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20 April 2018

The silence of the lambs

The silence of the lambs

Dr Dave Landrum is director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance.

Last week Ealing Council voted to introduce a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) in order to enforce a 'buffer zone' around a Marie Stopes abortion clinic. The PSPO was put place to stop a group of Christians (Roman Catholic) who, for more than 20 years, had stood in silent prayer near the clinic.

In our increasingly therapeutic and illiberal culture, the mere presence of these very peaceful people now appears to represent a form of harassment and intimidation with the PSPO proceeding despite no charges, evidence or arrests. Instead, it is motivated by the ideological agenda of a campaign group. 

As we have seen with our Both Lives Matter campaign in Northern Ireland, the issue of abortion raises strong emotions – as it should. After all, quite apart from the psychological and physical impact on the would-be parents, it is literally a matter of life and death. Even so, what is exceptional about the Ealing situation is what the use of PSPO's may represent for our freedoms. Freedom of speech, freedom of protest, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and what it means to live in a 'free society' are all tested by this move to shut down those who wish to peacefully and lawfully protest – even in silence. 

The freedom to protest is important for Christians because, in our fallen world, we have always and will always be compelled to buck the trend and stand against the tide of the prevailing culture. Indeed, for evangelicals, dissent is part of our DNA and we have an illustrious history of vocal protest. On the basis of Augustine's premise that 'an unjust law is no law at all' like Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, every generation has a responsibility to speak 'truth to power'. On the basis that our gospel freedoms are essential for God's mission and benefit everyone in society, every generation has a responsibility to speak up. In many ways this is what it means to be the image of Christ in the world – after all, amongst other things, Jesus was a political figure, a firebrand whose frequent and relentless public attacks on the authorities no doubt contributed to His persecution. 

That said, as we follow His example we need to be careful that protest does not become our default position. More importantly, in today's society, we really need to be careful to avoid becoming just another self-designated victim group – competing for our rights against all others, offended by all views and comments that challenge our worldview or lifestyle, and seeking special status or protection under the law. This is surely the position of those seeking to enforce the so called 'safe zone' in Ealing.

What's unusual in this situation is that the reaction is not being provoked by words of protest but by the silent presence and prayers of the protestors. Christ was silent when questioned by Pilate: 'He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.' (Isaiah 53:7). Similarly, the gentle activism in Ealing demonstrates the power of restraint, how an absence of words can sometimes bring an extraordinary depth of conviction. 

On the basis that there is 'a time to be silent and a time to speak' (Ecclesiastes 3:7), let's be challenged to ask ourselves, and God, the question: 'where and when do I need to speak up, and where and when should my witness be quiet?' And let's pray about this disturbing turn of events in Ealing, where the silence is deafening.

Photo by Nicholas Gercken on Unsplash