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Hate speech & religious liberty

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Chaos reigned in parliament before the South African president’s latest state of the nation address.

The Chief Whip of the opposition rose to state why his party could not remain to listen to the president, but the ruling party benches drowned him out with a loud and angry chorus of “racist”. Is this an acceptable expression or is it a form of hate speech?

Just weeks ago a crowd of gay activists gathered outside the largest church in Soweto to protest a recent sermon censoring homosexuality. Was such a sermon ‘hate speech’, or was the protest an attempt to curtail religious liberty?

Gay ‘rights’ are a contentious issue in many countries around the world but in South Africa activists are gaining traction and attention by aligning themselves as victims of hate speech. Two things appear to me to have sponsored the current emphasis on ‘hate speech’:

  1. A number of racially prejudicial remarks in the social media, and,
  2. The ruling party’s opportunism in using this as an election campaign theme.

What then are gay rights, hate speech, and freedom of religion and expression, and how do these function together? I am neither a lawyer nor a lawmaker but as a Christian thought-leader, I do have opinions on these important issues.

In 2013 the Freedom of Expression Institute published ‘Hate speech and freedom of expression’ and I am drawing on this as a primary source for this article. Our Constitution with its Bill of Rights is the foundation for all rights and freedoms in South Africa. In 2000 parliament passed the ‘equality bill’ and there are two other concerning draconian bills nearing finalisation, but all such acts of parliament must conform to the provisions of the national constitution.

So what does the constitution state concerning these matters?

It states that Freedom of Expression cannot extend to expressions that enlist, among other things, ‘advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm’. The two parts of this are advocacy of hatred and incitement to cause harm. In terms of this, preaching against the practice of homosexuality surely cannot be anything other than a form of free expression. Section 15 of the Bill of Rights protects freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, or opinion. Therefore, a preacher is within his rights to state what he believes the Bible teaches and to voice his opinion based on this belief. But, it is one thing to preach on a biblical interpretation of a practice and quite another to make damaging statements concerning the individuals or groups that are deemed to violate the preacher’s beliefs.

At present I know of no officially accepted definition of hate speech but the following serves well: ’speech or expression which is capable of instilling or inciting hatred of, or prejudice towards, a person or group of people on a specified ground including race, nationality, ethnicity, country of origin, ethno-religious identity, religion, sexuality, gender identity or gender.’ Once again, the key phrase is ’speech or expression which is capable of instilling or inciting hatred of, or prejudice towards, a person or group of people’.

Surely we, as Christians, can and should separate our strongly held opinions of what we consider to be unbiblical practices from derogatory, insulting and demeaning personal or group references?
The national constitution also gives us the right to freedom of association and so we can stipulate membership criteria of our church associations and so on, based on our biblical beliefs and not on our prejudice against individuals.

Jesus said, “Whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council…” (Matthew 5:22 ESV). It is wrong to insult other people or to incite others to be insulting, however, the Lord Jesus used the expression “I tell you the truth” countless times and we are called to emulate Him as truth-tellers. But, the truth we tell must be a thoughtful, love-inspired, and Jesus-centred interpretation of the Bible. “God hates you” or any expression of that is biblically untrue. On the other hand, “What you are doing is unbiblical and I cannot accept it” is surely acceptable and not hateful.

We are in for interesting and troubling times because broader and more activist-inspired definitions of religious liberty and hate speech are emerging all the time and are at the point of being enshrined in legislation.
It will probably take years and much money to challenge and overturn these official bills, and during that time, Christian leaders will no doubt suffer persecution. There is no way of avoiding this in the short to medium term. Hebrews 12:14 states, ’Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord’. The scriptures instruct us to live in peace AND to be holy, separated to God, so short of compromise there is no persecution-free resolution to this tension.

GotQuestions.org has made this statement that I endorse;

Our goal is to speak the truth in love. We do not hate Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics, Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Rather, we simply believe that these groups are making some serious theological and biblical errors. We do not hate homosexuals, adulterers, pornographers, transsexuals, or fornicators. Rather, we simply believe that those who commit such acts are making immoral and ungodly decisions. Telling someone that he/she is in the wrong is not hateful. In reality, refusing to tell someone the truth is what is truly hateful. Declaring the speaking of truth, presented respectfully, to be hate speech, is, in fact, the ultimate demonstration of hate.




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