Extremism, Prevent and Wilberforce

Ian Miller

Posted: 6 November 2015

"Extremism", British values and William Wilberforce

The following is an opinion piece written by Ian Miller to give thought to and help us reflect on our response to the debate on the proposed Extremism Bill. If you wish to view this article with full footnotes, please click here.

"Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." Genesis 9:6 (NIV, 1984)

"If to profess humanity to our fellow creatures, and to endeavour with zeal to carry into execution whatever measures lay in my power for promoting their welfare, were the hon. Gentleman's definition of fanaticism, I am afraid that I am a most incorrigible fanatic." William Wilberforce (1816)

If you are a Christian I hope you are an extremist. Before you ring the Government's 24 hour hotline 'Channel', let me explain. Jesus said that the most important commandment was to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself. Indeed he even said 'love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you'. This is the extremism required of followers of Jesus – the sort of extremism which characterised Jesus' life and motivated the lives of believers such as William Wilberforce. I hope therefore that you are this type of extremist – a 'good' extremist and not a 'bad' one.

That is the Government's difficulty. If you want to stop bad people, how do you create a definition which catches the baddies and not the goodies? "Extremism" as a word is morally neutral; it can be bad or good and so the word is not a sensible one to use. But if you choose to use it (as the coalition and this government does), how do you define it?

To deal with the threat of Islamic terrorists the coalition government developed a strategy which it calls "Prevent". This strategy has defined "extremism" as: "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas". As far as I am aware, this statement of British Values has not been voted on by Parliament.

If it is to work, this definition of "extremism" should enable us to work out who is a danger to our society and who is not; to sort out the bad from the good. The first thing to say is that there is a lot which is good about the British values identified. Law has been given to us by God in his grace to restrain the effects of the fall and the rule of law is important both for government and to limit government. Liberty equally has an important place in the Bible. The Bible does not prescribe forms of government but democracy was practised in the early church and can be justified as a good way of appointing and limiting governments. Vocal or active opposition to the rule of law, liberty and democracy could be a warning sign that someone might be a danger to our society.

There are however numerous difficulties with defining extremism in this way. First, it is very difficult to identify when someone is actually opposing liberty, democracy or the rule of law. At some point, one person's liberty can become another person's tyranny. When does law breaking become opposition to the rule of law? At what point does opposition to an election result become opposition to democracy? It is difficult to use an expression of ideals to identify those who are a threat.

The second problem lies in the words "mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs". The drafting is ambiguous. Is "mutual respect" a British value or are "respect and tolerance" meant to be read together?

I suspect, "mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs" are meant to be read together as one value. This gives rise to a troubling (third) problem. Every time anyone criticises the beliefs of ISIS fighters they may be failing to be tolerant of a different faith and belief. The same is true whenever someone takes issue with my belief that Jesus is the way, truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through him. Surely liberty and democracy and a strategy to prevent terrorism require us to have those discussions and to challenge one another's beliefs?

This brings me to one of the biggest omissions of all from the statement of values. At the heart of this fourth problem lies a failure of the stated British values to include any explicit reference to the intrinsic value of human life. As Christians this is of fundamental importance as the Bible tells us all people are made in God's image; indeed in Genesis 9 God makes it clear that taking the life of another human being made in God's image is tantamount to attacking God himself. The value of our lives is bestowed upon us by God and does not lie in what we believe. This is the foundation of our laws on offences against the person. It is the absence of recognition of the intrinsic value of life which characterises the terrorists, torturers, rapists and violent people the government seeks to stop. A 'Prevent' strategy based on the intrinsic value of every human being would be more effective in achieving the Government's aims and less likely to have the harmful and counter-productive side effects of the current strategy. The 'Prevent' strategy should seek to stop those whose ideas or beliefs include the use of force or violence to injure or coerce others.

William Wilberforce understood the intrinsic value of every human being – his understanding of it was at the heart of his campaign to abolish the slave trade. However he had trenchant views on other religions. Thus, for example, he attacked Hinduism, the caste system "and the practices of polygamy, infanticide and suttee, and the worshipping of gods who 'are monsters of lust, injustice, wickedness and cruelty'". The depth of Wilberforce's understanding of the value human life meant that his views on Hinduism remained topics for debate and would never have led him to cause harm, mistreatment or suchlike to any of its adherents. All he wanted was for them to hear about Jesus Christ – although he was clear that he was not advocating compulsory conversion to Christianity.

It comes down to this: if Jesus died and rose again to save those who trust in him on the day of judgment, it is worth telling others - atheists, Muslims, Hindus or any non-believer. Freedom to tell others, to speak the truth about Jesus, is essential – but that must mean others having equal opportunity to challenge our beliefs and to tell us about theirs. Parts of the Christian Faith are in fundamental respects at odds with other belief systems and faiths and therefore under the current "Prevent" strategy and the proposed bill to be published this autumn, if Christians articulate those differences, we risk being accused of not tolerating or respecting other faiths or beliefs and being branded "extremists" – even though we only want to use words to set out the claims of the gospel. Our liberty to tell the truth about Jesus is at stake. We must act now to persuade the government not to legislate in such a way as will make sharing the gospel that much harder and more costly.

Action : What can we do as Christian lawyers?

1. Follow the debate carefully.

2. When published read the Bill.

3. Raise these issues with your own local MP and contact Peers.

Prayer Point:

Bear in mind the words of, and pray in accordance with 1 Timothy 2:1-4.

Ian Miller is a barrister at 1 Chancery Lane and a trustee of the LCF. If you wish to view this article with full footnotes, please click here.