What for? For preaching the Bible. And for trying to follow what it says.
How close are we to the situation where Christians in the UK will be jailed for simply preaching the Bible?
No-one knows. But the answer is ‘closer than most people imagine’. Already, Bible-believing Christians could be prosecuted for breaking a whole string of different laws.
If you slap your child and leave a red mark, you’ll be breaking the law. It will be no defence in court to quote Proverbs 13:24: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him”.
If I preach in the open air, quote Romans 1 and say, ‘The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination’, I can be prosecuted under the 1986 Public Order Act. Others have been. (Even the Bishop of Chester was questioned by the Police, and threatened with prosecution for ‘hate speech’, because he wrote an article in which he said that some homosexuals could be helped to change their ‘orientation’ by counselling.)
But the most threatening piece of legislation is just round the corner. The government is currently planning to bring in a law to outlaw ‘incitement to religious hatred’. (Its plans are contained in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill). That sounds innocent enough. But what does it mean? It means that it will be an offence to
‘use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or display any threatening, abusive or insulting written material or publish or distribute such material with the intention of stirring up religious hatred’.
Even that sounds innocent enough. Surely I don’t want stir up hatred, do I?
No I don’t want to stir up hatred against anybody – on the grounds of religion or anything else. But I do want to stir up hatred against wrong ideas – against ideas that dishonour God and damage human beings. And that means speaking out against people who teach those wrong ideas.
As a church, we subscribe to the 1689 Confession of Faith. In that confession, it says (ch 26 para 4), ‘..the pope of Rome..is that antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ..’ Under the new law, if I quoted those words, or even gave someone a copy of the confession, I could be charged with stirring up religious hatred against the Pope..
If I spoke out against some cult and said that their teaching is dangerous or blasphemous, I could be charged with stirring up hatred against that cult. If I quoted Psalm 14:1 in a sermon – ‘the fool has said in his heart, there is no God’, I could be charged with stirring up hatred against atheists. If I wrote an article about the way believers are persecuted in Muslim countries, I could be charged with stirring up hatred against Muslims. If I warned people against Satanists and occultism, I could be charged with stirring up hatred against witches. Mormons, atheists, Muslims, Satanists will all be equally protected under the legislation.
It doesn’t matter how obviously wicked a religious group may be. The Thugee (a Hindu cult in India) as part of their worship of the goddess Kali, used to waylay travellers, strangle them, smash up their bodies and steal their possessions. But a Christian missionary warning people against the Thugs could have faced prosecution if this law had been in place then.
It won’t be necessary for the courts to prove that I’ve actually succeeded in stirring up religious hatred. It will be enough if they decide that I intended to, or indeed, that religious hatred was likely to result, regardless of my intentions. It only needs someone to go into court and say, ‘Listening to Stephen Rees’s preaching could have made me hate the Pope’ and that will be enough to send me to prison for up to seven years (the same length of time as the typical rapist).
Jesus would have been arrested very quickly under the new law: ‘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. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness..’ So would Paul: ‘If anyone preaches a gospel to you, different from that which you first received, let him be accursed…as for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!’ So would Jude: ‘These men are blemishes at your love feasts…clouds without rain, blown along by the wind… wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved for ever..’
David Blunkett let the cat out the bag when he said publicly who the law was aimed at. He said it was intended to curb Muslim terrorists and ‘extreme rightwing evangelical Christians’. In other words, people like me. (Anyone who still believes in disciplining children and thinks homosexuality is a perversion must be extreme and rightwing).
You don’t believe that such a law could ever be enforced in our country? Perhaps you’ve not followed events in Victoria State, Australia. That state passed a ‘Racial and Religious Tolerance Act’ in 2001. It is very similar in its scope to the law now proposed for the UK. It declares: ‘A person must not, on the ground of the religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites…… severe ridicule of that other person or class of persons.’
In December 2004, Daniel Scot and Danny Nalliah were found guilty of breaking the law. Daniel Scot was born in 1951 in Pakistan and brought up in a Christian home.. He became a lecturer in maths at the University of Punjab but after his appointment, the university authorities pressured Scot to convert to Islam.. He refused and was forced into hiding after death threats were issued against him. He escaped from Pakistan ahead of a lynch mob and took refuge in Australia. There he was ordained as an Assemblies of God (Pentecostal) pastor and began holding seminars on Islam. One of those seminars was organised by Pastor Danny Nalliah, head of Catch the Fire ministries in Melbourne. Scot was asked to speak on various topics including ‘Salvation in the Koran’, ‘Jihad (Holy War) in the Koran’, ‘The treatment of women in the Koran’, ‘The treatment of non-Muslims in the Koran’. He read passages from the Koran dealing with those subjects and argued that the Koran ‘promotes violence, killing and looting’. But he pointed out that many Muslims simply didn’t know what the Koran teaches and that they themselves would be horrified if they knew. And he pleaded with his hearers to show love to Muslims as they would to anyone else.
Three white converts to Islam were present in the seminar. They had been encouraged to attend by the Islamic Council of Victoria, working along with the Equal Opportunities Commission of Victoria. They took notes, and then made a complaint against Daniel Scot and Danny Nalliah who were duly charged under the new Act and brought to court.
In court, it became clear very quickly that the case was loaded against them. Daniel Scot began to read out verses from the Koran that seem to denigrate women. Immediately a lawyer from the Islamic Council of Victoria stopped him, saying that reading the verses would itself amount to religious vilification! The judge refused Scot and Nalliah permission to call expert witnesses and declared that Scot was not ‘credible’. He said ‘I have considerable doubt that what he told the seminar was his real beliefs about the Qu’ran’.
In December 2004, Scot and Nalliah were found guilty under the new law. They are now waiting to be sentenced. They may face heavy fines or be imprisoned for up to six months. And beyond that, the Islamic council of Victoria has said that they will require a public apology, an injunction prohibiting Scot from conducting further seminars, the suppression of the audiotapes and transcript from the seminar, and the suppression of the court files relating to the hearing.
It’s happening in Australia. It can happen here. What should we be doing? Well, by all means let’s write to our MPs and to Charles Clarke, the new Home Secretary. But more importantly, let’s settle it in our minds. Christians must expect to be persecuted. And they must be willing to pay that price. Now’s the time to be preparing ourselves and our children for the fire through which some of us will walk. Millions of Christians throughout the world are being imprisoned, tortured and killed for their loyalty to Christ. Why should we be exempt?