My Three Days at the “Satanic Islam” Trial – Part 4 (Final)

One of the things that surprised me in this legal case, considering the issues at stake, was the amount of humor in the courtroom.  Lawyers, witnesses and even the judge were very quick to crack a joke.  At one point, when people were struggling to hear the prosecution lawyer, the judge said to him, “Pretend you’re a preacher!”  There was no jury in the trial, something that is quite common in Northern Ireland’s legal system.

There was grim humor as well, when one of the BBC radio shows that had stoked the whole controversy was replayed in court.  The man slated to be the ‘chief prosecution witness’ (who never actually appeared in court) was asked repeatedly by the show’s presenter whether he approved of stoning women to death for adultery.  There was laughter in the public gallery as he he danced around the questions and avoided answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Mcconnell church

Pastor McConnell, as the first to give testimony in his own defence, also proved to be a robust and humorous witness.  The prosecution lawyer badgered him, asking the same questions over and over again.  But the pastor repeatedly answered that his mistrust was not directed at all Muslims, and that he mistrusted the religion as a whole and those who were radical or violent.  He repeatedly said that there were good and trustworthy Muslims, and that he was sorry if his words had offended any of them.  He stood by the words that he had said in his sermon.  This indeed was why he was in court.  The police offered to give him a ‘caution’ – but this would have involved him admitting guilt, something he refused to do.  He was adamant that if he accepted the caution then he would, in effect, be muzzled and silenced, and as a preacher he wanted to remain free to preach the Gospel without hindrance.

A young man who runs a mission in Kenya on behalf of Pastor McConnell’s church was next to testify.  He said that the church supported the mission (and a similar one in Ethiopia) at a combined cost of over 10,000 British pounds a month.  He testified that they ran a feeding programme that catered for all without asking anyone their faith, and that during a time of drought they had distributed large quantities of free food in predominantly Islamic tribal areas.

The judge refused to allow the next witness, a Muslim imam who had flown in from England, to testify.  While recognising the imam as an expert in his field, the judge ruled that his testimony would not add anything to his own knowledge and so was inadmissable.  I found this curious.  The pastor was on trial for saying that he didn’t trust Muslims.  Here was an imam who wanted to testify that, because of radical Islamists,even he was very cautious in trusting Muslims, yet the judge would not allow him to testify!

Two character witnesses followed, who could not have been more diverse.  One was a Catholic priest and the other was Sammy Wilson, Democratic Unionist MP for East Antrim.  Both spoke of Pastor McConnell in glowing terms.

I was scheduled as the last witness in the case, but, just as I was about to go to the witness box, there was a hold-up.  My initial written witness statement had addressed the issues of freedom of religious speech, and the pastor’s use of the words ‘satanic’ and ‘heathen’.  But the prosecution had, at the last minute, announced that they had decided not to make a case against that terminology.

I still wanted to testify. I felt that there were important issues at stake.  By saying he didn’t trust Muslims, Pastor McConnell had used language that is used every day in religious debate.  Think about how many times you have read someone on Facebook posting that they don’t like or don’t trust Christians or atheists!  If the pastor was convicted, and if the law is to be equally applied, then the police will have to make hundreds of arrests every week!

I also wanted to point out that the pastor’s view was quite a common one within Christian circles.  Many Christians feel that they are unable to know which Muslims are radical and which are not, due to the influence of Shariah law.  Therefore they start from a default position of withholding trust until they get to know the individual better.

I had experienced the same attitude when, as a young man, I had travelled to England during an IRA bombing campaign.  Because other Northern Irish men were planting bombs in English cities, people treated me warily until they got to know me.  That was not ‘grossly offensive’ – it was understandable caution.

However, given that the judge had excluded  some expert testimony already, the defence lawyers felt it was better to rest their case without my testimony.  I must admit that I was initially frustrated.  I was all psyched up to say my piece!  But, in the end, you have to trust the lawyers to know their job best, and the most important thing was to provide Pastor McConnell with the best possible defence.  So the defence rested their case.

After both the prosecution and the defence had made their final submissions, the judge announced that he would not deliver his verdict that day, but would take take time to consider all the arguments.  He promised that a verdict will be delivered by January 5th.

So Pastor McConnell and his family will spend Christmas in a state of uncertainty, aware that he could still potentially face a six months prison term.  My own personal impression, having been in court throughout the proceedings, is that a guilty verdict would be an absolute travesty of justice.

Please do pray for Pastor McConnell and his family.  Pray also that the court’s verdict will support, rather than infringe upon, freedom of religious expression for all faiths in the UK.

 

 

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My Three Days at the “Satanic Islam” Trial – Part 3

The prosecution’s case against Pastor McConnell consisted of a DVD of the church service where he said of Muslims “But I don’t trust them” followed by more recordings, both audio and visual, from the BBC.  It soon became apparent that a BBC ‘shock jock’, Stephen Nolan, had gone out of his way to manufacture a scandal where none existed.  There is a difference between people who happen to hear a sermon genuinely getting offended, and the media contacting people who have never heard the sermon and inviting them to get offended!

Interestingly, the one person on the broadcasts who claimed to be offended, Dr Raied Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Centre, who had previously been described in the media as ‘the chief prosecution witness,’ did not appear in court.  This may or may not have been linked to the fact that he had become embroiled in controversy himself by publicly praising Islamic State for making the city of Mosul (where Christians have suffered savage persecution) “the most peaceful city in the world.”  Even though everyone in the courtroom was aware of this, the judge seemed keen to prevent any discussion of it.  I found myself shaking my head in disbelief and thinking that you couldn’t make this stuff up!

The prosecution also read out a transcript of a police interview, where Pastor McConnell had been interviewed about a different charge than the one he was eventually charged with.  The police officer who carried out the interview gave testimony that he was concerned that the pastor had mentioned “cells of Muslims” who were carrying out terrorist activity, and that this was similar to the activities of the IRA in the past.  Mentioning the IRA, said the police officer, might stir up anti-Muslim hatred.  I must admit that I personally found this to be incomprehensible.  The whole world knows that there Al Qaeda and Islamic State have terrorist cells, and that the cell-structure they use is indeed one that has been used by other terrorist groups.

Under questioning from the defence lawyer, the police officer did admit that Pastor McConnell had an exemplary character, had a perfect right to choose whom he did and did not trust, and had apologised if his remarks had unwittingly hurt or caused offence to any individual Muslim.

And that was the prosecution case.  There were no witnesses testifying as to how they had been offended by Pastor McConnell’s words.  The prosecutor made a speech in which he acknowledged the pastor’s human rights to practise his faith, but argued that Muslims also have human rights to practise their faith (which of course they do) and that must not be interfered with.  He didn’t go on to explain how the pastor’s words (“But I don’t trust them”) had interfered in any way whatsoever with even one single Muslim’s right to practise their faith.

At this point the defence lawyer made an application for the case to be summarily dismissed since the prosecution had failed to make their case.  I must admit that I had thought the judge would agree to this.  However, after taking a break to consider the matter, the judge ruled that the trial should continue.

Sitting with Pastor McConnell, I could see the toll that this trial was having on his family.  He himself, although 78 years old, was still in robust good humor.  He made a point of going to greet many of his friends and supporters in the public gallery.  But the stress these events placed on his loved ones was distressing to see.

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In tomorrow’s blogpost I will conclude this series of articles by describing the defence’s presentation of its case and the end of the trial.

My Three Days at the “Satanic Islam” Trial – Part 2

As described in yesterday’s blogpost I found myself sitting alongside Pastor James McConnell during his landmark trial for making ‘grossly offensive’ comments about Islam during a church sermon.  The public gallery of the court was also packed with members of Pastor McConnell’s church and other supporters, with many turned away because there was insufficient room in the courtroom to seat them.

mcconnell

The defence lawyers began by objecting that the prosecution’s case was so vague that no-one knew which specific words were supposed to be ‘grossly offensive’.  The media had continually focused on Pastor McConnell’s characterisation of Islam as ‘satanic’ and ‘heathen’ – causing them to dub this as ‘The Satanic Islam Trial.’

The prosecution, however, surprised me by admitting at the onset that they could not bring a case on that basis, because the pastor’s theological views, as expressed in a sermon, were protected by human rights legislation.  Therefore they were powerless to prosecute him for saying Islam was ‘satanic’ or ‘heathen.’  So ‘The Satanic Islam Trial’ wasn’t going to be about that at all – which should teach us not to believe everything we read in the newspapers!

This concession by the prosecution, admitted in open court as evidence, is hugely significant.  While not carrying the same weight as a verdict or judge’s ruling, it does set a precedent.  A crown prosecutor has admitted that clergy cannot be prosecuted in the UK for simply preaching their religious beliefs in their pulpits, even if those beliefs are unpopular or go against current trends in society.

The prosecutor also announced that they couldn’t prosecute Pastor McConnell for any of the comments he had made on subsequent TV and radio shows.  Instead they were prosecuting him under the Communications Act of 2003, based on the fact that his sermon had been streamed over the internet.

The Communications Act replaced the old Telecommunications Act of 1984, which was designed to deal with offensive and abusive phone calls.  It is supposed to address the problem of people sending abusive emails, or making threats of violence on Twitter or Facebook.  The prosecution’s resort to this piece of legislation demonstrated that they had determined to go after Pastor McConnell come what may, and were prepared to use any legal loophole to get him.

Even more surprising were the actual words that were allegedly ‘grossly offensive.’  At one stage in his sermon the pastor had said, “People say there are good Muslims in Britain.  That may be so.  But I don’t trust them.

Those five words – “But I don’t trust them” – were the ‘grossly offensive’ speech for which a 78-year-old retired pastor was being threatened with six months imprisonment!

Now, I personally wouldn’t speak of Muslims in such terms (although I think I have used such language in my own preaching when talking about bankers or politicians!).  But to characterise such language as ‘grossly offensive,’ and to exploit a legal loophole as the prosecution were doing, demonstrated to me the utter vindictiveness of the prosecution service in bringing this case to court.  This was most certainly a case of bullying by civil authorities – and the irony was that the legal loophole they were using to do so was itself designed to stop bullying on the internet!

Both the defence and prosecution legal teams insisted that the five ‘grossly offensive’ words should be set in context, and this meant playing a DVD of the sermon in question.  The judge would have been happy just to view the sermon, but the defence insisted that the court should view the service in its entirety.

What followed next was possibly unique in British legal history.  We spent two hours in a courtroom watching an entire Pentecostal worship service – the prayers, the worship, the preaching and the altar call.  People in the public gallery were worshipping, swaying from side to side, silently singing along and even raising their hands!  At one point Pastor McConnell leaned over and whispered to me, “That’s the first time I’ve seen this recording. Though I say so myself, that was a good sermon!”  Occasionally I heard an ‘Amen!’ or a ‘Hallelujah!’ coming from the public gallery.

The brief remarks about Islam were a tiny part of an overall presentation that focused on Jesus and His role as Redeemer, Mediator and Ransom.  I found myself thinking how God turns around things for His glory.  This vindictive prosecution was causing a bunch of lawyers, journalists, court officials, and a judge to hear a very expressive and easily understood presentation of the Gospel of Christ.

My Three Days at the “Satanic Islam” Trial – Part 1

This week, a remarkable trial unfolded in court in Belfast.  Billed in the media as the “Satanic Islam Trial”, it centred around a sermon preached by Pastor James McConnell at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in 2014.  During his sermon, which was on Christ being our Mediator and Ransom, Pastor McConnell referred to Islam as ‘Satanic’ and ‘heathen’.

Following discussion about the sermon on BBC TV and radio, it was reported that the pastor was being investigated for hate speech, and, much later, that he was to be prosecuted.

I contacted the defence solicitors and offered to appear as a witness on Pastor McConnell’s behalf.  I was in court each day for the whole proceedings, and sat beside Pastor McConnell to encourage and support him and his family.  Some have asked me why I would do so, given that I hold very different views to him when it comes to politics and immigration.  So, over the next three days, I will be posting my perspective on this case.

The reason I got involved was because the prosecution had serious implications for freedom of speech.  Christians believe that Jesus is the only way to God.  We also believe that any false religious message that points a different way to God is, by definition, from the evil one.  So, while I might not have expressed it in the terms Pastor McConnell did, he was being entirely consistent with 2000 years of Christian belief in what he said.  And he has a perfect right to preach that, just as a Muslim should also have the right to voice his opinion that my religion is satanic and heathen!

If different religions are to co-exist in a peaceful modern society, then we need to able to preach our respective beliefs.  Pastor McConnell, like anyone else, has a human right to manifest his religious beliefs under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  There is no human right to prevent you getting offended by someone else’s beliefs!

I was also concerned that there appeared to be an anti-religious bias in bringing such a prosecution.  Secular figures have made statements against religions that were as strong as Pastor McConnell’s – yet they have not been prosecuted.  For example, Richard Dawkins has referred to Islam as “the greatest evil in the world”.  Stephen Fry has described the Jews as having “stored up more misery for mankind than any other group of people in the history of the planet, and they’re doing it to this day.”  So why does the Crown Prosecution Service choose to pursue a 78-year old retired pastor rather than an eminent scientist or a highly popular entertainer?  It was evidently either due to anti-religious bias or simply that, like all bullies, they went for what they perceived as a soft target.

I value fairness and religious freedom.  I also hate bullies.  So I contacted Pastor McConnell’s defence team and offered to appear as a witness on his behalf.  So it was that I turned up at the courthouse on Monday, scheduled to appear as part of a ‘rainbow coalition’ of witnesses alongside a Muslim imam, a Catholic priest and a Member of Parliament.

Court Lunch

Upon arrival I went over to greet Pastor McConnell.  We had last met over 20 years previously.  He asked me to bring a chair over and sit with him, and I was happy to do so.  So I ended up having the best possible front-row seat for the three days that followed.

In tomorrow’s blogpost I’ll explain why the courtroom ended up viewing an entire Pentecostal worship service, and why the charges that were brought demonstrate both a vindictive assault on religion, and yet also vindicated our core religious freedoms to preach our faith.

 

A Free Chapter from “40 Days with Jesus in the Old Testament”

40 days

My new book, “Forty Days with Jesus in the Old Testament: The Son of God Revealed in Every Book of the Jewish Scriptures” is released this weekend.  You can buy the Kindle eBook at Amazon USA ($7.99), Amazon UK (£5.29) or at your own country’s Amazon site.  You can order the paperback version online at nickpark.ie (€10 including free delivery to anywhere in the world).

The book consists of 40 daily devotionals.  Here is a free sample chapter to whet your appetite:

DAY 5 – NUMBERS

JESUS IS THE PILLAR OF CLOUD AND THE PILLAR OF FIRE

Today’s Readings: Numbers 20:6-11       Numbers 21:4-9                      Numbers 24:15-19

 It should only have taken a few weeks for the Israelites to have made their way from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Because of their disobedience, however, the journey would take forty years, with a whole generation passing from the scene.

The entire book of Numbers is set in this ‘in between’ period.  The people were no longer in Egypt, but they had not yet reached the Promised Land.  That is a fitting picture of where most of us, as Christian believers, live our lives.  We have been set free from sin and darkness, but we’re not yet enjoying all the blessings and benefits that come from Christ’s death on the Cross.  We still look forward to the promised day when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).

Even in this ‘in between’ place, God continued to guide His people.  A pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, led the way.  When the pillar stopped, then the people stopped and set up camp.  When the pillar moved once more, then the people packed up their tents and moved once more.

The pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire represent Jesus Christ being present with His people in all circumstances while we journey through our ‘in between’ place.

Water from the Rock

At one point on their travels, the people had run out of water and were grumbling and complaining against Moses.  They wanted to return to Egypt, conveniently forgetting the agonies of their past slavery and selectively remembering the food that grew there.

God instructed Moses to stand before the people, speak to a large rock, and to trust God to cause water to flow from the rock.  Moses didn’t follow God’s instructions perfectly, preferring to make a big show of striking the rock with his staff, but that’s another story!  What matters here is that God graciously caused water to flow, thus slaking the people’s thirst.

In the New Testament, this incident is used to teach that Christ was with the Israelites in the wilderness.  The pillar of cloud, the manna and the rock that provided water were all visible manifestations of Christ’s presence.

“For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.  They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.  They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

The Bronze Serpent

Later on in their wanderings, the Israelites began to grumble against God once more.  Many of them were bitten by poisonous snakes and died.  God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent, and to hoist it up on a pole.  Anyone who had been bitten, yet who looked at the bronze serpent in faith, was healed.

Because of the identification of the serpent with evil in the Garden of Eden in Genesis, it seems strange to us for Jesus to be represented by a serpent.  Yet He Himself made this comparison, and did so in one of the clearest Gospel messages in Scripture.  Every Christian is familiar with John 3:16.  Yet the preceding two verses compare Jesus to Moses’ bronze serpent, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” (John 3:14-15)

Theologically speaking, this makes perfect sense.  Jesus took our sin upon His shoulders, to the extent that He is actually described as having become sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) so that we, in turn, might become the righteousness of God.  The bronze serpent in the wilderness points forward to Calvary where this incredible spiritual transaction took place.

Our task is to proclaim this truth to others.  For Jesus also said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” (John 12:32)

The Star and the Sceptre

Our final reading from the book of Numbers is part of a series of prophecies from Balaam, who was hired by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites.  God intervened, so that each time Balaam tried to curse them, blessings came out of his mouth instead!  It was this incident which prompted the oft-quoted Scripture verse about our God turning curses into blessings (Nehemiah 13:2).

In his fourth prophecy, Balaam spoke about a star and a sceptre (denoting kingship) arising out of Jacob.  This saying was stored up and pondered over by scholars in eastern lands for centuries.  Over a thousand years later they saw an unusual star and followed it to Israel, asking “Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews?  We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:2)

A PRAYER

God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are so thankful that we have received spiritual healing and new life through looking to Jesus as the One who was lifted up on the Cross.  We acknowledge Him as our Provider when we are weary and in need of refreshing.  We seek His face as our Guide in good times and bad.  We rejoice in the knowledge that our God turns curses into blessings, and that the Son of God was born in Bethlehem for our sakes.

We pray this in Jesus’ name.

Amen!

 

 

What would Jesus do … if a masked gunman invaded His Church?

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve been thinking about what an authentic Christian response to unprovoked threats and violence should look like.  I’m not talking about how secular governments should respond (they, after all, have a biblical mandate to protect citizens and punish evil doers).  I’m talking about the Church.  How should we respond?

The problem is that our response usually seems no different from that of everyone else.  At our best, we wave French flags and colour our Facebook profile photos red, white and blue (an interesting phenomenon in Ireland given our historic apathy to those colours). We get teary-eyed listening to La Marseillaise at the next weekend’s sporting events (conveniently ignoring the fact that the song’s words “Let an impure blood soak our fields!” sounds more like the philosophy of Islamic State than that of a modern western republic).

At our worst, we respond in fear by petitioning State Governors not to receive any Syrian refugees, not even three-year-old orphans.  Or we allow the President of a ‘Christian’ University to encourage his students to carry concealed weapons and to talk about killing Muslims.

So I was delighted this week to read in the Irish newspapers about my friend, Pastor John Eniola of the Compassion Centre in Dublin, and how he responded when, only two days ago, a balaclava-wearing gunman waved a sawn-off shotgun in his face during a service and robbed the congregation. Irish Independent

Eniola

Pastor John invited the gunman back to church, saying, “We are hopeful that he will be in touch soon because we want him to come back so we can help him.”

The Church was having a special ‘Bring a Friend’ outreach, and there were a number of first-time visitors in the congregation.  Of all the things that could go wrong on such a day, having a masked gunman storm into church must be most pastors’ nightmare.  It must also have been a terrifying experience for all concerned.

I dread to think how things would have turned out if people in the congregation were carrying guns and some idiot had decided to turn a church service into the gunfight at the OK Corral.

Pastor John, I would like to think that I would respond with such grace in a similar scenario.  I’m not sure I would, because I don’t always react well when faced with violence.  My wife still laughs when she tells people about my experience of getting mugged by seven Russian mafia thugs on an underground metro in St Petersburg.  My very unChristlike response was to start shouting, “Take your hands off my wallet or I’ll kill the lot of you!”

So thank you, Pastor John, for demonstrating a truly Jesus-centered response to terror.  What do we do a masked gunmen invades a church?  We forgive him, and invite him to come back again.  You have restored my faith in the Church, and I think you’ve probably made Jesus quite happy too.

Getting Offended in a Secular Society

Daily_Mail_23_11_2015 (1)

Every so often we hear yet another story about somebody’s religious sensibilities getting offended by something they heard or saw in the media.  This week, however, we encountered a new twist to this familiar scenario.  Apparently a 60-second advert by the Church of England, featuring the Lord’s Prayer, has been banned from the majority of cinemas in the UK.  The reason?  It “carries the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences.”

I can’t help imagining crowds of atheists and agnostics, unused to such graphic horrors as asking for one’s daily bread or forgiving one’s enemies, hiding behind cinema seats with their hands over their ears crying for the offence to stop.  Maybe the right never to see or hear anything that offends us should be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

It would be easy for us in Ireland to scoff at the British for bending over backwards to ensure nobody gets offended.  But we are even worse.  Since 2010 our political masters have saddled us with a ludicrous Blasphemy Law that makes us liable for a €25,000 fine if we utter insulting material that causes outrage to a substantial number of adherents of any religion.

There are proposals to hold a Referendum (yes, another one!) to scrap the Blasphemy Law and for it to be replaced by a law prohibiting religious hatred.  However, this has the potential to hinder free speech even further.

In Northern Ireland, a retired Pentecostal pastor, James McConnell, is currently being hauled through the courts for declaring from the pulpit that Islam is ‘Satanic’ and ‘heathen’.  While many of us might not have phrased it as Pastor McConnell did, the fact is that his words are entirely consistent with historic Christian belief.  Most Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God – ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (John 14:6).  Since Christian belief also views the personification of evil as being behind any false religious belief then, by definition, any religion that presents a way of salvation apart from Jesus Christ is, for historic Christianity, satanic and heathen.  Such a belief, by the way, has nothing to do with hating anyone else.  I would utterly repudiate any suggestion that we should dislike, fear, or discriminate against anyone else on the grounds of their religion (or lack of religion).

Equally, any Muslim who holds to their historic beliefs will maintain that God has no prophet but Mohammed.  Therefore my Evangelical Christian religion, according to them, should also be viewed as satanic and heathen.  That doesn’t offend me in the slightest.  Why on earth should I get offended because somebody else holds a religious viewpoint that is very different from my own?  Or why should the irreligious get offended just because someone holds a religious viewpoint and is prepared to fund a cinema advert to that effect?

True, as a Christian leader I try to refrain from expressing viewpoints or making statements that are expressly designed to gratuitously cause offence to others.  But that should not be a legal requirement.  That is a matter of good manners.  It is also a matter of pragmatism – that if I want to convince others to hear my point of view then I hardly gain a sympathetic hearing by acting like a jerk.

I class myself as a Christian Secularist.  I don’t want to live in a theocratic society that affords special privileges, protections or tax-breaks to any religion.  I believe it is inherently bad, both for society and for religious faith, when any religion (including my own) holds a position of political or cultural dominance.

But secularism does not mean that we treat religion as a special category of thought that must be eliminated in Stalinist purges.  Religion should be decoupled from the apparatus of the State, and it should not be afforded special protection or privileges.  But neither should religion be subject to special discrimination or restrictions.  The Church should be treated exactly the same as Atheist Ireland, Islam or the Vegetarian Society of Ireland – no better, and no worse.

In a secular society, religion should be allowed to sink or swim without artificial support.  If religious believers really believe that their brand of religion is the true faith, then they should be free to say so without fear of prosecution, but also without being mollycoddled against criticism.  If my faith really is true, then I should be prepared to compete in a marketplace of ideas and have confidence in ‘the survival of the fittest’ (using that phrase in its true Darwinian sense of being most apt to our lives and future existence, rather than referring to mere brute strength).

And what if we do get offended by someone else’s expressions of faith, or lack of faith?  Then get over it!  It’s high time we grew up and behaved like adults.  Remove the risk of getting offended and you also remove free speech, stifle intellectual discourse and destroy the cherished ideal of living in a modern secular society.

Syrian Refugees, Abortion, iPhones & the Simpsons

steve jobs

In 1954 a student in Wisconsin found herself pregnant by a Syrian refugee. Her father forbade her to marry the father. Today such cases often end in abortion, but abortion was illegal in 1954. A doctor who sheltered girls in such circumstances delivered her baby and arranged an adoption. That baby was Steve Jobs.

The student, Joanne Carole Schieble, later married her Syrian boyfriend. They subsequently divorced, but did have a daughter called Mona.  Joanne then married again, to an ice skating teacher called George Simpson.  So Steve Job’s sister became Mona Simpson.

Mona became a best-selling author and Professor of English at UCLA.  She married Richard Appel, a scriptwriter for The Simpsons TV Show.  When Richard needed to come up with a name for Homer Simpson’s mother, he named her after his wife – Mona Simpson.

The world is full of unexpected consequences and connections.  If the US had refused to accept Syrian refugees 60 years ago, or if abortion had been legal in 1974, then it is highly unlikely that today we would have the iPhone, iPad or Mac computers.  And Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was, in a manner of speaking, Homer Simpson’s uncle!

And I get to write a blog post that ties into one story Syrian refugees, abortion, iPhones and The Simpsons.

Mona Simpson

 

When the Church Triumphed Over the People Traffickers

This coming Sunday, 18th October, has been designated by the European Union as Anti Human Trafficking Day. Churches all over Europe will mark the occasion in some way and pray for the victims of people trafficking. It might be a good time to remember the forgotten story one of the Christian Church’s greatest ever triumphs over the scourge of people trafficking.

In the Nineteenth Century, in most parts of the English-speaking world, it was not unusual for children to be kept as prostitutes. The age of consent was only 13 years old – so the police were powerless to prosecute men who had purchased 14 and 15-year-old children for sex. Decades after William Wilberforce had won his campaign to abolish the North Atlantic Slave trade, thousands of young girls (and sometimes boys too) were being trafficked at the heart of the British Empire.

A crusading tabloid newspaper editor, WT Stead, formed an unlikely alliance with Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army and Anglican and Catholic archbishops. In 1885 Stead’s paper, the Pall Mall Gazette, began to run a series of articles exposing the scandal. The articles were so shocking that retail outlets such as WH Smith refused to sell the newspapers. Undaunted, Stead appealed for volunteers to sell the newspaper on the streets. Some celebrities of the day signed up as temporary paperboys, including George Bernard Shaw.

WT Stead

Many people objected that such stories could not possibly be true. So, to prove how it could be done, Stead purchased a 13-year-old girl, Eliza Armstrong from Lisson Grove in West London for 5 pounds, and smuggled her to Brussels (a common route used by people traffickers at the time).

The case caused such agitation in Victorian England that the age of consent was eventually raised to sixteen, a move that was quickly followed in Australia, South Africa and most parts of the United States. However, Stead and Bramwell Booth were both prosecuted for the purchase and abduction of Eliza Armstrong. The Archbishop of Canterbury offered to appear as a witness in their defence (which would have been a legal first) but the court refused to allow him to testify. Booth was acquitted but Stead was sent to prison.

Hundreds of thousands of children were freed from sexual slavery as a result of this incident. Although rarely remembered today, it stands alongside Wilberforce’s slavery abolition campaign as one of the greatest achievements by Christians in combatting human trafficking.

Bramwell Booth went on to become the second General of the Salvation Army, succeeding his father, William Booth.

WT Stead, after his release from prison, continued in a number of campaigns and publishing ventures. Each year, on the anniversary of his conviction, he would proudly wear his prison clothes to the office! He was a passenger on the Titanic in 1912. It was reported that he was last seen floating off into the darkness clasping a piece of the boat’s wreckage along with John Jacob Astor (reportedly the richest man in the world at the time).

George Bernard Shaw, the volunteer ‘paperboy’, later used the case as inspiration for one of his plays. Eliza Armstrong became ‘Eliza Doolittle’, also from Lisson Grove and purchased for five pounds, and the main female character in ‘Pygmalion’ – later immortalised on the silver screen as ‘My Fair Lady.’

(Nick Park is currently writing a book on Bramwell Booth, WT Stead and the Eliza Armstrong case entitled ‘The Conquering Band’)

Down Syndrome, Beating the Odds and Birth Equality

One of the more heart-warming stories of recent days has been the letter written by American sports journalist Paul Daugherty to his daughter on her wedding day. Jillian Daugherty and her husband, Ryan, both have Down Syndrome. They make a beautiful couple and I can easily understand her father’s pride. You can read the full story here: A Father’s Letter

Jillian Daugherty

In his letter, Paul said, “I don’t know what the odds are of a woman born with Down Syndrome marrying the love of her life. I only know you’ve beaten them.”

That quote caused me to reflect on a statistic I encountered recently – that 95% of unborn children in the US that are diagnosed with Down Syndrome never make it out of the womb alive. I am convinced that future generations will look back to the early 21st Century and wonder how we could ever have tolerated such a shocking human rights violation as selective abortion. Millions of children are denied ‘birth equality’ because they are deemed to be the wrong gender, the wrong race, or because they have an extra chromosome. That is wrong – utterly barbaric and morally wrong.

People with Down Syndrome have to ‘beat the odds’ in many areas of life. They are more likely than the rest of the population to be denied appropriate education, more likely to be sexually abused as children, are discriminated against in the area of immigration (countries that practice such discrimination include the UK, Canada and Australia), and are more likely to be unemployed.

It is past time for these inequalities to be addressed. And the most basic inequality of all, that of the right to born at all, should be the first to be addressed. Birth Equality is a human rights issue.

In Ireland, at present, it is illegal to abort an unborn child due to a diagnosis of Down Syndrome. At least one major political party has adopted it as part of their policy for the next election to see that protection removed. No doubt the abortion debate will intensify when the date for that election is announced. We should remember that Birth Equality is not an attempt to enforce Christian dogma on others, nor is it a culture-war. Birth Equality is about basic human rights. And Jillian Daugherty is a beautiful and inspirational example of why this issue is so important.