Illustration: The Laganside Courts, Belfast
Photo credit: see below

Therefore Have I Spoken

Date: Friday, 08 January 2016
Author: Rev David M Blunt

Those who would inhibit our freedom of speech as Christians have suffered a setback. On Tuesday Pastor James McConnell, following a trial which concluded last month, was found not guilty in connection with a statement he made about Muslims. Announcing his sentence at Belfast Magistrates’ Court, Judge Liam McNally said that while Mr McConnell’s words were offensive, they did not reach the threshold demanded by the law, which is that they be grossly offensive. We are pleased with this outcome. 

The case was significant because of the setting in which the words were spoken. They were not uttered in casual conversation or in an interview but during public worship. They were part of a sermon McConnell preached while Pastor of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, a congregation in north Belfast which he founded in 1957 and is loosely associated with the Elim Pentecostal Church. In his sermon McConnell said: “People say there are good Muslims in Britain. That may be so, but I don’t trust them.” A little later he proclaimed: “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.”

Interestingly the prosecution accepted that the statements on Islam were ‘theological’, and were therefore protected under Articles 9 & 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The judge indicated that he was of the view that these statements were grossly offensive, but because of the prosecution’s concession McConnell could not be convicted on them. So the case concentrated on whether the statement regarding Muslims themselves, “but I don’t trust them,” amounted to “grossly offensive” speech – something which can result in up to six months in prison. The prosecution maintained that by these words McConnell was characterising the followers of an entire religion in a stereotypical way and that to do so was grossly offensive and not protected by the Convention.

From their opposing positions, both sides in the case recognised that the context, a service of worship, was important. The barrister for the prosecution said: “He intended to use those words, it wasn’t a slip of the tongue.” He referred to radio interviews in which McConnell had repeated his denunciations of Islam. For their part the defence insisted on a recording of the whole service being played in court. Thankfully the right verdict was reached in the end. But what can we learn from the McConnell affair?

Hatred

One thing which is apparent is how readily the accusation of hatred tends to be made. There were those who were quick to tell us that Pastor McConnell’s words about Muslims could only mean one thing: that he hated them. In fact, while McConnell was originally investigated for a ‘hate crime’, this allegation was not proceeded with. It was telling that two contrasting character witnesses appeared for McConnell in the trial – an MP from the Democratic Unionist Party and a Roman Catholic priest! The priest testified: “Pastor McConnell has no hatred for anyone whatsoever.”

We are by now quite familiar with this assumption of an evil motive: it seems to be routine whenever certain beliefs or lifestyles are condemned by preachers or politicians. But is any of us really in a position where we can say with certainty what has caused someone to speak in strong terms, giving offence to others? Can we discern infallibly what lies within that person’s heart? We struggle to know our own heart at times! It is our belief that forthright speech is perfectly compatible with genuine love and we point to our Lord as the great example of this. Claiming ‘hate’ is all too often a useful device to shut down debate on issues which people find uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Pastor McConnell insists that he has never hated anybody in his life. He has stated that, while he has no regrets about his sermon, he is sorry if Muslims have been hurt by what he said. In radio interviews and in court he has explained that he does not trust Muslims who follow Sharia law – something he perhaps should have said in his sermon. The Lord looks upon the heart however (1 Sam. 16:7), and we are thankful that He is the final Judge, not man.

Internet

A second thing to be noted is how the Internet has greatly increased the availability of information. Pastor McConnell’s sermon was heard, not only by a congregation of two thousand in the church building, but also by many others throughout the world, being streamed live online. It is still available on the Internet. Nowadays those who want to increase their knowledge on any subject can do so with great ease, with a computer or mobile device connected to the Internet, and the Church is able to proclaim the gospel by this modern means. But, by the same token, any comments made or opinions expressed are instantly available for scrutiny by all and sundry – including those whose agenda is to find fault. Even a tweet can get you into trouble. 

Pastor McConnell was actually charged under the Communications Act 2003, with the offences of “sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive.” Judge McNally said that he thought Pastor McConnell’s passion in preaching “had caused him to lose the run of himself”, and advised him to consider the impact of his words in future. For the Christian, and especially for preachers of the gospel, the McConnell affair reminds us of our duty to always state the truth clearly, carefully, and prayerfully, as before the Lord.

The Bible warns us that nothing in our lives, not even our thoughts, is really private, for the Lord knows everything there is to know about us. Jesus Himself said: “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed” (Luke 12:2). When will it be revealed? The apostle Paul spoke of “the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel” (Rom. 2:16). At His return Christ will judge the world in righteousness and then our hearts will be laid bare. Have our sins been forgiven through the blood of the Saviour? Are we right with God?

Beliefs

A final lesson for us is the need to hold unswervingly to our Christian beliefs. Pastor Mr McConnell was offered an informal police caution which would have prevented a criminal trial, but he declined this. He explained: “If I took it, that would be an insult to the one I love... that was me gagged for the rest of my life.” His action was wise and we should be grateful to God that he was given such strength, for we may be the beneficiaries. As one of his character witnesses said after the trial, if he had accepted the caution it would have introduced “a chill factor” into public speech.

Pastor McConnell told the court that he still believed in what he had preached. He said: “I was attacking the theology of Islam. I was not attacking any individual Muslim.” And: “I didn’t go into the church to provoke anyone. I went into church to present the truth.” That should be a minister’s attitude every Sabbath. “I believed, therefore have I spoken” (Psa. 116:10).

We are thankful that the judge stated, “It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances.” That will not stop certain people trying of course. Things will never be as they should be until our nation returns to its proper foundation, namely the Protestant Christian faith as revealed in the Bible, with the moral law as the arbiter of what is right and wrong, whether in word or deed. In the meantime believers must continue to assert their God-given liberties in the face of every attempt to curtail them, whether it comes from parliament, the police or indeed the courts.

_______

Photo credit:
The Laganside Courts, Belfast
By Albert Bridge
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons