Should street preachers be arrested?

Context recently reported on Toronto street preacher David Lynn, who continues to await charges following his arrest last June for disturbing the peace. He had taken a megaphone to the Church-Wellesley area of his city, a centre of LGBTQ+ identity, and loudly proclaimed his allegiance to Jesus.

What else he proclaimed isn’t evident in the media record, so far as I can determine. But whatever he said was sufficiently provocative as to arouse an agitated crowd and finally prompt the police to arrest him. So without offering any opinion on Mr. Lynn’s situation, let’s leave him to the eventualities of the Ontario court system for now (the charges have been put off until August 7) and consider more generally what is at stake.

Freedom of speech and freedom of religion clearly obtain here. Canadians historically have prized both freedoms and they, like other basic freedoms, cannot be abrogated without sufficient cause.

Public preaching also has a long history in the Christian church, whether one considers the preaching (and loud bands) of the Salvation Army in the slums of London, George Whitefield and John Wesley in the previous century scandalizing their proper Anglican peers by preaching to poor folk at their country crossroads, wandering missionaries bringing their message to villages throughout the world, or the apostles themselves proclaiming their message in ancient Judea and Galilee.

Those preachers, however, were often arrested for disturbing the peace. The apostles themselves sometimes preached explicitly against other people’s religions, thus cutting into the profitable trade in expensive idols fostered by local chambers of commerce. In their very first public sermon (Acts 2), they told their fellow Jews in Jerusalem that the recently crucified Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, their long-promised Messiah—to the great discomfiture of the authorities who had thought they had finally gotten rid of the Jesus threat.

 So there is in fact a considerable tradition of Christians preaching publicly and then paying the predictable price for, indeed, disturbing the peace.

What about nowadays in our Canadian cities, however? Several considerations should be borne in mind by those pondering the ethics of street preaching.

First, in a society blessed with the printing press, television, and the Internet, it’s hard to make a case for public preaching on the ground that Canadians otherwise won’t hear the gospel. That case could be made at other places and times, but hardly so today.

Second, a Christian can intentionally disturb the peace only in the service of the greater good of helping people become disciples of Jesus Christ. The Bible tells Christians to live peaceably with their neighbours (Romans 12:18), to be people who actually make (more) peace, rather than lessen whatever peace obtains (Matthew 5:9).

The point of public preaching isn’t merely to sound off, as if the preacher scores points with God for bravely annoying his neighbours with Christian propaganda. No, the point of public preaching is the same point of all Christian activity: to please God and to help the neighbour.

So if one’s style of preaching—loud and confrontational—or content of preaching—denunciation of people’s sins—can be predicted merely to arouse fury, then such preaching meets the condemnation of Jesus himself (Matthew 7:6). The Christian is not supposed to hurl the gospel at the world like a stone, but he or she is to offer it as a gift in the loving hope that at least some will receive it with gratitude.

The point of preaching is to help. And if it manifestly isn’t helping, it’s manifestly wrong.

Third, we all need to play by the same rules. If we Christians would object (as I would) to a Muslim or Buddhist preacher standing on the sidewalk in front of a church on a Sunday morning to harangue everyone on his or her way in to worship, then why would we treat others the way we don’t want to be treated ourselves (Matthew 7:12)?

Thinking that you’re right and that other people ought to listen to your message is perfectly fine. Lots of people think that way about lots of things, from religion to politics to favourite restaurants or rock bands. But if one’s intention is actually to persuade, to successfully transfer an idea and enthusiasm to the other person rather than merely incite him or her to defensive rage, then one has to pick the message and the medium accordingly.

And if you don’t, and you end up getting arrested for disturbing the peace of your neighbours, then you cannot legitimately wrap yourself in the mantle of martyrdom.

No, you’re just being a pest.

11 I like it
3 I don't like it

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).