An incident just this past fortnight in London got me thinking.
Making a long story short, a street preacher named Olu, near Southgate tube station in London was reported to the police for being ‘Islamophobic’. Reportedly (according to @CConcern) a Muslim member of the public took exception to what this elderly Nigerian street preacher was saying, called his Bible the equivalent of something that can be found in the words where bears go, and became threatening. The police arrived to move the street preacher along, he refused to move and they arrested him under the charge of breaching the peace. Apparently, he was also too loud, but one cannot speak quietly on a street corner and be heard.
After one of the policeman whipped the Bible out of the street preacher’s hand, he asked the policeman not to take his Bible, to which the policeman replied that he should have thought of it before being racist.
Leaving aside the question of whether the police or the street preacher could have handled the situation better, I tried to remember what it was like living in London for the 14 months that I was there.
It was 1999 going into 2000, a different time: Tony Blair was Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street, Austin Powers was only just getting to wow audiences with his wacky brand of risqué humour, ‘9/11’ wasn’t yet part of our jaded lexicon.
I think I get the British outlook: the humour, the pride in a common language and thousands of years of history. I never had a single encounter with a bobby on the beat that I can think of but the impression I get is that policing has changed between back then and now.
I don’t remember bumping into too many street preachers, but I do remember being in attendance at a market at Walthamstow – if memory serves. Without any self-consciousness, people were flogging their fruit and vegetables at the top of their lungs.
Stand on a street corner in Bellville on any given week-day and you will hear ‘guardtjies’ emitting similarly loud decibels as the taxis try to get customers. In any sense of the word, that would be considered disturbing the peace, much like this nameless street preacher at Southgate. And yet in Walthamstow, in those circumstances, it was perfectly okay.
It’s very much an issue of interpretation. However for this to have unfolded on a London street in the way that it did seems like a step in the wrong direction.
If I understand Brits at all, they are generally polite, love sports and dogs, appreciate a dry humour, don’t shy away from a moderate level of raunch, have an unfailing sense of fair play and standing up for the underdog, think religion to be a little strange, but nevertheless tolerate it as long as they can launch humour at what they call God-squadders:
“evangelical Christians whose members are generally thought to be too forceful in trying to persuade other people to believe as they do”
For what I interpret to be a mild embarrassment at religious things, Brits are generally tolerant I think of bumbling vicars and kindly priests. And even God-squadders.
British Christianity has also produced some of the most influential people in my life: Matt Redman, Richard Bewes and Paul Blackham. The British and Foreign Bible Society has spread the Gospel tirelessly. Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha Course has had a huge impact. Like a rubber ball that has been flung to the far corners of the world with the message of salvation for the rest of the world, the rest of the world has come bouncing back, like a rubber ball, to preach the gospel in London.
It’s a very pleasing symmetry.
Meanwhile, Olu didn’t get fazed, he was de-arrested and found his way back to the same spot at Southgate. But of course.