At one level I have a great deal of sympathy with Josh. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up and preach to passing people who mock, yell abuse and more often just ignore you. I have to believe that his desire is to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ. I also do think there is an increasing tendency towards intolerance and bigotry towards Christians in this country. But….and you could probably sense there was going to be a ‘but’…after watching the video recordings of these events, I’m afraid that I have to support the police on this one.
As I am heading to Perth, ironically to speak at a conference of Christian lawyers, on the law and Christianity, I thought it might be appropriate to reflect on the most recent case of a street preacher being arrested in the UK, Josh Williamson, the Australian Reformed Baptist Minister of Perth (Scotland not Oz!). Is his case yet more evidence that the police in Britain are being used to prevent Gospel preaching? Have we entered the era of a state controlled public morality that brooks no opposition and uses the police as an instrument of public policy to control and suppress Christianity? There have been several cases which would seem to suggest that we are heading that way, so when I heard of the latest I was suitably outraged, shocked and ready to put hand to keyboard to slay the dragons of the PC Pcs.
However I have taken some time to look at the case of Josh Williamson, and I’m afraid the question is not as black and white as might at first appear. This has resulted in some Christians being horrified at the actions of the police and others being horrified at the actions of Mr Willaimson. Before suggesting a ‘middle’ way let me suggest that you have a look at the following videos: The first from the Dundee Courier. And the second a full one of the arrest and following:
You can also read Josh’s own testimony here –http://www.joshwilliamson.org/home/86-arrested-for-preaching-the-gospel.html
[Editor’s note: the link to Josh’s testimony is broken and has been removed.]
At one level I have a great deal of sympathy with Josh. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up and preach to passing people who mock, yell abuse and more often just ignore you. I have to believe that his desire is to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ. I also do think there is an increasing tendency towards intolerance and bigotry towards Christians in this country. But….and you could probably sense there was going to be a ‘but’…after watching the video recordings of these events, I’m afraid that I have to support the police on this one. In fact I think that this case is at best a sideshow from the main problems we are facing in the UK church today, and at worst it is only likely to encourage further persecution. So for better or worse here is my analysis and why I think the police were correct in what they did.
1) Was Josh Arrested for Preaching the Gospel? If you watch the two videos you will see that Josh is NOT being arrested for preaching the Gospel. He is being arrested for breach of the peace. And this is not the police being clever. He was breaching the peace. He was arrested because the police had received a complaint about the level of noise. Having watched the videos I’m sorry but if I were a shopkeeper I would have complained. He was standing shouting at passers-by. There were other street preachers there that day who were not arrested. SO when Josh yells to the camera that ‘this is what happens when you preach the gospel of Christ”, he is just wrong. It is what happens when you stand yelling at people on the street, and refuse to stop when a police officer having received a complaint (understandably) asks you to desist and you refuse. The police have to respond when there is a complaint – no matter how daft or unreasonable it may be.
I remember when I received a joke death threat on the Dawkins website. It was not very pleasant but it was clearly meant to be a kind of sarcastic joke. However someone complained to the police and they were obliged to visit me – which they did. I told them I did not want to press charges but I would prefer that it was removed. Thankfully this was done before the police had to ask (a week after it had been put up). The point is though that once a complaint is made the police HAVE to assess that complaint. Many of my neighbours are Muslims who belong to a particular small branch of Islam. Once a year they have a big three-day party that spills out on to the street. It is a bit inconvenient (parking, noise at night etc.) but not intolerable. However if they insisted on their prophet standing out in the middle of the street and preaching, I would object to the police. Freedom of speech does not include the right to yell at people in public places.
2) Was this a set up? I do not like the way that Josh set up the police for the second arrest. And it certainly does appear to be a set up. Deliberately going back to the place you were arrested in the day before, taking a camera, having advice from the Christian legal centre, and then secretly recording the conversation in the police car. Even as I listen to that conversation I have to say my sympathy is entirely with the policewoman. She was gracious, polite, reasonable and behaved impeccably. I think to anyone looking at the first video and then the second, it is clear that Josh went out on the second day if not intending to get arrested, at least intending to provoke what could only result in arrest. I’m sorry but I do not like the martyr complex and I think it is very foolish for any Christian to behave in such a manner. The bottom line is that there is no way this case can be used as evidence for the persecution of Christians in the UK. This was just a policewoman doing her job. Despite quite deliberate provocation. Such provocation is not wise and indeed can only do the rest of us harm.
3) Is this the way to proclaim the Gospel? Look at the videos. Preaching is not just as Josh says ‘by nature projecting’. It is proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to people who are listening. I was once playing football in The Meadows in Edinburgh with lots of my non-Christian friends. They pointed out a man with a bible who was standing several hundred yards away from us, apparently shouting at the trees. “Isn’t that one of your lot Dave,?” A little embarrassed (not because I was ashamed of the Gospel), I went over and asked him what he was doing. “I’m preaching the Gospel”. “But no-one is listening”. “Yes, but Spurgeon was once preaching and there was a man hiding up a tree who heard him and was converted”. So because of a story from the 19th Century this Christian brother was standing yelling bible verses at trees! Of course we can cite an honourable history of open air preaching in the UK (I have done it several times myself), but a man standing on a busy Scottish street yelling at passers-by, when no-one is listening, cannot really claim to be the heir of John Wesley or George Whitefield. It’s a basic principle and a basic rule – you can’t preach if no one is listening!
4) Is this about the people of Perth or the ‘ministry’ of Josh Williamson? Sometimes as Christians we have to ask one another the hard questions. I have to confess that there have been times in my own ministry, and probably still will be, when I have focused too much on MY ministry, and MY work, and forgotten that it is Christ’s work. My point here is simply that if our primary concern is the people we are seeking to reach, then we need to ask if our methodology is the best way to do it. IMHO standing on a street shouting at people is not the best way to do it. I realise of course that the standard repost to this is Moody’s great response to those questioning his methods, “you may be right, but I prefer the way I evangelise, to the way you don’t”. The trouble is that to use this repost implies that other Christians in Perth are not communicating the Good News. I know there are many who are. And some in very effective ways. The danger actually is that much of this good work will be undermined by Josh’s approach.
It can be very seductive to have yourself declared a Christian martyr for the truth, to be asked to appear on American Christian talk shows and have them empathise with your plight, and, lets be frank, it doesn’t hinder the fundraising. You will note that Josh has a plea at the end of his own testimony asking people to donate so that they can support the ministry of Josh Williamson. I don’t want to suggest that he did this for money and of course I know that gospel work has to be funded. I am happy to receive money from Christians to help the work of the Gospel in St Peters and through Solas. But I am distinctly uncomfortable in linking an incident such as this with fundraising. At one point Josh is challenged by a stallholder “I’m trying to make a living”. His response is ‘So am I”. Perhaps that was an unwise slip of the tongue. But my fear is that there may be more than an element of truth in there.
I make my living from the Gospel. I know the enormous dangers that there are in that. I have to watch my own motivation and soul. All I will say in this case is that surely the motivation for preaching the Gospel is that people will be saved. And how can they be saved if they do not listen? If I really care for the people and have more than a mechanistic view of preaching I will first of all want to get in a position where people will hear. Paul did not walk into the streets of Corinth, Ephesus and Athens and just start preaching at people. He went to places where he would get a hearing, the synagogue, the lecture hall of Tyrannus and the Areopagus. Yes, he experienced opposition and rejection, as we all will. But only after people listened to him. They rejected the message after they heard it. They did not reject the message because of the manner of the messenger.
It also does not help if you have a persecution complex or see yourself as a martyr. I get hate mail pretty well every day. There was a time, in my more immature days, when I would have been quite proud of this or at least taken it as a badge of honour. Now I just hate it, am depressed and sickened by it (especially when it comes from professing Christians as is sadly all too frequently the case- and ironically will be increased when some read this!). I feel immense sorrow for those who I have provoked or who just are so filled with hatred that they have to pour out their bile on someone they don’t really know. But in my view it has very little to do with me and rather more to do with the natural antipathy that many people have to the Gospel, or their frustrations and anger at many different things. There are a lot of hurt, angry, broken and confused people out there. We must not ourselves respond in like fashion when we experience some of that. The bottom line is that we should expect opposition and persecution but we should neither seek it nor necessarily regard it as a mark of faithfulness. Moreover in this case I have to again stress that by no stretch of the imagination could this be considered persecution. I find it a little depressing that much of the Christian media has focused on this case while it takes a secular magazine like The Spectator to show us where the real persecution is. Please read this –http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9041841/the-war-on-christians/
So where do we go from here? First of all lets not feed or exploit the fear and persecution complex that many Christians in this country have (take note Christian media and lobby groups) – this is not persecution. Secondly we need to fight the more important battles – the spiritual ones. Our weapons are the armour of the Spirit, not the weapons of this world. Thirdly we need to weep, pray and seek the Lord for the best possible ways that we can communicate the good news of Jesus in this day and age. And we must learn to believe the Bible. Why should we be surprised when non-Christians act like non-Christians? If we are persecuted let us both cry out ‘how long, O Lord, how long?’ and at the same time rejoice that we are counted worthy of suffering with Christ.
Can I also make a personal plea to Josh?
Repent: I mean it. It is good when we can admit our mistakes and errors. The Christian life is one of continual repentance. You got this one wrong, brother. If I were you I would go to the police and apologise for the attitude and the provocation, for refusing to do what they asked, for the recording and tell them that you accept you were guilty of breach of the peace. Go to the shopkeeper who was so upset and tell him that you are sorry for disturbing his business and that you hope he will forgive you and not reject the Gospel just because of the way it was conveyed. Go to the churches in Perth and apologise for giving cause for the name of God to be blasphemed amongst the ‘Gentiles’. Write to The Courier and apologise to the people of Perth and the police for bringing unnecessary opprobrium on them. That will transform everything.
Listen: Perhaps you do this already but it’s worth repeating anyway. Listen to what people are saying. Listen to the local culture. Mix amongst them. Hear the questions, the heartaches, the blasphemies, the joys and sorrows – and weep, and learn and love. Listen to the Lord. I’m sure you love his Word and desire to communicate it, but don’t presuppose that you already know all that is to be known from it. Let God communicate afresh to you every day the glorious gospel again and again. When that happens to you and I, we will be far better equipped to communicate the Good News.
Preach the Word: Continue to do open air preaching. You have a good voice for it. But find a suitable venue, get permission for an amplification system, take ‘rent-a-small-crowd’ from the church with you, have people handing out leaflets, don’t harangue people, learn to do dialogue, try music and drama and preach the word, in season and out of season. And when you are opposed don’t call down fire, don’t provoke to unnecessary wrath, be prepared to both persist and to shake the dust off your feet – and pray that the Lord will grant you the wisdom to know which one to do when. And I pray that God will richly bless your ministry and those of other faithful believers so that Perth, this ancient centre of Scotland will become a future centre of the Gospel in Scotland.
Rev. David Robertson is director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity and minister of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee. This article first appeared on his blog, The Wee Flea, and is used with permission.