I’m not a big Jimmy Carr fan, but I really enjoyed his appearance on Desert Island Discs last week. He’s come a long way and achieved a huge amount in his 44 years. And he’s shown a lot of courage too, having given up a good career to make his name as a stand up comedian. But, having said that Carr’s dark, and sometimes offensive humour isn’t for me.
Having said that though, I can readily identify with his eagerness to defend the right to say things people don’t like or find distasteful. And he made his case very eloquently when he told Kirsty Young that everyone has the right to feel offended, but that doesn’t mean they are right. I can only say ‘Amen’ to that.
Free speech has always been a problem for some. Even the Roman Emperor Augustus had his struggles with it in spite of the fact he once told his stepson Tiberius that he shouldn’t ever get upset when anyone spoke ill of him. Fine words indeed, but it wasn’t long before Augustus had come to the conclusion that the ‘security of the state’ was far more important than any right to freedom of speech. And as a result, even the future emperor Claudius was warned by his grandmother that ‘To give a frank and true account’ of Augustus’ life was simply not an option.
I found myself thinking along these lines last week when I heard that two street preachers in Bristol had been convicted of a ‘religiously aggravated public order offence’. Michael Overd of Creech St. Michael, Somerset and Michael Stockwell, of Selden, New York, were fined £300 and ordered to pay costs after a magistrate found them guilty of disorderly conduct and using ‘threatening and abusive words … likely to cause alarm’.
Now I was not present when the two men were arrested, and I know only too well that Christians can sometimes say things in the most offensive way. But I also know that their case was supported by the well-respected Christian Legal Centre and that counsel for the defence was able to argue that they had simply used ‘the language of the Bible.’
And if the reports I have read are accurate, we need to be concerned because it would seem that Prosecutor Ian Jackson told the court that ‘although the words preached are included in a version of the Bible in 1611, this does not mean that they are incapable of amounting to a public order offence in 2016.’
This dislike of Biblical language seems to have become a growing trend over the past 10 years or so. I can still recall two very prominent politicians refusing to take part in the celebrations held in Cardiff to remember the centenary of the 1904 Welsh revival. They disagreed with the choice of preacher not least because he took Jesus at His word when He claimed to be ‘The Way, the Truth and the Life’ and that ‘No one comes to the Father except through Me.’
I sometimes feel that the concept of freedom of speech is currently like the proverbial frog being slowly boiled to death, one degree at a time. I would never defend racist, homophobic or inflammatory speech, but I am only too well aware that both beauty and ugliness are in the eye of the beholder.
I would not choose to offend anyone, but all the evidence shows that the Christian message will always prove offensive to some. But then, the truth often is.
Rob James is a Baptist Pastor broadcaster and writer who currently operates as a church and media consultant for the Evangelical Alliance Wales. He is available for preaching and teaching throughout Wales and can be contacted at RJames2954@btinternet.com