Interesting Rowan Williams apology: And important, too

Let us return, for a moment, to that interesting quote the other day from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams. You may recall that he said, concerning public debates in the West about religion:

“Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country or the United States talk about persecution of Christians or rather believers.

“I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times. We’re made to feel as if we’re idiots — perish the thought! But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up.”

Quite a vivid quote, that.

So, thinking about this journalistically, where is the bright-red line in the public square between “discrimination” or “hostility” and behavior that can truly be called “persecution”?

This is actually a pretty good question, in an era in which journalists are facing an increasing number of debates about how to cover hot-button topics — think Health & Human Services mandates, for starters — that are linked to debates about basic First Amendment rights, such as free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion.

It is also interesting to note that Williams has issued a rather unusual clarification, or public apology, in a letter to the editor at The Guardian, about the fierceness of his recent statement. Here it is:

In suggesting that some people need to “grow up” before talking about the persecution of Christians in the UK or US, I had in mind those who offer what I think unduly sensationalised accounts of the situation — and, to a lesser extent, those in the public eye who have to put up with a certain amount of routine attack. I realise in retrospect how offensive the words might sound to those who suffer bullying for their convictions or whose faith presents them with real and painful dilemmas in their professional lives. I want to make it clear that I’d regard urging such people to “grow up” as insulting and insensitive to a degree, and apologise for giving any impression to that effect.

Rowan Williams
Magdalene College, Cambridge

I think it is particularly important that Williams mentioned disputes about employment and “bullying,” which could refer to bitter public debates about free speech and freedom of religion.

Now, some of this came up the other day in digital conversations about a recent GetReligion post by the Divine Mrs. MZ. You can see some of the feedback over on Twitter, of course.

Note, in particular, the exchanges between MZ and scholar Alan Jacobs, including:

This kind of thing happens on the religious and cultural left and the right. For example, are Russia’s new laws against the open promotion of gay rights really, on a moral or journalistic grid, really as important as gays being hanged under Islamist regimes? One is certainly government hostility, while the other is persecution under any dictionary definition.

Does that matter? Well, that depends on which Olympics you are preparing to cover, the games in Russia or in Qatar.

Meanwhile, if a conservative Christian street evangelist is arrested in England for proclaiming that the Bible says homosexual activity is sin, is that arrest “discrimination,” “government hostility” or “persecution”? I would vote, in that case, for official government hostility.

That arrest is not quite the same level of pain and bloodshed as police and soldiers standing by while mobs burn 50 churches. Just sayin’.

Still, this is a journalistic terminology debate worth having.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    The real value in this controversy in the media is that it reveals and puts a spotlight on liberal religious leaders-like Williams- who are oblivious to (and frequently even support) the “bullying’ and ridicule their own people suffer for taking traditional Christianity seriously.

    • tmatt

      Williams is a bit more complex than that. Give me an example in press coverage of him that backs your case.

    • Dingo Dongo

      How exactly does Williams support—frequently support!—the bullying of traditional Christians?

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    The very article Williams is apologizing for. He wouldn’t have written with such “fierceness” nor had to look back “in retrospect”, if he originally felt the bullying he now even admits in his apology does exist. So the printing of his article in the media, in my opinion, is a good thing and is quite revelatory.

  • Darren Blair

    To me, at least, the defining line between “hostility” and “persecution” is “Does the person in question have specific reason to believe that they are, or will be, in danger of life and limb due to their belonging to a specific group?”.

    For example, consider the aftermath of Proposition 8′s passage. While various pundits were quick to paint it as “persecution” of homosexuals, they were slow to recognize the individual acts of violence, vandalism, and terroristic threats that individuals and organizations (many of them religious) faced due to the backlash (including at least two anthrax scares).

    • Dingo Dongo

      A government that refuses to allow Jews to build temples isn’t putting them “in danger of life and limb”, but surely that counts as a clear case of persecution.

  • Echi Nwogu

    Those who suffer the least, make the most noise.

  • RayIngles

    Williams mentioned disputes about employment and “bullying,” which could refer to bitter public debates about free speech and freedom of religion.

    How do you know? Considering that his statements have already been subject to misinterpretation, maybe that interpretation should be subject to confirmation, too?

    • tmatt

      Thus the word COULD.

      • RayIngles

        Just inviting you to explain why you think Williams meant that in particular.

  • Nathan Duffy

    This seems really simple to me. Persecution has a fairly broad definition and so can enjoy a fairly broad usage. There are different degrees and levels of persecution, and the context of the usage generally reveals what degree it is: if a Catholic agency is suffering persecution visa vis being forced out of adoption biz because of refusing to adopt to married gays, they’re suffering real persecution. It makes no difference that they aren’t being burned alive at the stake. The left is intent on trivializing legitimate persecution of conservative Christians in the west, and does so by making the absurd claim that only full-blown martyrs suffer persecution. Straight up false. Nonsense.

    Also, persecution is literally defined as ‘suffering hostility esp. because of race or religious or political beliefs’. So the question “is it hostility or persecution?” makes virtually no sense. They are synonyms.

    • Dingo Dongo

      The question is whether mere contempt and ridicule counts as the sort of “suffering hostility” definitive of persecution. I mean, are UFO enthusiasts persecuted?

      • JoFro

        Is a black man being refused a meal at a diner because he is black suffering as much persecution as a black man being lynched by a racist mob?

  • JoFro

    That maybe due to the fact that those who suffer the most are usually dead before they can start making a noise!


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