Last week I picked up on a story about a group of street preachers who were arrested after preaching in a Bristol shopping area (1). The preachers, it has been said, explained the difference between Islam and Christianity, spoke of God’s love, and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Although that sounds all good and well, on the other hand, the court heard that Overd had called the crowd depraved and ignorant (2). He also said Muhammad and Buddha were both liars and thieves, while he also described extra-marital sex and homosexuals as filthy, depraved and perverted (3). Stockwell also allegedly told the crowd that Allah was the “greatest deceiver” and included homosexuality on a list of things including thieves or drunkards (4); he also told the crowd other religions were thieves who came to steal. The crowd, of between 50 and 100 people, had been worked up even though Overd and co. were fully aware of the impact their preaching was having on their audience and the resulting tension it was causing (5). None of this, I’ve thus far found after engaging several Christian news sources, has been mentioned which suggest to me that the Christian news reporting is only giving half of the story.
But though many Christians will disagree with me I must admit disappointment in Overd and his fellow preachers. I think there is a way to convey the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that won’t cause a riot or public street brawl. I am open about critiquing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, Christianity (specifically certain strands of Christianity), atheism, other beliefs, and I also don’t support homosexuality. But it would just be entirely wrong, and insensitive, of me to stand in the middle of a busy street with a microphone in hand bashing the beliefs of other people while fully aware that what I am doing could result in public violence. To do so would be highly irresponsible and needs to be avoided, and I thank the authorities for removing Overd and co. from potentially causing further harm to others, and others to them. This is not to say that we Christians should avoid the public square. Far from it.
In my Public Theological studies last year we learnt of ways, as well as engaged practical examples, of how Christians have taken to the public square in effective ways. Many of these were well planned and executed, and left a lasting impact. For example, we learned that one Australian pastor, and a few others, walked into a PM’s office over a certain injustice against refugee children. There in the PM’s office they prayed for a few hours over the grievance after which they were arrested for trespassing. The pastor did not fight, seek to deliberately offend, or resist arrest. They simply stood there and were later taken away. He was also put into jail for a short time. There was a big difference in that demonstration to what we find in Overd’s case. The Australian pastor made news headlines all over the country and the world, and even found himself in the ‘resource’ section of my theological studies. This pastor, and those with him, stood in as a worthy example of God’s love, resistance to injustices, willingness to prevent enraging others, avoid violence, and gracefully receive the punishment given to him. He is, at least to me and many other Christians, seen as an excellent example of taking grievances and one’s religious convictions to the public sphere. But how do I see Overd? I see him as a repeat offender (this is his third appearance in court for similar offences (6)), and one who lacks discernment when it comes to spreading the Gospel message. Sure, he may be on fire to spread the Gospel as God would want him to do, but he’s certainly not doing so in a way that is conducive to winning over souls. Instead, though he should know better, he has deliberately offended many and has certainly isolated a good few from being receptive to the Gospel.
It is also true that when it comes to religious matters people are naturally quite sensitive. Many are also sensitive over matters of homosexuality, abortion, and other concerns. But, knowing all this, all the more the need to exercise sensitivity in reaching out to others in our contemporary setting. That is after all just plain old common sense. The group were each given a £300 fine, as well as ordered to pay a £30 victim surcharge and prosecution costs of £3,372 each, totalling £2,016 each (7).
1. Christian Concern. 2017. Christian Preachers Stand Trial in Bristol. Available.
2. Bristol Post. 2017. Christian street preachers found guilty of abusing Bristol shoppers and causing angry scenes. Available.
3. Bristol Post. 2017. Ibid.
4. Bristol Post. 2017. Ibid.
5. Bristol Post. 2017. Ibid.
6. Christian Concern. 2014. Street Preacher To Be Prosecuted For Comparing the Lives of Jesus and Muhammad. Available.
7. Bristol Post. 2017.