Friday, 9 September 2011

Am I offending you?

Picture credit: Acapeloahddub/Wikipedia

We live in a society in which freedom of speech is expected and respected… 

Or do we? 

How many of us have been told “You can’t say that!” by people who have different beliefs or values? And how often have we wanted to stop the mouths of those who say things that offend our own sensibilities?

There has recently been tension between members of the English Defence League (EDL) and groups protesting against what the far-right organisation stands for. Police have stopped the EDL from marching, but they cannot stop them from getting together and making their views clear. This has led to clashes with protesters who feel the EDL’s anti-Islamic views should not be indulged.

But however wrong the EDL’s ethos is, freedom of speech laws cannot be applied only to people whose views we agree with. If that was the case, we would end up being controlled by the state like China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Libya. Is that really what we want? 

Belief grief 
To my mind, there is no more divisive issue than ‘religion’. I put this in inverted commas because I happen to think that a lot of ‘religious’ disagreements are, in fact, political ones.

There’s the ongoing tension between Catholics and Protestants in the north of Ireland, the disharmony between Israel and Lebanon (among others) and the violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Pakistan.

So-called Christians have also courted controversy. Take the Koran-burning pastor in the US whose actions shocked people of all faiths around the world. Then there’s the outrageous Westboro Baptist Church, as shown on Louis Theroux’s The Most Hated Family in America documentary. Members of this ‘church’ spoke openly about their hatred of Muslims, Jews, homosexuals, soldiers, the Americans, the Chinese and more or less anyone else that doesn’t belong to their cult. 

Controversial cartoons 
You probably remember the Danish cartoon depictions of Mohammed in 2006, which led to outbreaks of violence in many regions. Well, a similar campaign recently caused offence in the UK (although, true to form, the English reaction was extremely reserved).

I’m referring to a banned mobile phone advert featuring a winking image of Jesus who gives the thumbs up to one of the company’s “miraculous” deals. The advert was banned because of written complaints from Christians who felt the advert was “disrespectful” to the Christian faith.

Now I’m not saying I disagree with these complaints – I haven’t seen the advert and I reject anything that belittles the amazing things Jesus has done. But if we, as Christians, want to be able to tell people what we believe, don’t we have to accept that other people might say or do things that may offend us?

The advert makers claim they were trying to portray a “lighthearted, positive and contemporary image of Christianity”. Surely that is what we are trying to do. So shouldn’t we be concentrating our efforts on doing this rather than focusing on shutting other people up? 

Picking our battles 
Imagine if spent all of our time trying to ban people from denying the existence of God. The Richard Dawkinses of this world would have a field day! It would be like bailing water out of a sinking boat with a teaspoon.

In my opinion, we need to respect that other people – even other Christians – will have different views from us. Rather than shutting ourselves away from other belief (or unbelief) groups, we should engage with people, be passionate about what we believe and refuse to become offended by triviality.

I’m not saying we should be doormats or that we should accept racism and hatred; Jesus certainly didn’t mince his words when he encountered people with warped views.

But he caused outrage during his time on earth by accepting and showing compassion to ‘sinners’ rather than condemning them, and upsetting the social order by expressing his unconditional love for ALL people (yes, even Westboro and the EDL).

So let’s follow his example.

Feel free to leave comments! You can read more from Joy in the upcoming issue of Sorted magazine.

"It is to one’s glory to overlook an offense" (Proverbs 19:11).

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