Christopher Smith reflects on freedom of speech and the proclamation of the Resurrection
It sometimes amuses me to reflect on the fact that, although I have the personality type of a Labrador, I have ended up with a cat as a pet. Perhaps it would have suited me to be on the receiving end of the unconditional affection of a dog, but then I’d still have mice, I suppose. And cats are not incapable of showing affection, even if it is evident that Bella is at her most affectionate when she is hungry or senses that there might be a cat-treat available if she puts that ‘cute’ look on.
Even so, only someone with too much time on his or her hands would try to train a cat, whereas a character called Mark Meechan, who has fallen foul of the Communications Act 2003, has trained his girlfriend’s dog to beg for food by lifting one paw as if making a Nazi salute, and to come to him on the words, ‘Gas the Jews’. Now you are probably as repelled as I am by that phrase, but we might want to ponder some aspects of this unusual piece of pug-training for which Mr Meechan has been convicted.
The Communications Act 2003 is one of those pieces of legislation beloved of modern governments that slips some minor provisions in with a more substantial one. In this case, the substantial provision is the setting up of the regulatory body called the Office of Communications, OFCOM. But tucked into the middle of the Act are some new criminal offences. Section 125 makes it illegal for you to piggyback on your neighbour’s internet connection so that you don’t have to pay for your own, and section 127 (which is what has done for Mr Meechan) creates an offence of ‘Improper use of public communications network’ (sic), including sending ‘by means of a public electronic communications network’ any ‘message or other matter’ deemed by the court to be ‘grossly offensive’ or ‘indecent, obscene or menacing’. The maximum penalty is six months imprisonment or a fine at the top of the scale in the Magistrates’ Court, which was until recently £5,000, but is now unlimited.
Why should any of this bother us? I myself have no social media accounts on which to publish such material (a state of affairs born of inertia, but one with which I am increasingly content), and I can’t imagine any of our readers consciously setting out to be grossly offensive. Even so, matters of interpretation can spring surprises on the unwary, and, as Christians, we have a message which many down the centuries have found challenging. It is a message about a man who was crucified and who rose again for our salvation, who will come to judge, who will separate sheep from goats, and who is the only one through whom anyone can come to the Father. It is a message which any number of people claim to find grossly offensive, but we keep proclaiming it, not only in church, but also through any medium to which we can gain access. The old-fashioned way was that of the street preacher, and we have already seen cases in which they have been prosecuted under recent legislation. Although they appealed successfully against their convictions, Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell were found guilty under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 two years ago, having got into some heated debate with a group who had heckled them, and with whom they engaged in debate about Islam. According to the arresting officer, the fact that the pair were ‘causing a disturbance’ trumped their right to free speech.
Heaven only knows what that bobby would have made of the events of Easter day, when Jesus caused a disturbances that changed the whole of creation. ‘Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time’. This is the creed of the Church in her earliest years, so that by the time St Ignatius of Antioch was being taken to his death in about the year 100, he was able to state with confidence that only the objective, bodily resurrection of Jesus ‘could explain the transformation of craven and confused men into martyrs’. For this is an event without analogy, the Event of events, the central moment of all history: an event not in some abstract form, but in a specific place, at a specific time. Here is the most radical change imaginable: from eternal death to eternal life. And it leaves its mark on the body of Jesus, who carries his wounds into eternity. No wonder the disciples were all of a dither: what could possibly have prepared them for all that? This wounded glory is the glory of which Jesus spoke in his prayer to the Father at the Last Supper, and only when that glorification has taken place can the Holy Spirit be sent to inaugurate and sustain the life of the Church.
And the wounded Christ cannot cease to have the utmost solidarity with his wounded Church, and surely, this is what keeps our persecuted brothers and sisters strong in the faith during their trials. The risen Christ knows what they are experiencing from his own experience as the wounded and risen Christ, sent by the Father, who sends the Holy Spirit to sustain his Church. Easter does not lead away from the cross, but is eternally referring back to it.
I cannot muster up much admiration for Mr Meechan, wanting to make his girlfriend’s dog less loveable, but his right to freedom of expression is also ours, and we have shocking things to say. We have never imagined a time when we would be forbidden from saying them, but if we do not continually exercise that right, we will lose it.