God's Word for today

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Tramped upon for exercising freedom of speech

Eish - it's true what Jenny told me once last year - when you put your head above the parapet, you risk being taken out by a sniper's bullet.

The problem that I am currently facing is caused by a number of factors.  Firstly, I wear my heart on my sleeve - if something bugs me or piques my curiosity, I need to raise questions.  It's not that I'm attacking anyone personally - I genuinely want to understand.  Secondly, I tend to express myself a lot more clearly in written form than in speech, which means that a lot of what goes through my mind ends up being written down somewhere or posted onto some or other online forum.

One of the dangers of committing one's thoughts to writing, rather than simply expressing them verbally, is that one's thoughts are then preserved for posterity.  You cannot claim that you never used the words in question, or quoted out of context, since your written words are there in black and white for all the world to see.

It was such a post, or - more specifically - a response to such a post that has caused me much dismay at the moment.  Allow me to explain.  Some time ago (over two years ago, in fact) I posted a piece on this blog about the way we "do" Church, with all our traditions, foibles, stand-up-here-and-sit-down-there antics, and speculated what it would be like to observe such goings-on through the eyes of a first-time visitor.  This, coupled with the fact that I am an English-speaker who is training for ministry in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual church, has set the stage for what happened tonight.

This week we have had some American visitors from Duke Divinity School in North Carolina coming to spend a few days with us at the seminary.  The last time I looked, the USA was a largely English-speaking country, although Spanish is also fairly widely spoken (particularly among the Hispanic community).  As the old Bill Cosby joke puts it, "Americans shouldn't feel inferior becouse they only speak one language.  It's not like in Europe where you can drive for 20 minutes or half an hour and find yourself in a different country with a different language - in the United States, you can drive for eight days and not encounter another language!"

Enter the Seminary, which is a multi-lingual, multi-cultural community located in the heart of a country (South Africa) that has 11 official languages among countless others that are spoken.  And with no disrespect to our African languages, chances are that Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho are not that widely spoken in the US!

So last night we had a worship service in our chapel, conducted in our multitude of languages (as we generally do) - and I had a concern that some of the proceedings were conducted in languages other than English, without adequate explanations for the benefit of our American guests.  Given that we are preparing ourselves to be ministers, and bearing in mind the background of my original post, I shared some thoughts about this on our internal forum at SMMS.

Lo and behold, tonight I return home from a wonderful meal with the Americans and a number of fellow seminarians, full of the joys of life, and with all this boundless energy I decided that seeing as my wife and son have already gone to bed, I would quickly check my e-mails and have a short squizz at the forum before settling in for a couple of hours of work - only to find that someone has responded to my post in the form of a vicious and hurtful personal attack, accusing me of "hate speech" and racism.

Granted, I know I can be an irritating questioning so-and-so at times.  Well, okay - most of the time!  In fact, my mother once told me I was born with a question on my lips - I promptly asked her what that question was!  And I also know that when it comes to issues that rattle my cage a bit, I'm seldom at a loss for words.  But I'm not aware of ever having attacked anyone personally, used hate speech, or been racist in any of my writings - and if I have, please send me the relevant links with your reasons for thinking otherwise, and I'll quickly and humbly apologise.

So what am I getting at here?  I guess it's about tolerance and mutual respect.  It's about exercising free speech and allowing other's the space to do likewise.  It's about "always playing the ball - never the man".  And ultimately, when we engage with one another, we learn more about one another, learn from one another, and come to understand one another better.


Fat Prophet said...

I can not see how you can be accused of hate speech and racism by raising what I believe to be a valid point.
In my experience of going to a Welsh speaking chapel on a number of occasions they have always been aware that some of us did not speak Welsh and ensured that they explained (where necessary) what was going on in English. They also did their sermon in both Welsh and English and changed two of the hymns so that we didn't sing them all in Welsh.
I really do think this meant that we emjoyed the service far more than if it had been totally in Welsh.
We had previously been to the parish church where the service was in English but was sung matins and we hadn't got a clue what was going on - but sadly no assistance from the front was forthcoming.

Steven Jones said...


I'm glad you raised the Welsh example - it means you understand where I'm coming from. However, as I work through this whole issue, I'm coming to understand how sensitive issues of language and culture can be - although having been part of a Welsh male voice choir, I can also appreciate how touchy the Welsh can be ablut language at times!

Given South Africa's histor, unfortunately good intentions are too easily interpreted through "racist" filters. Ironically, it seems that the Church is lagging behind the world on this one - I certainly never encountered as much racial tension in the corporate world as I have since entering ministry.

The reality, though, is that we are not all the same - we can never be one, homogenous culture. For instance, my 12 year-old son will dance at the drop of a hat, whereas you couldn't get me to dance if you paid me - and we are of the same flesh and blood! This means that one needs to ask questins in order to understand the "other side" - and I need to acknowledge that such questions may be uncomfortable and threatening to some.

Thanks for your input.


Fat Prophet said...

Hi Steve,
obviously I am not aware of the reality of life where you are but I do believe that to some degree over here in Britain there is a great amount of silliness when it comes to the whole race issue.
There has been quite a thing in recent weeks saying that the police are banning the wearing of England shirts in public houses - the general comments say it is because they might be offensive to other people - I think the reality if it were true is that they are trying to reduce the yobbish behaviour that sometimes goes with the 'football fan'.
I do believe that the question you raise is much broader than just the language issue - I went to a funeral at a Roman Catholic Church some years ago and hadn't got a clue what was going on, didn't know when to sit or stand and felt very awkward. The second one I went to at a different Catholic church I was given a little book that had pictures of what to do at the various stages.
I worry about baptisms at our church because a family who may never come to church (but great aunt Maud did) turn up and we stick them at the front and then wonder why when they don't sit or stand in the right places - a little guidance is always helpful.
In respect of questioning I think we should - all too often the status quo exists because someone thinks it is in the rules that we do things in a certain way. We have some folk who really believe a service should not last longer than an hour and they think it is in the rule book.
I will challenge and ask questions whenever I don't know or understand why something is done in a particular way and hopefully get others thinking about it.
I would say keep up the good work - it is always difficult sticking your head over the parapet but I believe Jesus would be doing exactly the same.