Freedom of Religion

Pastor James McConnell charged for "satanic Islam" broadcast


Pastor James McConnell delivered a sermon at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast on 18th May 2014, in which he denounced Islam with all the zeal of the prophet Zechariah (or, more accurately, the damnable invective of a devout Calvinist). He said inter alia that “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell”. For this, he was investigated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland for a potential hate crime. Here is a video of the full sermon, by which you may judge for yourselves whether the Pastor preached ‘hate’:

A year on, Pastor James McConnell has been charged – not, it appears, for preaching from his pulpit, but for broadcasting his sermon via the internet. He was given the opportunity to accept an ‘informed warning’, which he declined, not least because it would have amounted to admission of guilt and saddled him with a criminal record. And so the case will duly proceed to court. A spokesman for Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service explained:

“I can confirm that following consideration of a complaint in relation to an internet broadcast of a sermon in May 2014, a decision was taken to offer an individual an informed warning for an offence contrary to the Communications Act 2003. That offence was one of sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive. The offer of an informed warning was refused by the defendant and accordingly the matter is now proceeding by way of a summary prosecution in the Magistrates Court.”

Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 is quite clear:

Improper use of public electronic communications network

(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a) sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
(b) causes any such message or matter to be so sent.

(2) A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, he—

(a) sends by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false,
(b) causes such a message to be sent; or
(c) persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network.

To be clear, the Pastor is not being prosecuted for “Islam slurs” (as per the Guardian), or “for calling Islam satanic” (as per the Belfast Telegraph), but for streaming a “grossly offensive” sermon via the internet. It is not (apparently – yet) a crime to denounce Islam or Mohammed from the church pulpit (though the day is surely coming): the crime is to do so via the pulpits of the electronic media. So, if your church live-streams its Sunday sermons, and the content of those sermons may be deemed to be “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” (as, hopefully, they may be to any sinner), your pastor, priest or vicar can expect a visit from the local constabulary, which obviously has nothing better to do than persecute preachers for ‘hate crime’.

The thing is..

Calling Islam ‘satanic’ isn’t exactly the most sensitive way of reaching out in love to one’s neighbour. Nor is it a particularly effective model of doing mission. Certainly, Pastor James McConnell may find support from the Bible for his views of Islam ( ie an understanding that Allah is not YHWH and that Mohammed is a false prophet [Jer 14:14-16; 1Jn 4:1; Acts 4:12; 2Cor 11:3f]), and to expound these scriptures (even erroneously) ought to fall within the acceptable boundaries of freedom of religion and freedom of expression. But the problem is that the Pastor moves from the Word of God to intellectual ignorance and personal prejudice.

“People say there are good Muslims in Britain – that may be so – but I don’t trust them,” he said. And then we get: “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.” The Pastor also told worshippers: “Enoch Powell was a prophet. He called it that blood would flow on the streets and it has happened.”

It is no crime to preach the gospel (or to believe that Enoch Powell was a prophet), but it is a perversion of the gospel (if not an abuse of the pulpit) to denigrate all Muslims, as Pastor James McConnell does. Can you hear Jesus ever preaching: “People say there are good Samaritans in Israel – that may be so – but I don’t trust them..” Not trusting any Muslim anywhere is a particularly facile understanding of human nature which plays to negative stereotypes.

But it must also be observed that not trusting a particular group in society is also not a crime. It is difficult – very difficult – to trust the Liberal Democrats, but that is scarcely a matter for a police investigation.

Perhaps Pastor James McConnell might consider a better way.

Instead of setting out to anatgonise, denigrate, insult and offend, why not adopt the model of mission demonstrated by the Apostle Paul at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34)? Why not seize the opportunity of a multi-faith milieu to tell Muslims that Jesus is not merely a prophet, but the Son of God and Saviour who died that they all may be free from the law of Allah which binds?

“Men of Islam! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found a billboard with this inscription: JESUS: A PROPHET OF ISLAM. Now what you worship as Isa the prophet I am going to proclaim to you..”

This is a model for Christian proclamation. St Paul does not condemn the Athenians’ idolatrous false religion: he begins by commending their conviction to their faith. By employing the language of reason and invitation rather than reproach and condemnation, he offers the Church a model for proclamation in a context of ethnic and religious pluralism. He quotes the Greek poets and sees the light within their philosophy, and he builds on this to articulate the name of the God who is the source and destination of their quest for salvation.

If Greek philosophy can be a legitimate discourse for evangelism, then so can Islamic theology, however perverted a particular interpretation may be. If St Paul were to preach today in Bradford, Leicester, Tower Hamlets or Belfast, he would not denigrate an entire community or condemn their beliefs as being “spawned in hell”. But neither would he ignore the presence of idols and turn the other cheek. He would tell of the God of love who sent His own Son to die in order that we might live. He would begin by praising Muslims’ loyalty and devotion to Isa their prophet, and then acknowledging the ‘good’ ones who are patriotic and law-abiding. And then he would tell them that their upper-case ‘Prophet’ was both preceded and surpassed by their lower-case prophet, who happens to be Prophet, Priest and King; the Word of God; the Spirit of God; Saviour and Redeemer of the world.

This is an opportunity for evangelism – to discuss who Jesus really is and examine why the Isa of the Qur’an is not the Jesus of the Bible.

Of course, if you prefer, you ought to be free to preach and piss everybody off without the threat of police interference. This being the case, why is Pastor James McConnell on trial for streaming a sermon in which he says, “Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell”, when Professor Richard Dawkins broadcasts that “Islam is one of the great evils in the world”?