Questions of the limits free speech and of the free exercise of religion have been debated extensively over the last half-century or more in the West, though in the last ten years there have been more and more people pressuring religious people and organizations toward compliance with changing societal norms. These two foundational principles of our societies have formed the bedrock of the American and European understanding of enlightenment thinking and have facilitated the great debates of our generations. National Socialists of America v. Village of Skokie asked if it was acceptable for neo-Nazis to march through the hometown of many holocaust survivors. In Texas v. Johnson we asked whether we would allow flag burning as an expression of political speech? Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission brought up the question of religious conscience and whether religious business owners can be forced to participate in events that conflict with the free exercise of their religion.
A New Case Out of Finland
Last month a Helsinki court took up a case against a Christian MP and a Lutheran bishop on the grounds of hate speech against a protected class based on tweets and a book written by the MP. Now Finland is a very different place from the United States, so I will not presume to understand some of their laws and customs, but as stated above, the principles of free speech and free exercise of religion go back centuries and undergird the Western Liberal tradition as a whole so that is the position I am approaching this from.
In an op-ed from the Washington Examiner titled In Finland, expressing religious beliefs is “hate speech”, authors Nina Shae and Paul Marshall express a growing concern that many Christians are feeling in our increasingly post-Christian Western societies; namely, how do we remain faithful to God and his Word amid pressure from the prevailing culture and our governing authorities. In this particular case, the issue is the offensive nature of biblical marriage and the Bible’s description of non-biblical marriage and sexuality as unnatural.
Finland’s Helsinki District Court is now considering criminal hate speech charges against a Christian Democratic parliamentarian and a Lutheran bishop for tweeting Bible verses and stating that homosexual activity is forbidden in the Bible. The state prosecutor argues that they have ‘threatened, defamed or insulted the gay and transgender community, in violation of Article 10 of the Criminal Code, which carries penalties of up to two years’ imprisonment and fines, as well as the implied future censorship of such traditional religious beliefs.
The article continues by explaining the cause and nature of the case and the charges against Rasanen.
The trial is the culmination of a two-year investigation triggered by a tweet that MP Paivi Rasanen sent in June 2019, objecting to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (a state church) over its cosponsoring of Helsinki’s LGBT Pride parade. The parliamentarian also linked on Instagram to a photograph of a biblical passage, Romans 1:24-27, that is critical of homosexual relations. She explained that she did not intend to offend, only to defend her deeply held religious beliefs… The police questioned her for almost four hours, including about Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, and concluded that no crime had been committed. However, Prosecutor General Raija Toiviainen came to a different conclusion, reopened and expanded the investigation, and eventually charged her not only for the tweet but for her booklet, Male and Female He Created Them: Homosexual Relations Challenge the Christian Concept of Humanity, which is posted online. The prosecutor also charged Bishop Juhana Pohjola for publishing Rasanen’s book in 2004, seven years before the law was amended to protect gay and transgender people. The two are now being prosecuted for the crime of “ethnic agitation” under a wide-ranging hate speech law… the court reviewed Bible passages and assumed a quasi-papal role in trying to determine Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality and which interpretation of Scripture should be followed: the traditional or the liberal one. It appeared to be looking for a way to avoid outright censorship of the Bible or, at least, not be forced to lock it away in a secure archive that requires a state pass to read it, such as in China.
I would assume for many Western Christians, particularly those of us here in the United States, this might be seen as surprising; but Finland — like most other countries in the world — doesn’t have free speech or free exercise protections like we have here. The first amendment of the US Constitution protects our God given right to speak freely. It protects our right to peacefully assemble. It protects out right to worship and practice our faith freely and without coercion. These protections, that were established in the earliest days of the American republic, were encoded into law to prevent tyrannical overreach like this. But as I said, these protections are not practiced universally and we’re seeing more and more Western powers embracing speech laws (England, Scotland, Canada, etc) that are putting pressure on biblical Christianity to submit to the State rather than to the Lord, Yahweh.
While there are political movements in these countries, including the US, to push back on these speech laws and other laws that pressure believers to obey the law over the Scriptures we need to be realistic about what is happening here. It goes deeper than speech codes and covid restrictions. It cuts to the very soul of Western Christianity, and it’s something that is reshaping our cultures in a way that is deeply troubling to many of us: Christians are becoming the religious minorities in the post-Christian Western world.
It’s Not Just About Gay and Trans People
There are very few passages in the entirety of the Bible focused on the question of homosexuality and the like. The larger theme relating to that topic has to do with the matters of sin and sexual immorality. The latter deals with issues including homosexuality, but also includes matters of lust, adultery, pre-marital and extra-marital affairs, beastiality (now, apparently being referred to as zoophilia), and more. So while the culture is currently hyper-focused on gay and trans matters, God is primarily focused on matters of sin and salvation; but I suppose that is where the problem really exists: What is sin, and should calling people’s lifestyles sinful be tolerated in a post-Christian society?
So why does that question matter? Is it because right-wing, bible-thumping, conservative Christians want to control who people sleep with or how they live their lives? Well I suppose there are some people like that, but in my experience those more paleo-conservative evangelical types lost prominence years ago and many of the Christians out there today have deconstructed their faith to a point that they really ought not call themselves Christians anymore. What we are left with is a remnant of believers who seek to understand God’s heart and his ways on a deeper level. It’s not about controlling the culture, or about forcing beliefs on non-believers; it’s about being faithful to God and making sure his Word is not misrepresented. It’s about living godly lives and maintaining our sexual purity and spiritual integrity while remaining faithful to our call as his missionaries to our communities.
Religious Liberty, Social Intolerance, and Civil Disobedience
In America, religious liberty is important. It was a foundational component to our civilization. It’s what led the separatist pilgrims and the non-separatist puritans to settle in the New World. It is an important reason that protection from government meddling in religious affairs and our free exercise of religion are enshrined in the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights. It’s part of what has made America unique, and even when individuals have crossed the line and violated the rights of others, the right exists nonetheless and those violators have been judged by the rest of society. The rights apply to all people, both Christian and non-Christian and while tolerance levels have ebbed and flowed over the centuries, the freedom to worship and practice one’s faith has been a staple of our society; however, just because that is how it has always been doesn’t mean that’s how it will always be.
In Europe and other Western cultures, this right to religious liberty and the right to free speech was never protected in the same way. And now, the progressive nature of these post-Christian governments and cultures are taking aim at orthodox religious views that are problematic to our modern sensibilities. It’s important to note that these laws and rulings don’t only apply to Christianity. Jews, Muslims, and other faiths that hold traditional views of sexuality, gender, and the like are going to be caught up in these as well or forced to self-censor. Even in America, the fight for free speech and religious liberty has been on for several years now and for the last few the modus operandi of the governing and cultural authorities has been that of intolerance.
This begs the question: How far is too far? When is the line crossed, and what is the line anyway? In Christian circles, we’re fond of the story of Corey ten Boom. She was a Dutch believer whose family helped nearly 800 Jews escape the holocaust in occupied Holland. We love her story, because it’s that of believers doing the right thing. We often speak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well. Bonhoeffer famously resisted the state propaganda of the Nazi regime from the pulpit and was eventually executed at the Flossenbürg concentration camp after being accused of conspiring to assassinate Adolf Hitler. We respect Brother Andrew, who smuggled bibles into the Soviet Union in violation of state policy. There’s William Tyndale who translated the Bible into English in subversion to English law, the countless believers who meet in secret in places like China, Iran, and North Korea to worship God in violation of the law, not to mention biblical figures like John and Peter who were imprisoned for refusing to stop talking about Jesus. John the Baptist, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah; they all spoke out against the sin and moral inequity of their day.
In Romans 13, Paul wrote that believers are to submit to the governing authorities. Peter echoes this sentiment in 1 Peter 2:17. Does this mean that the men and women listed above were in sin? They broke the law. They opposed the State. They showed disrespect to the governing authorities by disobeying their commands and decrees. What we learn from the whole of Scripture on the matter of authority and submission to it, is that obedience to the law is subject to the law’s submission to God. Jesus told Peter and John to tell the whole world about the gospel and the local authorities tried to tell them to disobey him (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 5:12-42). William Tyndale’s mission was to remove the earthly mediators between us and God (1 Timothy 2:5) and the government said no. Corrie ten Boom and her family refused to be complicit in the murder of innocent people (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 27:25, Proverbs 1:11, etc), and Bonhoeffer resisted the appropriation of the Church by wicked men and false teachers (1 Timothy 1:3-7).
All of these believers had a few things in common:
- They were imperfect sinners, who loved Jesus and sought to be faithful to God’s Law above all else.
- They all lived under laws and regimes in conflict with God’s Law
- They all practiced non-violent civil disobedience with the exception of Bonhoeffer who had been connected to the July 20th plot (the basis for the film Valkyrie). While not directly engaged in violence, he had been recruited into the German military intelligence (the Abwehr) who conspired for the failed coup attempt.
While civil disobedience is typically considered sinful in the Bible, it is sometimes justified when sinful men and women abuse their God-given authority and are in direct conflict with the Law of God. That is what these speech codes represent. We are commanded to love God with all that we are, and to love others as Jesus did. That means helping people, genuinely caring about their whole person (body, soul, and spirit), and calling everyone to repentance and submission to Jesus Christ just as we have been. Therefore when man’s law prohibits a believer (clergy or lay) from any of those commands we have a responsibility to respectfully stand up and say no. It’s not going to be comfortable, but life in a sinful world was never going to be. The best we can do, is obey God, help one another, and use the political apparatus as it is designed to lobby for change.