Freedom of speech is currently under serious threat in New Zealand. This was made very clear in recent days, when both the Justice Minister and the Prime Minister gave misleading interviews on the meaning of their proposed hate speech law. What they said was vague and confusing, and contrary to the document they had released. If you haven’t seen Tova O’Brien’s excellent (and quite disturbing) interview with the Justice Minister, you can find that interview here.
When given three clear and likely scenarios (see 5:37 in the interview above), the Justice Minister was unable to say whether the speech in those scenarios would be a crime. If the Justice Minister, the creator and the designated public educator of these new hate speech laws cannot answer simple questions about his own proposal, how are the public supposed to know what is or isn’t hate speech, and how are the police supposed to properly discern what is hate speech? How can there be a punishment of up to three years in prison, when the definition of hate is so extremely woolly and subjective?
Later, when the Prime Minister was asked about the proposal on NewsHub’s AM Show, she made seven mistaken or misleading claims about her government’s own proposal. You can read more about this in Tova O’Brien’s outstanding follow-up piece, “Jacinda Ardern has misled the public and shut down debate on hate speech laws.” It should be noted that Tova O’Brien personally supports strengthening NZ’s hate speech laws, so her criticisms here are especially significant.
If you have not read the current discussion document on the proposed hate speech legislation, put out by the government, you can do so here.
In that document, the Government states, “The Government wants to foster greater social cohesion in Aotearoa so that it is a place where everyone feels that they belong.” What the government seems to be unaware of is that almost all positive changes in our society have happened because of western society’s commitment to free speech. Things like the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, improved treatment of sexual minorities, and labour laws all came about because there was free speech. If our goal is a better and more just society, legislating against hate speech and removing free speech is definitely not the way to do it.
Why is this important for Christians? There are many reasons, but here is one. This proposal is often presented as trying to stop “hatred”. But anyone who has been closely following media or western culture in the last few years realizes that “hatred” can now mean nothing more than mere disagreement. Just disagreeing with someone publicly can now be grounds that you “hate” that person or “group”, if they feel offended by what you say, or even “could” be offended by what you say.
Suppose the law becomes that you may no longer say anything that “offends” anyone. You say something that expresses your deep beliefs, which many people may disagree with, but most people will not be actually offended by. But is it realistic, though, to think that you’re going to come out and say something important about your beliefs and not offend somebody somewhere, even if it is only one person in a thousand? If that’s the case, the proposed law would make everyone think twice about ever saying anything important about what they believe, because someone somewhere will always be offended, and could lay a complaint.
So why is this so important for Christians? Because by its very nature the Christian gospel is going to be offensive to some people. It just is! (and anything else important will likewise often be offensive to those who have different beliefs). If we as Christians value our freedom to share and live the Gospel, we need to make our voices heard against this slippery and dangerous government proposal.
Two things can be true at once. On the one hand we condemn in the strongest possible terms the atrocity that happened in Christchurch on 15 March 2019, and absolutely say no to violence and to all incitement of violence. And on the other hand we can still vigorously uphold the principles of free speech in our free society, even though we often disagree with other people’s opinions and sometimes find them deeply offensive.
Recently, I have seen making the rounds a finding from the Barna Group (an evangelical research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture). Barna’s finding comes out of a huge study they did about how the next generation views the church and Christian faith. Their conclusion is: “This generation doesn’t just want to know whether Christianity is true; they want to see that it is good.”
I have also seen some people use this conclusion of Barna as a reason to justify doing away with some of Christianity’s more difficult teachings. Not only doctrines like final judgement or the exclusivity of Christ, but also teachings that come up against our current NZ cultural values in regards to sexual ethics. They argue: “people want a Christian faith that is good. These traditional teachings of Christians are not good, so let’s do away with them.”
But here’s the rub: how do we know what is good, unless we know what is true? Just because our culture views something as good does not mean it is actually good. Further, just because people find certain Christian beliefs abhorrent does not mean they are actually abhorrent. Christians have been accused of not “being good” since the beginning. Look at this quote from the Roman historian Tacitus, writing in AD 115–117…
“Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd called Chrestians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital [Rome] itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and become fashionable.”
Today is not the first time in history where people have found certain Christian doctrines unappealing!
Ok, what is Barna really trying to say? That the next generation has realized that Christianity is not just about having the correct beliefs (though correct beliefs are important), but that how we live our lives in the light of those beliefs is equally important if not more so.
Christianity is not simply: “Believe this doctrine, and you are good to go”. No, Jesus tells us: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Jesus is calling us to action. We need to love God, love truth, and love others. For example, we need to love the truth that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, and thus love the truth that we also need to love others while they are still sinners.
If we want to reach the next generation, how should we live? Not just by believing something different than our neighbour, but by living and loving, in consistency with the truth both revealed and lived out by Jesus.
Is our life both distinctive and good? Are we spending our money and time any differently than the non-Jesus-believing world around us? Are we just scrolling through social media, watching Netflix, and taking our kids to sport? The next generation is looking for something more. They do want truth. They also want to know that Christianity will do good in the world. They want truth that leads to action on big issues like racial injustice, the environment, and poverty. They want both clarity and grace, on things like sex, identity, meaning and purpose. Jesus reminds us that following him costs something. It cost his life. And Barna’s research reminds us that Jesus calls us to radical life change. That includes loving others at their worst, just like Jesus loves us.
We don’t show love by abandoning truth, so as to be called “good” by our culture. We show love by loving God, loving the truth, and going out of our way to love others.
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 Tacitus, Annals 15.44. Translation lightly adapted for readability from Tacitus Annals Books 13–16, Loeb Classical Library 322 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937), 283, 285. The translation has also been adapted to use the spelling Chrestians rather than Christians.
Freedom to believe and practice religious faith is considered a basic human right. It has not always been so. In the early church, great numbers of Christian believers were persecuted or killed by the Roman State, which demanded on pain of death that everyone worship the emperors and the pagan gods, In medieval times, the State was involved in burning heretics (and later some Protestants) at the stake, and many Catholics were executed during the reign of Elizabeth I. In modern times, Christians in many parts of the world are subject to discrimination, violence, and bloodshed, as are members of some other faiths.
By comparison, Christians in New Zealand lead a much easier life. We need to be aware, however, that any poorly-written legislation in the areas of ‘hate speech’ and ‘anti-conversion therapy’ could pose significant risks to the freedoms of religion and expression for Christians, and also for people of other faiths. But we can acknowledge there is a case for changes to legislation that would deal more effectively with extreme and deliberate incitements to hatred and violence.
It’s often been claimed that it was the intolerance of Christians, from the apostle Paul to the Renaissance Popes, that led to the Enlightenment’s secular cry for “freedom of religion” – and even for freedom from religion. The secularist assumption is that religion fosters bigotry, and violence towards those who are different, and that its enlightened secular thought that fosters peace and pluralism.
But is all that actually true? Are there in fact Christian origins to the concept of freedom of religion?
On his podcast Undeceptions, John Dickson (an Australian Christian author, speaker, historian, and media presenter) interviews Professor Robert Louis Wilken (an emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia) on the historic origins of freedom of religion. In contrast to the common perception that religious freedom was a secular Enlightenment idea, Wilken shows that religious freedom originated back in 312 through Constantine the first Christian Roman Emperor. Constantine declared: “Freedom and full liberty has been granted in accordance with the peace of our times to exercise free choice in worshipping as each one has seen fit. This has been done by us so that nothing may seem to be taken away from anyone’s honour or from any religion whatsoever.”
“Where did Constantine get this idea of religious liberty for all? Most of us, all these years later, take for granted that the state will grant complete freedom in spiritual matters. But for most of history, in most parts of the world, this simply was not the case. Religion was seen as too important to the health of society not to be regulated. The significance of religion lay mainly in that it secured prosperity for the state and victory over enemies, so long as the gods were duly honoured by the people….We do not have to speculate about where Constantine got his relatively “enlightened” views about religion outlined in the Edict of Milan. Two Christian thinkers had made a striking case for religious liberty well before Constantine defeated Maxentius and proclaimed himself a Christian. One of them was in the distant past, but his writings were still well known. The other became one of Constantine’s confidants.”
Check out Dickson’s book or podcast if you would like to know who these two Christian thinkers were.
Jay is known for bringing unconventional thinking to his work—perspectives that confront status quo assumptions, and call into question what he calls the “industrial ethics” that cause us to be separated from the earth–and from one another. From his grounding in indigenous Maori culture, he offers thought-provoking insights that “cut new grooves of understanding” about how we might live differently with our ecologies.
“Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill.”
CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Ethics of Greed”, in the computer game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
I remember first hearing this quote as a young gamer and being blown away. Even though many people, including Christians, give lip service to caring for the environment, in reality, we often live exactly like CEO Morgan says we should. But as Christians, should this be our attitude? Or does the Bible give us a different approach to how we treat the planet?
Now one of the biggest problems that comes up when discussing this topic is that people treat it as a political issue. However, as Christians, we cannot let how political parties and cultures treat this issue determine our views on the environment and creation. Rather, we need to go to the scriptures and see, “how then shall we live?”
Right in the beginning, in Genesis 1-2, we see God on the seventh day is enthroned above his creation, showing that the creation is perfect, it’s ideal, it’s ordered, and it exists in its perfect state under God’s rule. But on the sixth day, God makes stewards, made in the image of God, who are to reflect the image of God. And how are these stewards to reflect the image of God? In Genesis 2:15 we read that the role of humanity is to serve and protect the garden of Eden.
So we see, right from the very beginning, God’s initial design for creation. The garden belongs to God, but Adam & Eve have been set up as caretakers and stewards who will live their lives in submission to God, largely by serving and protecting the creation. And this theme continues throughout the Bible.
For example, in the law codes of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, we see that the land is given to God’s people, Israel. However, the message that is repeated is that the land actually belongs to God (Lev 25:23) but that Israel is being given the land to use and to provide for themselves, though in a limited fashion; Israel is not allowed to exploit the land (Lev 25:2-5). In fact there are laws regarding sustainable agriculture (Ex 23:10-11), the protection of wild creatures (Deut 22:6), the proper and humane care of domestic creatures (Ex 20:10; 23:4-5; Deut 25:4), and even the fact that the widow and the orphan will ultimately be provided for if Israel, God’s people, treats the land with respect (Deut 14:28-29; 26:12; 24:21-22; Lev 19:10, 23:22).
Moreover, Israel is told repeatedly that if they fail to follow these instructions—if they fail to treat the land with respect (practising sustainable agriculture by keeping the sabbath and the fallow year), if they fail to care for the widow and orphan in the way they steward all these resources God has given them—that ultimately they will be thrown out of the land like bad tenants who failed to treat the property of the land owner properly (Deut 28:15-68).
Let’s move to the New Testament. While it is not as detailed on this as the Old Testament, we do find teaching that is consistent with the theme of caring and stewarding creation. In Romans 8 Paul talks about the resurrection of our current planet. In Romans 8:19-21 Paul is associating the resurrection of creation with the resurrection of the redeemed. And how does the resurrection of the redeemed work? Our very physical bodies will be raised from the dead into a perfect state. This is the Christian hope. And Paul applies that message to creation as well, telling us that this current creation is not simply disposable.
But what about those passages in 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 21 that speak of the earth being destroyed? Many Christians understand this destruction to mean our current creation will cease to exist. Some might even argue that it would be more efficient to use up our abundant resources for something that really counts, like spreading the Gospel or the conversion of souls.
However, when one digs deeper into the original Greek, it becomes clear that Peter and Revelation are not contradicting Paul. Rather, like Paul, instead of talking about a new earth, it seems that they are talking about a future renewed earth.
In the Greek language there are two words that can describe something new. The first is neos which signifies something that is new in respect of time, that which is recent; e.g. “I have a brand new car!”
But that is not the word for new in 2 Peter 3 or Revelation 21. Rather, they use the word kainos, which also means new, but it means something that is qualitatively new or renewed. Paul, interestingly enough, uses kainos to describe the individual Christian as a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Thankfully, we are not annihilated or utterly destroyed to become this new creation!
Thus, when we read those passages—recognizing also that they’re using symbolic language from the Old Testament—the message they are giving is not one of destroying or annihilating this planet; rather, they are saying that judgment is coming. When these passages are read in light of Romans 8, we see that God’s goal for this planet after judgement is restoration and renewal, not annihilation. In other words, God’s not done with this creation yet, and he does not perceive it as disposable.
So how can Christians approach the issue of environmentalism more biblically and less like a “Morganite”? I recently heard a speaker distill the biblical message on creation down to this single sentence, “the Earth is the Lord’s and all it contains, you may make use of it in your need, but you shall not abuse it in your greed”. Amen to that!