Problems with Religious Support for Vilification Laws

There are many problems with vilification legislation, especially when applied to religion. I have documented ten such problems in my paper, The Problem with Vilification Legislation (March 2002). That paper was a generic and secular discussion, and as such did not provide a theological or biblical critique of vilification laws.

Since that paper has been issued, a number of individuals have critiqued my article from a religious point of view, and/or have been in communication with me as to why they approve of the legislation and the recent court decision in Victoria. Since my original article did not wade into religious argumentation, it is worth examining the objections raised by religious folk who think we should have vilification laws, and who believe that religious principles and biblical teachings would support such laws.

Thus I offer here ten common arguments used to justify vilification laws, and my response to them. The ten are:

1. The example of Jesus
2. How we preach the gospel
3. Christians should not vilify
4. We must respect other beliefs
5. The Sermon on the Mount
6. Just say ‘sorry’
7. Persecution is to be expected
8. ‘They got what they deserved’
9. Tolerance is a Christian virtue
10. Unity and harmony must come first

One. Many points raised by those in support of religious vilification laws could be put in the “What would Jesus do?” category. That is, they argue that Jesus would probably support such legislation, he would not vilify, he would be a peace-maker, and so on. I will take up some of these specific claims in later points, but here offer a generic response.

Certainly anyone who calls himself a Christian would consider the life and teachings of Christ as vital, perhaps paramount. But even that seemingly straight-forward position requires some qualification.

While an emphasis on Christ and his mission can be a helpful framework in which to judge this issue (or any number of other issues), I am not sure it is fully adequate or sufficient. Instead, I would use the schema of what is the overall witness of the biblical data, which of course includes the life and words of Christ. The entire biblical record should be brought to bear here, not just portions of it.

That is, I reject the attempts by some to drive a wedge between the Testaments, or to say that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of the New, or that the ethics of Jesus are different from the ethics of Paul, etc. There is a unity to God’s revelation, and the whole of the biblical witness must be appealed to.

(Of course that does not deny that there is such a thing as progressive revelation, or that portions of the Old Testament find themselves superseded by portions of the New. But it is to say that the gospel accounts need to be read in context, not in isolation from the rest of divine Scripture.)

Two. Some people in their defence of vilification laws (or the recent Victorian decision) raise the issue of how the gospel is to be proclaimed. They argue that the gospel must be presented in a loving and gracious manner. Now on this matter, there is no real debate. We of course need to be Christlike and loving as we communicate our message. That goes without saying.

We are to “speak the truth in love” as Paul instructs us (Eph.4:15). No one is saying (certainly not I) that we should be offensive when we go on the offensive with the gospel. That is, we are to contend for the gospel without being contentious. We are to vigorously speak truth, but in a way that is respectful to others. We need to treat the ones we are seeking to reach with dignity and respect.

But bear in mind that there is a difference between respecting a person and disagreeing with his or her beliefs, ideas, worldview or philosophy. I am not under any scriptural obligation to embrace any and every religion, creed, teaching or point of view. Indeed, I am enjoined by Scripture to subject all such competing ideas and belief systems to the judgement of the word of God.

Thus from a Christian point of view, the most loving thing we can do to a non-believer is to respect them, but to reject their false beliefs. If it is true, as Christians affirm, that all those who do not submit to the Lordship of Christ are heading for a lost eternity, then the most loving thing we can do is warn them of their ways, convince them of their false beliefs, and point them to a loving and welcoming saviour. Thus loving others means speaking the truth to them, even if it conflicts with their non-Christian religious beliefs.

Three. It is often asked whether a real Christian could or should ever vilify someone. Of course it all depends on what one means by the phrase, “to vilify”. The term is open to wide interpretation, as I pointed out in my previous article. Indeed, all the related terms are as well (ridicule, contempt, revulsion). They are loaded terms, and certainly problematic if poorly defined in a piece of law.

While a Christian may not seek to deliberately vilify someone, (abuse someone, put them down), another person can take it as vilification when a Christian speaks truth. Thus these laws can create an offence where there was none previously. A speaker may not intend to demean or belittle someone. But a listener can take offence and charge vilification. If someone says he or she is offended, that’s it: the charges are laid and the case begins. The accused party then has to prove that he was not being offensive.

Defenders of the laws would say that we have no example of the people of God vilifying others in Scripture. Again, it all depends on what you mean by vilification. In this context, I wonder whether most people would consider the following statements to be vilifying?:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” (Matt. 23:27)

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt. 23:33)

“You are of your father, the devil.” (John 8:44)

Pretty strong words those. How many people in today’s climate would not feel offended and vilified by such remarks? Of course these are words spoken by Jesus, the very one held up as a model of charitable speech (and rightly so). He certainly was charitable, but he also was forthright in speaking the truth.

Some, however, have argued that these passages are not examples of vilifying, just “strong language” as one put it. Sorry, but here it seems we are bogged down in semantics, and the point is being missed. And that point is, many people today would take real offence at such words. And that is the problem with these laws: not the alleged vilification which someone commits, but the taking of offence by the claimant. It is all too easy for anyone for any reason to simply claim to be offended, and the law springs into action. It may or may not be actual vilification. But that is beside the point. Someone feels aggrieved and makes a legal case out of it. One might as well start suing people for causing offence because of the colour of their shoes. An overly litigious society does not need more excuses to go around dragging people to court.

It is not just Jesus that we can appeal to. Paul and others could be equally forthright, not to mention the Old Testament prophets. Were these people all guilty of vilification? According to the Victorian Act, they probably were.

Indeed, some describe vilification (as one did) in terms of someone saying: “…therefore your insistence that he is not God is a deliberate and deceitful lie.” It seems to me that is exactly the sort of language the Old Testament prophets used about false prophets. And Paul can use equally strong language denouncing false shepherds in the New Testament. As but two quick examples, Paul can say of those who reject the truth that they will believe a lie, and be damned for doing so (2 Th 2:15-12) And John can say those who deny Jesus Christ are liars (1 John 2:22) By the above definition, they were guilty of vilification.

Having said all this of course does not mean that we go around calling people liars or other nasty names. Yes we should try to build bridges where they are possible. But we must also recognise that for some, we should not cast our pearls before swine (another offensive remark! – Matt. 7:6) There are some who will not listen and we are told not to associate with them. But yes, for the most part we should be in the business of bridge building, something I tell my apologetics students all the time. Yes we do not go out of our way to offend and be disrespectful. But the point is, by many definitions of vilification (including those of some church folk), not just the prophets of old, not just the Christian saints, but Jesus himself, would all be guilty of vilification!

Indeed, let me conclude with one final example, this time from the Old Testament. Many know the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. In the famous contest to see who is really God, Elijah sets up a contest. The prophets of Baal are not able to rouse their gods to action. Nothing happens. Elijah’s scathing response is as well known as it is acerbic: (I paraphrase,) “Hey guys, what’s wrong with your god? Is he asleep? Is he busy talking to someone? Is he out taking a leak? (a euphemism derived from the Hebrew)” (1 Kings 18:27). Even more interesting, the text says, Elijah mocked them, taunted them. We might say he vilified them.

Many other examples could be produced. The truth is, if religious critics do not like ridicule, mockery, strong denunciations, satire and put downs, they will have to look elsewhere than the Scriptures. Again, I am not suggesting that we go around mocking people and putting them down. But we certainly find examples of this being done by godly characters throughout Scripture.

Four. Some have said we should not belittle the beliefs of others. As one critic put it to me, “We ought to be concerned if the only acceptable way to defend the Christian faith is to attack the beliefs of others.” First of all, who is doing that? Were the two pastors? On what basis would one make that claim? Secondly, are we merely to defend, not contend offensively for the gospel? On what biblical basis is that claim made? And by the very nature of truth claims, if a Christian apologist argues for one proposition (say, Jesus rose from the dead), he is automatically arguing against its opposite (that Jesus did not rise from the dead). To make truth claims entails that you are of necessity refuting certain others. I am not sure how one can be defensive in terms of truth claims while not also being on the offensive as well.

If I say that Muslims or the Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong on the Trinity, am I attacking their position or merely defending my own? It seems I am doing both simultaneously. If we take seriously the law of non-contradiction, then to affirm one position is to negate its opposite. So I am not sure if this criticism is all that helpful.

This same critic continued, “Proclaiming the gospel is not about trying to win a debate, for such a ‘win’ would create ‘losers’.” Well, yes and no. Of course our main aim is not to win an argument but to win the person. But you can only “win” a person if you assume he is not yet won, that is, that his beliefs or lack of them are out of sync with the Christian gospel. And if the Christian gospel has to do with truth claims (either Jesus is God or he is not, etc), then surely you do want to win the debate about truth claims. If a person’s religious beliefs entail an impersonal god, or a plurality of gods, or no gods, then surely these beliefs are at variance with the biblical world view, and part of winning that person would entail winning him or her around to your (Christian) point of view. I do not see how conflicting truth claims can be ignored when we speak of winning people.

There is another version of this claim by the defenders of vilification laws. Real religion (or at least Christianity), is not, or should not be, offensive, they argue. I referred to this issue in my first paper. I noted there that by its very nature, a religious truth claim will always seem offensive to one who does not accept it. No matter how hard I may try not to offend, an atheist will take offence at my claims that he is wrong and that God exists. A Muslim will take offence when I claim that Christ died on the cross and rose again. A homosexual may well take offence when he is told that God loves him but his lifestyle is out of sync with God’s holiness, etc.

And we have a clear example of this. The most loving and gracious person in the world was constantly getting up people’s noses. Every time Jesus opened his mouth he caused division. (John 7:43, 9:16, 10:19, eg.). Many were upset by his claims and even his actions. To stand up for truth will invite criticism. And in an age that does not believe in truth, and values a false notion of tolerance above all else, we can expect people to get upset when we proclaim the truthfulness and exclusiveness of the gospel.

The point is, if people are looking for offence, they will find it whether intended or not. All I am required to do as a Christian is two-fold, according to Eph. 4:15: I am required to speak the truth (about Christ and his claims, about God and his word, etc) and I am to do it in a loving manner. I am not obliged or required to ensure that when I do this no one takes offence. Jesus spoke the truth in love all the time and he constantly put people off.

Paul could even speak of the “offence of the cross” (Gal. 5:11). He said he was persecuted because he preached the cross of Christ, and that offended people.

So if a person seriously thinks he or she can be a faithful Christian and proclaim both the bad news (we are sinners alienated from God) and the good news (Christ died for our sins and calls us to receive his forgiveness if we turn from our sin and follow him) of the gospel, without offending anyone, then I think they are mistaken, and/or are preaching a gospel foreign to that of Jesus and the early disciples.

Five. Appeal is often made to the Sermon on the Mount, especially Matthew 5. This is done to argue that we are not to go to court against others, and that we are to turn the other cheek. Let me take these in turn.

The reason that Jesus did not stick up for his rights, even though he was unjustly accused, is quite apparent: he was a man on a mission. He had a job to do and would not be sidetracked or lured down false paths. Some wanted to make him a conquering king for example. That was not his mission at the time, so he rejected any such attempts to politicise his messiahship. (He of course will one day return as a conquering military king, as Revelation describes.)

So he had to forego many things which may not have been in themselves wrong or unchristian. He had a job to do and would not be sidelined. In the same way, to appeal to a court of law over the charges laid against him was not what he was there for. He came to die. His mission was to die for our sins, and he knew in advance this would happen by way of unjust Jewish and Roman laws, political machinations and courts.

The fact that seeking legal protection is neither unbiblical nor unchristian is easily argued for. One simply has to look at the early church. Paul was quite happy to appeal to his Roman citizenship, to demand justice, and to appeal to Caesar (Acts 22:25-29; 25:11-12, eg). And the whole argument of Paul in Romans 13:1-7 is that government is ordained by God to promote justice.

As to the other point, of turning the other cheek, the same principle applies. The personal ethic of Matt. 5 (being willing to suffer wrongfully) is supplemented by the social ethic of Romans 13 where the defence of a third party is enjoined. There is no contradiction here. I may refuse to protect myself if I so choose, but I have an obligation to protect the innocent (say my wife) when they are unjustly attacked.

Six. Some argue that it is the Christian thing to do to simply apologise, whether we really need to or not. They say that it is better if we say sorry, even if we have nothing to say sorry for. I would say that violates an essential attribute of God: his justice. Justice is giving to each one what is his or her due. To apologise for something you have not done is both unjust and dishonest. We are not called upon to be doormats for the world to walk on. Again, Paul was quite happy to avail himself of his rights in this regard.

I do not think we do the cause of Christ any good when we in effect say we will be dishonest about the facts, roll over and play dead, and hope that non-Christians will be impressed by what we do. Now of course, on a personal level, many people may feel called in particular circumstances to turn the other cheek. And there is certainly a place for this. But this involves individual Christians dealing with individual situations. It seems that the issue we are discussing here is more an issue of principle, and institutional injustice (eg., the right to preach the gospel, and the response of a church if it faces a lawsuit, etc). Again Jesus had a special mission which meant waiving his rights on this occasion, but the importance put on the role of government and the place of justice is not to be discounted in Scripture.

The two pastors in question for example might decide it would be best to just say sorry in the interests of reconciliation and peace (although I do not think they will go this way). Reconciliation and peace are important principles. But so too are justice and truth. To roll over in this case will just mean more such lawsuits will be brought to bear, until perhaps soon the entire Christian community is silenced (which is clearly the goal for many – not all – behind these sorts of laws).

There is a time to suffer wrongfully, perhaps even silently, and there is a time to stand up for what is right. Each situation requires prayerful consideration, and a look at the outcomes and the potential Christian witness involved.

In this regard the debate is perhaps a small version of the bigger debate about pacifism versus just war. Would Christ have been more glorified if the Allies turned the other cheek, put down their arms, and let the prisoners perish in Dachau? I am not sure he would have. I think both the cause of Christ and the principles of justice were well served when Sherman tanks liberated those in the concentration camps. That is another whole debate, but it raises the same sorts of issues.

Seven. Concerning the actual Victorian case and decision, a number of believers and church leaders have said that perhaps the two pastors simply got what they deserved. Perhaps they did not always use the most temperate language. At times they may have overstated their case. And maybe they went over the top on occasion. Such claims can be debated, but let’s concede for the moment that the pastors are guilty of all three charges, and many other similar claims. Just what does that prove? The truth is, on any given Sunday, perhaps 90 per cent of all those speaking from a pulpit may be guilty of these sorts of misdemeanours

Many well-meaning pastors, teachers and preachers are humble, simple folk, who are doing their best, and are not trained in all the skills which a court-room lawyer would possess. Does that mean we should not all be more careful, more nuanced, more diplomatic and more precise when we speak and preach? No way. But that should come from the Christian community, not from a heavy handed police state and a secular judiciary. In such a climate, one might argue that the next step will be weekly checks on sermon material before pastors are allowed to speak. And that by the way may not be too far off, especially if some get their way. (It of course has already happened elsewhere).

Yes these two pastors may not have been as discerning, as sophisticated, or as polished as some may like. But that really is not the issue. I believe that no matter how careful, how refined and how delicate we may be in proclaiming the gospel, it will still be for many people something offensive, something they do not like, and something they would be quite happy to use this legislation to quench.

Eight. Related to this is the broad issue of persecution. Some have argued that we should simply expect as much. Jesus did warn that all who follow him would suffer persecution (John 15:20, 16:33, eg.). Why fight such laws? That is how the world treats those it hates. Moreover, they argue, there is a place for quiet suffering in the face of injustice which can be used as a real Christian testimony and witness.

There is of course truth to this. We are warned to expect persecution. Not only that, but most of us know that when things are going swimmingly, the church (like Israel of old) can get apathetic, indifferent and lukewarm. Yet when hardship, adversity and persecution comes along, well, that separates the sheep from the goats. That brings out the real believers and leaves behind those who are not. Thus persecution can be a good thing, a blessing in disguise. Yet we are never told in Scripture to pray for or seek persecution. There will be plenty of opportunities for it without seeking it.

Also, an inference from this reasoning could lead one to argue that we should seek more persecution, so that there might be more Christian witness.

Moreover, I do not feel that we are obligated to allow faulty legislation to simply remain and be endured. If democratic government is a gift of God and a result of the Judeo-Christian tradition, then we have an obligation to work towards more good government and good laws, not simply to allow bad laws, or to allow those with an agenda to use bad laws to silence us.

Nine. But tolerance is a Christian virtue, we are told. We should all be tolerant. Again, there is some truth to this. And again, it depends on how we define our terms.

It should first be pointed out that the term ‘tolerance’ has undergone a sea change recently. Its historic meaning has always been this: we are to treat others with respect and dignity, while we disagree with their beliefs, philosophy or lifestyles. Thus one could violently disagree with another person’s ideas or creeds, while still loving the person.

However that meaning has been completely jettisoned for an altogether new meaning. Now tolerance means to not only accept the person but to embrace and welcome that person’s worldview, religion, lifestyle or ideas. Tolerance has come to mean that the very act of disagreeing with someone means we are rejecting them as a person, being unloving and unwelcoming.

But this is of course nonsense. The very idea of tolerance presupposes differences. I cannot tolerate someone who I fully agree with. If someone shares my point of view, I have no need to tolerate them. I can only tolerate someone or something that is different from me. But the new concept of tolerance says I need to agree with opposing ideas, otherwise I am showing disrespect and intolerance.

Christians should be the first to affirm the traditional understanding of the term. We respect and show Christ’s love to all people. But we are certainly not compelled to tolerate evil, or false teaching, or heresy, or anything contrary to our faith and practice. I can show love to a Muslim while totally disagreeing with his false beliefs. I can debate a Hindu respectfully, while not tolerating the Hindu worldview. I can love an alcoholic while disliking the evils of alcoholism. I can witness to a rapist while abhorring rape.

The biblical references are many. One will suffice: “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Rom. 12:9b).

Ten. Those especially involved in inter-faith dialogue and ecumenicalism would argue that we need these laws to promote and support unity and harmony. Well, unity and harmony are good things, generally speaking. But in a religious context, you need to ask a few questions. Just what sort of harmony is being proposed here? Does it entail a lowest-common denominator where we put aside all our theological differences and pretend we are one big happy family?

How do you measure this harmony? By absence of religious differences? By complete agreement on all doctrinal issues? By the lack of truth claims?

And just what sort of unity are we to support? One that renders all religious debates out of bounds? One that reduces strongly held religious distinctives to mere preferences, like the flavours of ice cream?

It seems to me there is a place for certain types of ecumenical dialogue and so on. But it also seems quite clear from a biblical point of view that there are very real limits to such endeavours. The truth is, if you are a bible-believing Christian, you have to affirm that the claims of Christ are true, and by implication, other world religions cannot be fully true. Either Jesus is who he claimed to be or he is not. But we cannot subscribe to the foolish notion that somehow all religions contain equal amounts of truth, they are all equally valid, and if we all just try hard enough, we can all live together happily and peacefully. That is not the biblical view of things. It is not realistic either.

Jesus warned about false prophets. He claimed to be the only way. He preached an exclusive, one might say intolerant, gospel. He believed, as did all the New Testament writers, that there are false beliefs, false religions and false faiths. Not all roads lead to heaven, In fact many lead to hell. And if we really love people, we will want to deliver them from a hell-bound eternity.

As part of this, Christians believe there is a devil who seeks to deceive, lead people astray, separate them from Christ and his love. And there is a real spiritual war going on as well. This is manifested in many ways, including the conflict between truth and falsehood, orthodoxy and heresy, etc. There are false beliefs, false religions, false prophets and false doctrines, There are plenty of warnings about such things in Scripture.

And therefore there are individuals and organisations that really do want to see the end of Christianity. There are evil people in the world, and there are those who would be more than happy to use vilification laws to once and for all silence the churches. The truth is, some people hate Christianity, perhaps for good or bad reasons. Some people do not like Christians. Some people find the gospel outlandish and offensive. Paul can even speak of some people as “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil 3:18).

Such facts should not surprise us if we believe there is a cosmic struggle taking place with a personal devil seeking to eradicate the faith. Thus not all people who claim to believe in tolerance, peace and ecumenical dialogue really do. There are many well-meaning Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, humanists, etc., who do want to get along with Christians and live in peace. Perhaps most. But there are also some Muslims, Jews, New-Agers, atheists, etc., who strongly disbelieve the gospel and very much hate the church. They are quite happy to use such laws to achieve their ends. There are those, in other words, who want to see the Christian faith eradicated. I am not obliged as a believer to sit by and let it happen. I am not so naïve as to believe that everyone would just happily embrace the gospel if they had a good proclamation of it. How do I know that? It has been tried before. Jesus made a perfect delivery and demonstration of the gospel, and yet many rejected him. Indeed, he was crucified for doing it.

While we are to expect such things we are nowhere told to encourage it. We are blessed to live in a democracy. As such, we have as much right as any one else to believe, practice and proclaim our faith. We are under no obligation to relish laws that seek to silence us, whether that was the intention of the drafters or not. Bad laws should be resisted, be they bad laws that restrict religious expression or bad laws that encourage racism or pollution. That is a Christian obligation.

In sum, the various religious or theological rationales given to support religious vilification legislation remain unconvincing and questionable. Other augments could be made. For example, if one supports peace and harmony, religious vilification laws are not the way to go. They instead create disharmony, strife and new divisions. They compound the very problems they claim to solve.

If Christians want to work to improve relations with those of other faiths, there are better ways to do it than through the heavy hand of the law and Big Brother stifling religious expression. Religious freedom, like all freedoms, is a precious and priceless gift which we must defend with all diligence and vigilance.

In the end, religious vilification laws curtail freedom instead of protecting it. They should be opposed.

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