February 28, 2017 was a historic day in the United Kingdom as two street preachers, Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell, were convicted for comments they made while publicly preaching the gospel in Bristol. While some may question the manner and tone in which they made their comments, the reality is that this case sets an incredibly dangerous precedent for us all.
As a premise, I think it important to recall that authentic Christianity does not always equate to polite Christianity. Christ's own public preaching might have found him convicted under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the same statute used to convict Mr. Overd and Mr. Stockwell. We need look no further than Matthew 23:33 to see 'not-so-polite' Christianity from the very mouth of our Saviour when He spoke to the crowds about the scribes and the Pharisees: "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?" John the Baptist, the prophet who also shared the gospel in the most public of ways called out to the crowds: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Luke 3:7) He continued: "For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children from Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire." (Luke 3:8-9)
The Prosecutor in the Bristol case, Ian Jackson, made no qualms about the fact that he would not have excused such preaching either stating that just because the words being preached are from the Bible, it does not mean that they are incapable of amounting to a violation of a public order offense today.
Despite the centuries long tradition of street preaching in the United Kingdom, and indeed the even longer history of street preaching from Biblical times, the defence of protecting freedom of expression goes beyond the speakers and what they say. A fundamental element of a democratic society is freedom of expression. Indeed, how a nation treats freedom of expression is a barometer of how healthy a democracy is.
The European Court of Human Rights, a Court whose judgments are binding here in the United Kingdom, has repeatedly held that "freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and one of the basic conditions for its progress and each individual's self fulfillment." It has also held on numerous occasions that freedom of expression must be protected. The court has explicitly stated that freedom of expression protects not only the '"information' or 'ideas' that are favorably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also [protects] those that offend, shock or disturb... Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no 'democratic society.'"
In one day, with one guilty verdict, the court in Bristol has set an incredibly dangerous precedent meant to silence views that the state may find irksome, views defined exclusively on its own terms and within its own unfettered discretion. February 28 therefore is a sad day in this nation; a day in which the historical practice of street preaching, freedom of religion and freedom of speech lost their value in the eyes of the Bristol court. We can only pray, and battle and stay vigilant with the hope that this judgment does not represent a tipping point both in our democracy and in our spiritual welfare from which we cannot recover.
Reprinted with permission from Christian Concern.