against Christians. The government would rather that we don’t hate one another, but we are free to do so if we must. The government will only step in if we act upon our hatred.
It is worth bearing in mind that the freedom to express hatred is a very important one for Christians to protect. Consider the nature of our gospel. We are called to tell people that whatever gods they serve are dead idols, and their prophets deceived them. We must say that some of their most cherished beliefs and habits are sinful. We must tell them that they face God’s wrath and judgment if they do not turn to Christ. An unbeliever might interpret all of that as hatred if he is so inclined. If we ask government to outlaw religious hatred, we might find our own offensive gospel outlawed too.
“Letting someone insult God is like letting someone insult your family.”
Insulting someone’s family is neither illegal nor uncommon. Many of us will have done that, even if only in the form of gossip. Insults have power if there is a relationship between the parties. When insults come from strangers, it’s that much easier to get over it. As it is, non-Christian blasphemers don’t know the God who they are blaspheming, and so their words should be easy enough to ignore.
“This kind of filth shows that decency, respect and love for neighbour are on the decline.”
Be that as it may, we need to look closer at two things. Firstly, did the Christian response to this offence demonstrate the decency and love that we claim to represent? Did we offer a mature, other-person-centred rebuke? The answer is quite consistently ‘no’. Some of us went as far as threats of physical harm or even death. Of course, most of us more piously said, ‘I’ll pray for you’, but this seems to be little more than a veiled religious insult meaning, ‘I’ll be thinking of you when I’m talking to God about scumbags’. Regardless of whether we mean it sincerely, that is what unbelievers usually hear.
Secondly, have we given our plural society good enough reasons why our moral answers are better than theirs? We always seem to behave as though people should automatically accept that the Christian way is good. But we had a ‘Christian’ government under Apartheid, and people had to suffer for decades to free us of it. Why should we expect anyone to trust us? If we have any answers to moral decline, then we actually need to thoughtfully demonstrate our wisdom, rather than just assuming that our way is the truth.
“It’s good that Christians have had the courage to make a stand.”
For some reason, we have it in our heads that expressing outrage is difficult. I can’t see that it is. It’s not courageous to be a bully, and yet religions are experts at bullying. Consider how easily Islamic militants protest any and every insult. Do we respect them? No. Is that courage? No. If we stand up for our faith in the wrong way, we are doing more harm than good.
I agree that cowardice is bad, and that courage is necessary. However, courage is not the same as being combative or vocal. Standing for the gospel means imitating Christ. So, making a stand when Jesus is insulted might even mean keeping quiet, as it did when Christ was insulted at his crucifixion.
“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked.”
Christians quote this scripture as evidence that mocking God is bad, and that ‘righteous anger’ in response is justifiable. Ironically, this verse is actually telling Christians not to blaspheme by the way that we live. Galatians 6 says that you can’t claim to be one of God’s people and yet continue ‘sowing to the flesh’. You can’t keep doing what pleases you. Given that the Bible calls us to meet our enemies with radical love rather than combat, I suspect that angry Christians who insist God can’t be mocked are actually thereby ‘sowing to the flesh’ and breaking the same command that they’re invoking.
“Christianity is a soft target. Everyone is too scared to say these things about Islam.”
It might be true that Islamic militants have invoked sufficient fear to ward off criticism, but it hasn’t earned their god or their religion any respect, and it is hardly a standard to which we should aspire. Sadly, Christians are not at all blameless in this regard. Many Christians are as abusive and nasty as any other ‘target’.
But most importantly, Christianity is very rarely attacked in Western countries because Christ is offensive. If only it were the true gospel that was making us a target. Christianity is attacked because we are offensive. We don’t know our own scriptures; we live immoral lifestyles; we have church leaders in it for the money; we tell people that they should listen to us and think like us, but we don’t think, and we make no effort to listen to them.
In short, our critics may clumsily criticise us by lashing out at our God, but they have a point. We are not soft targets, we are deserving targets. Only when we learn to truly imitate Christ can we complain that those who insult us should be ashamed of their slander. However, I suspect that if we were imitating Christ, we might not need to complain.