Back in the summer of 1983, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was allowed to leave South Africa to attend the World Council of Churches assembly in Vancouver, British Columbia. This was a major event, in large part because no one knew if the apartheid government would let him back into his homeland. During the WCC sessions, someone put forward a statement that drew connections between evangelism and cultural imperialism and raised questions about the need for public evangelism. Tutu went to a microphone and made an interesting remark which could be summed up as follows: If you want to know the status of free speech in a culture, study how the authorities handle public preachers and evangelists. One person's evangelist is another person's dangerous political activist.
I thought of that statement today when I was alerted, via a contact in Nairobi, about a disturbing event there. Here is the heart of the story, via the Associated Press.
Unidentified gunmen shot and killed one person, wounded two others and torched part of a Pentecostal church radio station during the broadcasting of a program that compared teachings of the Bible and the Quran, officials said Saturday.
Church leaders and government officials condemned the late Friday attack on Hope FM and warned Christians and Muslims not to let the raid spark a religious conflict in this East African nation.
"The government condemns this attack. It is a criminal act," government spokesman Alfred Mutua said after visiting some of the station's offices that were burnt. "We are asking religious leaders not to say words or preach words that would breed intolerance."
Once again, there is the rub. The email from Nairobi stressed that this was an evangelistic radio program and that, even worse, it featured a broadcaster who is a convert from Islam to Christianity. So, yes, this event may be linked to the same overarching problem as that painful episode in Afghanistan.
Now religious leaders are being asked to avoid "words that would breed intolerance."
This rasies plenty of questions. Is that the same thing as asking them to avoid speech that might offend? If so, the odds are good that Islamists would be horribly offended -- with good reason, under Sharia law -- by any attempts by an apostate Muslim to convert others to his new faith.
So the government is asking evangelists to shut up? Does this apply to Muslim evangelists as well as Christian evangelists? How will this shape free speech at other radio stations and in other public media? Are newspapers now supposed to avoid preaching or printing words that breed "intolerance"?
Yes, religious speech is at the heart of this case and the AP story is clear on that point.
"Kenyans must know the culprits and their motive," Anglican Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi said after visiting the station in a show of solidarity with the Pentecostal church.
"The station is for spreading the good news, and faith comes by hearing the word of God," Nzimbi said. "It is not right to go at the source of the news and commit violent acts."
Nevertheless, the fact that this fatal attack was unleashed against a radio station raises the bar.
I am glad that the Associated Press covered this story and that it was picked up, even in short reports, in a number of major newspapers. I hope the coverage continues.