Crying wolf? – Is free speech being suppressed in the UK?

Published 13 January 2014  |  

It's happened again. Another high profile case of a street preacher being arrested in the UK simply for seeking to spread the Word of God. As previously reported in Christian Today and numerous Christian websites, podcasts and American Christian radio shows, Tony Miano was arrested in the city of Dundee on 8 of January. (You can read the account here).

Unlike his previous arrest in London, this time he has been charged and the case will go to trial in April. The case is therefore Sub Judice and it would be inappropriate for me to go into detailed comment about what actually happened. But as a pastor based in the City of Dundee it would be wrong to leave this situation alone, especially as it has been reported all over the world as another example of how lunatic and intolerant the UK in general and Scotland in particular has become towards the Gospel.

One commentator declared: "It's alarming that in a country such as the UK which helped spread Christianity to the world, we're seeing police oppression of God's word being preached in the streets of our towns and cities." Another slightly more extreme Facebook poster excitedly observed "and you wonder why helicopters fall out of the sky in your country?!"

Leaving aside such theologically bizarre observations, it does appear as though this is a clear case of the increasing threat to the Gospel caused by an ever more intolerant secular society. It may be that the members of the public and the police over-reacted and hopefully Mr Miano will be cleared of all charges.

However let me offer another Christian perspective - despite the fact that I know even to question the orthodoxy of the persecution narrative in the UK is to open oneself up to charges of backsliding, theological liberalism, cowardice and 'shooting the wounded'. I am a Bible believing/teaching/evangelising pastor in this wonderful city of Dundee. I have ministered here for 22 years and have seen a church of seven grow into a church of 200-plus, with an increasing gospel impact.

It is hard work. There is an ignorance, arrogance and increasing intolerance that make it so. There is a 'famine of hearing the Word of the Lord', and yet there are many opportunities to give out the bread of life. The Christian churches in this city do tremendous work in schools, on the streets, amongst the young. We preach the Word. We write in local newspapers and engage in all kinds of creative evangelism. Solas Centre for Public Christianity is based here and we have not been shy in critiquing the dominant cultural narratives or seeking to bring the Good News in the public arena. That is after all our 'raison d'etre'!

We have many problems but here is the rub. We have the freedom to do so. We are not banned from preaching the Word of God, nor are we restricted (for now) in doing so. So whatever else the arrest of Tony Miano means, it is dishonest and wrong for Christians to say this means that the Gospel cannot be preached in Scotland today.

Of course the implied criticism is that those of us who are living and working here as Christians are not a) preaching the 'full' Gospel or b) getting out on to the streets communicating it. The truth of course is that there are many churches which compromise and there are Christians who are frightened and cowardly in their proclamation. But that is not all of us. From my perspective having worked hard in this city to build up good public relations with the police, council and local community groups; having tried to overcome the narrow and ignorant stereotypes of Christians that many people have; and having sought to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in many different ways and contexts (however imperfectly); the last thing we needed was an American preacher standing in our city centre with an amplification system, shouting out words that no-one understands, getting arrested and then finding it front page news in The Dundee Courier, the next day.

Don't get me wrong. I use the word 'American' – not because I have anything against Americans (to whom I owe a great deal), but because in our cultural context, evangelical Christianity is associated with Redneck, George Bush-like, Southern US evangelicals. Like all stereotypes, that is not fair- not least on the many fine American Christians – including those in my own congregation who are seeking to bear witness to Jesus Christ in a culturally, spiritually and humanly sensitive way. But that is the perception that the 'man in the street' has. And if we are seeking to communicate to the 'man in the street', then we need to take account of that perception.

If we seek to be faithful to Jesus Christ then we are to obey his words to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. That means in a culture where homosexuality is seen as a 'shibboleth' issue and 'homophobia' is the sin against the Holy State, then you cannot stand on a street corner and shout out a sentence which includes homosexuality and sin in the same phrase, without expecting some kind of violent reaction. Did the Apostle Paul stand on the streets of Rome and yell out 'Caesar is not Lord'?! Did he parade the streets with banners declaring 'Down with the antichrist Emperor'?!

Being put in jail in Scotland for 'preaching the Gospel' will play well with the supporters back home and Christians in the UK who are desperate to jump on the persecution bandwagon. But in terms of communicating the Good News to the people of my city, it is not helpful. In fact, to be honest it does the church and the gospel, harm, both in the short and the long term. In the short term it reinforces the cultural stereotypes and ignorant prejudices of those who already think we are mad and bad.

In the longer term it means that when real persecution does occur – the kind that our brothers and sisters are facing in many countries throughout the world, no-one will notice. They will simply shrug their shoulders and say, there go the Christians again, moaning about 'persecution'.

Let's not cry wolf until the wolf is actually at the door. And in future is it too much to ask that self-appointed evangelists and 'ministries' might actually have the humility and Christian courtesy to liaise with local Christian churches before they minister in our name to our people? Or are we simply to be those who are left to pick up the pieces and deal with the consequences of the inevitable train-wreck?

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