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Sean Duffy, Tolerance and Free Speech

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Last week, a man called Sean Duffy was sentenced to several months' imprisonment for making offensive jokes about dead teenagers online. He did it knowing that their families would be hurt and upset. I think what he did was disgusting. I find it hard to have any sympathy for him. And I don't think he should have gone to jail.

I am a Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, salvation-emphasising Christian, and I support freedom of speech. That may seem odd if you follow depictions of Christians of my particular tribe in the media. We, unlike our more laid-back, theologically liberal brethren, are often painted as intolerant, particularly in the realm of speech and conscience. This is, of course, largely our own fault.

It's also partly because of stupid people not understanding the meaning of the word 'tolerant' and assuming that it means the same as 'agreeing with everyone'. At the risk of an obvious reaction, I must point out that they are, of course, completely and utterly wrong. Tolerance as a virtue is valuable precisely because some people, doctrines and belief systems will never fully agree with others. Tolerance is the mechanism whereby we disagree with one another and refrain from killing removing or compelling to recant, those with whom we don't agree. It is not pretending that we do. A Christian claiming that violence is always morally corrupt or that he knows the only truth about how to live a life of peace and harmony may be arrogant or wrong, but he only becomes intolerant when he punches you in the face for disagreeing with him.

And that is where our own fault in our public perception comes in. While regularly demanding the right to express our beliefs in public (as anyone in a free society should have the right to), Christians also regularly get offended when others do the same. And there have been enough Christian attempts (successful and unsuccessful) to put a stop to anything that offends us for the 'intolerant' label to have some objective support.

Tolerance, particularly in the sphere of conscience and speech, should be important to Christians for many reasons. If one believes, as we Evangelicals do, that salvation and indeed righteousness are matters of free choice, and that good works or conversions under duress are meaningless, then forcing people by law to do or say the right thing is pointless. Practically, even if we had the influence that the more hysterical atheist activists believe Christians have, we could not in conscience punish even those who promulgate ideas that lead people away from God, because that is not the way we are taught to deal with our enemies. As things stand today, overcoming evil with good is all we can do. For very practical reasons, Christians in a multicultural society (and if your beef is with that, you might as well also rail against the Norman Conquest and the advent of mechanised farming) must support freedom of speech and conscience. This means supporting freedom for unpopular speech and ideas. That's partly because freedom is not needed for popular speech and because so much of what our faith teaches is objectionable to those outside it. It's logical and in our own interests! How often is that true?

But it's not always as simple as realising that campaigning against megamosques and banning musicals is stupid. Sometimes, as in the news last week, supporting free speech is hard. Certainly, Sean Duffy behaved appallingly. But if upsetting people is a crime, why is adultery legal? Why is humiliating people on television considered legitimate entertainment? Sean Duffy is not justified by this, but it is a hypocritical country indeed that jails him and allows the daily grinding distress that fashion magazines cause to millions of women to go unpunished.

When causing offence becomes criminal, a religion like Christianity should be worried. And so should anybody who believes in the importance of dissent and in the freedom that, like tolerance, is more than just a word.

This piece originally appeared in The Baptist Times