The judge who recently convicted two Christian pastors of religious vilification in Victoria found (among other things) that one of the pastors ridiculed Islamic teachings and traditions while conducting a public seminar on Islam. In his Summary of Reasons for Decision, Judge Higgins states: “Pastor Scot, throughout the seminar, made fun of Muslim beliefs and conduct. … Time and again this occurs and, on any view, produces a response from the audience at various times in the form of laughter.”1
Judge Higgins’s finding on the use of ridicule during the seminar came as a shock to those Christians who have sympathised with the two pastors in their three-year battle against the Islamic Council of Victoria, which has used the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act of Victoria to harass them for critiquing Islam. Like their biblical namesake, Daniel Scot and Danny Nalliah (whose church hosted the seminar) seemed to have been set up by cunning enemies using a law contrived to trap bold Christians. Then suddenly the judge shook Christian confidence in the two pastors. Laughter? Ridicule? Oh, could it be that the Daniels deserved to be in the lion’s den?
Sympathetic Christians instinctively sensed the damage done to the two pastors by the judge’s finding and they reacted in one of three ways.
Some Christians downplayed the finding. They contended that Christians and Christianity are routinely mocked in our society, and, apart from Christians, no one seems to care, so it is hypocritical to be concerned about mockery the moment it is directed towards Muslims. While the facts of this argument are true, the moral logic is not. It is a do-unto-others-what-they-do-unto-you logic, whereas Christianity requires a do-unto-others-what-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you logic.
Other Christians disagreed with the judge’s finding. For example, Jenny and Peter Stokes of Salt Shakers attended the seminar run by Pastor Scot, and they claim that the judge is mistaken in his finding: “We know first hand what he [Pastor Scot] said and how he said it—at no time did Pastor Scot ‘make fun of Muslim beliefs and conduct’ as was suggested by Judge Higgins. Daniel Scot stated many times during the seminar that we were to love Muslims and understand their culture in order not to be insensitive to them or their religion.”2
Still other Christians lamented the judge’s finding concerning the pastor’s fun-making. For example, in an article deploring the conviction of the pastors because of the implications for free speech generally and Christian evangelism particularly, David Palmer and Allan Harman state: “If it is true that Pastor Scot has made fun of Muslims’ beliefs and conduct, then we agree that such action is truly reprehensible and an embarrassment to every fair-minded Christian.”3
My own reaction when I first read Judge Higgins’s comments about Pastor Scot’s levity was one of alarm. Like Palmer and Harman, I felt that ridicule of Islam is wrong, whether or not its attribution to Pastor Scot is right. For the first time since the case began, I felt a little uncomfortable supporting the pastors.
Then I began to reflect on the matter. Is there really no place in public debate for irony, ridicule and derision? Are sarcasm, satire and scorn always out of bounds for Christian apologists and commentators? May we never laugh at anyone or anything?
Pondering these questions led me to wonder if the Bible held any examples of scoffing and laughter—good examples, that is. And as I pondered this, four examples came to mind.
Consider the example of Elijah and the priests of Baal. 1 Kings 18 records how, in an effort to turn the hearts of the Israelites back to the Lord, Elijah challenged 450 prophets of Baal to a contest. Each side agreed to sacrifice a bull, lay it on an altar and call upon their god/God to set fire to it: “and the God who answers by fire, he is God” (v.24). The prophets of Baal went first. They prepared the sacrifice “and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no one answered” (v.26). Then “at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’” (v.27). Elijah mocked them, the Bible tells us, and he did so with biting sarcasm.
Consider the example of Isaiah and the idol-makers. Isaiah notes that a man who makes an idol cuts down a tree; “he takes a part of it and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread; also he makes a god and worships it, he makes it a graven image and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over the half he eats flesh, he roasts meat and is satisfied; also he warms himself and says, ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!’ And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol; and falls down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for thou art my god!’” (Isaiah 44:15-17; cf Jeremiah 10:1-15). Isaiah ridicules both the futility of idols and the stupidity of those who make and worship them. He makes fun of idols and idolatry.
Consider the example of the Almighty and the rebels. In Psalm 2, King David notes how the nations and their rulers conspire together “against the LORD and his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’” In response, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.” The Lord laughs and scoffs at those who think they can successfully rebel against him.
Consider the example of Paul and the Corinthians. Hurt by their criticism and riled by their gullibility, Paul tells the Christians at Corinth: “For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if a man makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!” (2 Corinthians 11:19-21). Paul’s remarks consist of blunt irony and biting sarcasm. He used a similar technique and tone in his first letter in an effort shake the Corinthians from their conceit: “Already you are filled! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! … We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute” (1 Corinthians 4:8, 10).
Although they differ from each other in nature and intent, collectively these examples establish that, on occasion, satire and sarcasm may legitimately be used in Christian discourse. It is sometimes permissible to make fun of something or someone.
It is worth noting that the mockery of Elijah and Isaiah is directed towards other religions. Indeed, they ridicule not only the beliefs but also the believers of other religions. This fact is especially pertinent in the case of Pastor Scot. Could it be, then, that Pastor Scot (even if unwittingly and unwisely) was simply following the example of the prophets of the Lord? Could it be that their example was his authorisation to use ridicule to expose the ridiculous and the ruinous in order to safeguard the people of God?
Now, I do not wish to encourage Christians to resort to ridicule. That is not the purpose of my essay. Nor is that my personal practice, as anyone acquainted with my writing and/or preaching can attest. I usually approach issues in a sober and measured way. I believe that 1 Peter 3:15 details the best method of approach for Christians involved in apologetics and/or evangelism: “Always be prepared to make a defence to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). As a general rule, Christian discussion and debate should be characterised by a courteous delivery and a humble demeanour.
I repeat, I do not wish to encourage Christians to resort to ridicule. Rather, I wish simply to point out that ridicule is not always wrong. On the contrary, it is sometimes appropriate to laugh at the laughable, scoff at the stupid, poke fun at the pretentious and deride the deplorable. And if this is true in principle, then it may be true in the particular case of Pastor Scot.
So then, if Pastor Scot did make fun of Muslim beliefs in the course of his seminar, it need not be a cause of disgrace for him, nor need it be a cause of embarrassment for us.
1. Judge Higgins, Vice President, Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, Human Rights Division, Summary of Reasons for Decision, VCAT Reference No. A392/2002, 17 December 2004, point 4, page 2. Available at: www.vcat.vic.gov.au/CA256902000FE154/Lookup/decisions/$file/islamic_council_of_victoria_v_catch_the_fire_ministries.pdf. (The same statement is also made in Judge Higgins’s complete Reasons for Decision, VCAT Reference No. A392/2002, 22 December 2004, point 383, page 134. Available at: www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/vic/VCAT/2004/2510.html.)
2. “Statements by Judge Higgins about Pastor Daniel Scot”, emailed from Salt Shakers late December 2004.
3. David Palmer and Allan Harman, “Is this religious persecution?”, On Line Opinion, 21 January 2005. Available at: www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=2956.