Freedom of Speech and Christian apathy, a few ramblings…

This post has long been sitting in the melting pot, waiting for me to finish it. Musings on the up-coming performance of Jerry Springer at a local theatre have made me re-consider this particular line of thought. I got very annoyed some months ago by the extreme reaction of many Muslims to the publication of some ‘satirical’ cartoons in a Danish newspaper. In the light of my reaction, and in particular my belief in freedom of expression, what is the appropriate response for a Christian to the Jerry Springer the Opera? Before we consider that question (probably in a later post), let’s return to my original un-finished post on the cartoons…

I have been at the same time horrified and made very angry by the various results of the publication of those cartoons by the Danish newspaper. Innocent people have died because of the reactions of certain extremist groups. Many are living in fear. There are economic threats to those entirely un-related to the original publishers. And all because of the clash of two different world views with two different understandings of the issue of freedom of expression.

Now I am unable to comment on the specific allegations about why certain things have or haven’t happened. And although I feel strongly that (in a Western democracy) it is not appropriate for the government to be answerable for articles published by independent magazines or newspapers, it is not the purpose of this site to explore such philosophical or political ideas.

However, it does seem appropriate to offer some theological observations regarding what we see happening.

It is tempting immediately to jump in and to say that this is another example of the violence intrinsic in Islam. However, this will not do. Many Muslims would condemn the actions of the ‘extremists’ involved in these outbursts. And although I believe that a truly Biblical Christianity can never condone violence in the cause of Christ, yet it would be easy for others to point the finger at examples of ‘Christians behaving badly’.

I would like to suggest a slightly deeper understanding of what is going on here.

One of the fundamental distinctions between Islam and Christianity lies in their understanding of the role of religion and state. It is my understanding that one of the central aims of Islam is to establish Islamic law in every country. This close association of state and religion means that any comment or criticism of the religion itself, becomes a political statement offends at the level of nation or state.

Biblical theology, on the other hand sees no such need for state and religion to be tied together. Christians are looking forward to a future kingdom – the kingdom of heaven – and in the mean time are called to be salt and light in their own (mixed) communities. We are called to submit to the ruling authorities in as much as to do so does not contradict God’s law. Whilst a strong case can be made for Christians getting involved in politics to try and influence the world around us, and to work for laws which are in-line with God’s law, yet the overriding mandate is to make disciples and to win citizens for the kingdom of heaven.

Since there are no ‘Christian’ states in the same sense that there are ‘Muslim’ states, there is no as it were political escalation associated with any criticism (implied or actual) of the religion.

At the same time, it is probably true to say that the historical lack of reaction amongst Christians to many slights on our faith or our God could also be put down to a slightly half-hearted conviction, or a lack of zeal. Where that is the case we must certainly repent – we should be VERY concerned for the glory of our God.

But perhaps this ‘lack of reaction’ can also be explained as a theological function of i) the essential strand of non-violence in the teaching of Christ ii) specifically the NT elaboration of these principles in relation to persecution – in other words suffering persecution gladly (see 1 Peter 3:8-4:19 for a further explanation of this).

The debate continues, but in the meantime, let’s try and be clear about why we are angry. Let’s try and respond in a proportionate way. And (if you’re a Christian), let’s get on with telling people about the Living God who loves them and has sent His Son to free them from slavery to sin and death.

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