A Christian Perspective On The Blasphemy Referendum

This is a guest post written by Jonny Grant, pastor of Carrigaline Baptist Church

This coming Friday, the 26th October, we will have the opportunity to re-elect or vote for a new President. On the same day we, the citizens of Ireland, are being asked to vote on a proposal to change the Constitution of Ireland in relation to the issue of blasphemy.
At present, the Constitution says that publishing or saying something blasphemous is an offence punishable under law. Article 40.6.1 in full says:

The State guarantees liberty for the exercise of the following rights, subject to public order and morality:
i) The right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions. The education of public opinion being, however, a matter of such grave import to the common good, the State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.

The proposal is to remove the word blasphemous from the constitution.

So what is blasphemy, and should the word stay or be removed?

While the constitution itself does not define blasphemy, the legal definition of blasphemy is contained in the Defamation Act of 2009: That Act says that a person publishes or utters something blasphemous if they;

‘Publish or say something that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and intend to cause that outrage.’

In May 2017, following a complaint, the Gardaí investigated the comedian and TV personality Stephen Fry for blasphemy. In an interview with Gay Byrne, Fry described God as: ‘capricious’, ‘mean-minded’ and ‘stupid’ for allowing so much suffering in the world. The investigation was dropped and no charges were brought after Gardaí failed to find a substantial number of adherents outraged by Fry’s comments. To date, under the current legislation, no one in Ireland has been charged with blasphemy.

Personally, as a Christian, I don’t have a problem with Stephen Fry saying what he said. He put into words what many feel about God, whether believers or atheists. I may come to a different conclusion to Fry, but I respect his views and believe he, along with anyone else, have the right to express freely their convictions and opinions. In fact, according the the Defamation Act of 2009, if someone is accused of blasphemy;

“…it is a defence if they can prove that a reasonable person would find literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value in what they published or said.”  

It appears then, that the law cancels itself out. As a result, we now have on our statute books a blasphemy offence for which no one will be convicted. It’s a sham. 

So should we keep or remove the word ‘blasphemy’ in the constitution?
It appears that if we keep it, it will make no difference whatsoever. If anyone argues that they are offended, the other can simply argue back that they expressing an opinion. So why remove it? Apart of making things clearer, it is another step in the liberalisation of our state. Removing the word ‘blasphemy’ is an attempt to remove anything religious from the public space. As a country we have grown up, we no longer need religious opinion. We don’t want people with a religiously informed mind making any contribution and causing a stir by being offended. We have simply moved on!

So do I vote ‘Yes’ to remove the word blasphemy or do I vote ‘No’ to keep the word blasphemy? Three things for consideration:

First, I think we should have the freedom to express our opinions and beliefs without fear of arrest or charge, religious or non-religious. As a Christian that does not mean I set out to offend or cause offence, instead: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4v6).

Second, we should not depend upon the state to protect our religious freedom. The laws of the land may protect our right to talk about Jesus Christ, but a day may also come when the laws of the land forbid talking about Jesus, as is the case in many countries today. In such circumstances while we submit to our government (Rom 13v1), and pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2v1-2), where laws of the land contradict the law of Christ we always follow Christ, like Peter and John in the book of Acts:

“Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4v18-20).

Third, we should expect to be slandered and insulted, but we do not take offence. Peter reminds us: “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you….if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4v14, 16). I do not take offence, rather I rejoice that I am a Christian and belong to him. I do not need the law to protect my sensitivities. I bear the name of Christ!

I am not going to say which way you should vote. I do not think this is a right or wrong issue. Voting yes or no does not contradict scripture. So you must vote according to your Scripture-informed conscience.

A Blasphemy Law Enforced

While no one in Ireland has been charged with blasphemy, we do have the true account of one person who was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death – His name was Jesus. All through his ministry on earth Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, making himself to be God in the flesh. The religious authorities were incensed:

“The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?”  “He is worthy of death,” they answered.’  (Matthew 26v63-66)

Jesus was put to death, crucified on a cross. His crime? Claiming to be God. The ironic truth is that Jesus is God. He proved it not just in his miracles but through his resurrection from the grave three days after he died. You see, there is only one we can truly blaspheme against and that is the Lord Jesus Christ – the God/Man. The problem is that we have all cursed God and turned our backs on him. We are all blasphemers, and that is an offence to God, punishable by eternal separation from God – Hell itself. Now that is an offence to us!

But as Jesus was charged and sentenced; he did not become aggressive. Instead, he prayed that his accusers would be forgiven. Jesus did not call on the powers of heaven to destroy, he committed himself to his Father and died for you and for me, so that we could be forgiven of our blasphemy – so that we might live for him. How can we take offence of that!

By Jonny Grant

One thought on “A Christian Perspective On The Blasphemy Referendum”

  1. Thanks for this post. It is an interesting take on the blasphemy referendum from someone who is clearly approaching the issue from a very different starting point than my own (I am both an atheist and a secularist). I have two comments

    Firstly, I was surprised that the second of your “three points for consideration” appears to reflect an indifference as to whether or not religious people should be able to profess their faith without persecution by the state. Whereas I can understand that a person committed to their faith may wish to assert their willingness to suffer for their beliefs, it is surely not defensible to be indifferent to the possibility that others might be so-persecuted.
    All over the world, there are people suffering under blasphemy laws. Irish blasphemy laws may be very different in terms of their practical effect but in principle they are very similar. As a point of principle, Ireland’s laws against blasphemy should be removed.

    Secondly, I have to take issue with the claim that “[r]emoving the word ‘blasphemy’ is an attempt to remove anything religious from the public space” and that the Ireland of today “[doesn’t] want people with a religiously informed mind making any contribution and causing a stir by being offended”
    Across the world, blasphemy laws do less to preserve a space for religion than to preserve a privileged space for the dominant religion – one in which it is held to be exempt from criticism or contradiction. Anywhere blasphemy laws have practical effect, they are almost always used to suppress the views of religious minorities.
    True secularism seeks to make a public space that is safe for those of all religions and none. In so doing, it must occasionally roll-back the privileges that have been enjoyed by the traditionally-dominant faith (in an Irish context that is Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular).
    To remove our blasphemy laws is not to attack religion in public life. Instead, it is an attempt to protect the rights of everyone to say the things they hold to be true (and that includes professions of faith) regardless of whether or not they offend the religious sensibilities of the majority.

    Like

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