Perhaps it was just a sign of unbridled authoritarianism in Whangārei. Probably not. But even if it did feature no more than a couple of over-enthusiastic Whangārei District Council employees and a solitary police officer in supporting roles, the treatment of a street preacher in the city is alarming.
We don't see street preachers as much as we used to. Kaitaia once had them on a Friday night, but they never attracted much of an audience. Most people just walked past or around them without breaking stride, and they were never silenced by the council or the law. Perhaps we were all a little more mature in those days.
Some things haven't changed. This public sermon in Whangārei attracted an audience that at no stage needed the fingers of a second hand to be counted, most of those who did stop and watch seeming to be more interested in the interaction between the preacher and the council staff, then the preacher and the cop, than they were in the warning that if they were sinning, and did not change their ways, they were destined for the "lake of fire", whence they would be despatched, upon "kicking the bucket", like a "greased bullet", and that turning to Jesus Christ offered the only escape from "God's rubbish dump".
The preacher defended his public admonition with the Bill of Rights, which he said gave him the right to speak, and the argument that the council did not have the power to impose bylaws contrary to that guarantee of freedom of speech. The Bill of Rights, he said, gave him the right to offend people. Many would agree with him, arguing that the law does not provide anyone with a right not to be offended.
And while he offered the opportunity to be offended to almost all and sundry — including homosexuals, feminists, whores, whoremongers, drunkards, dope smokers, liars and murderers — only three members of the public took issue with him. One eventually sat down nearby with his guitar, after a strange display of hopping from foot to foot, presumably waiting for the preacher to finish so he could become the centre of attention, while another was clearly agitated but missed the opportunity to say why, apart from admonishing the preacher for "shoving it down everyone's throat".
This Bible-quoting evangelist might well have been doing his best to "shove it" down people's throats, the point being that most of those who passed by weren't in the least interested. They just kept walking. As they were entitled to do. But three chose to stop, chose to listen, and chose to be offended. No one whose image is recorded in the video was compelled in any way to stay rooted to the spot and listen to the lurid description of the fate that awaited them.
The third person to take exception to the message, a woman, accused the preacher of being racist and sexist. Well, it takes all sorts. Perhaps the warning that feminists were bound for God's lake of fire offended her, but even if she found that sexist, she had no grounds whatsoever for claiming racism. At no point in the video does this man refer to any of those in peril of eternal damnation by race or creed, only by the behaviours that he quoted from the Bible as unacceptable to God, unless they repent.
But who would have expected a more rational response? If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, claims of racism and sexism are the first refuge of those who do not have the intellectual firepower to mount any kind of argument on any issue but object to others having their say because, for reasons they can't articulate, they don't agree. And they don't choose to simply stop listening.
The best this woman could do, apart from resorting to claims of racism and sexism, was to ask why other people had to listen to "this bullshit", which she and others didn't, and to ask him why he couldn't be open-minded. That too seems to be a growing phenomenon. Those with whom one does not agree are routinely dismissed as closed-minded, however cogent their argument might be. If it is unpalatable it obviously coming from a closed mind.
Anyway, the council staff did as the preacher suggested and called the police, the latter expressing confidence that the police would know the law and would allow him to continue. He was wrong. The cop who turned up to quell this non-riot told him that complaints had been received — judging by the video that seemed unlikely, unless he was referring to the council employees, who showed no evidence of offence being taken, but might not have been used to their authority being questioned — and that, the Bill of Rights notwithstanding, if he did not desist he would be arrested for disorderly behaviour.
At that point, sadly, the preacher conceded defeat — the court case would have been interesting — but warned the cop that he would be hearing from his lawyer.
Shortly before the police arrived he had moved his camera from the pole it was attached to, the council staff having told him that said pole was public property and could not be used in that way. So he removed it. Just as well, perhaps. One would not wish to see laws prohibiting the attaching of cameras to publicly-owned poles getting out of hand. That way lies anarchy.
At the end of the day, what this man was saying didn't differ greatly from what generations of fire and brimstone sermons used to promise, that sinners could expect to burn for eternity. It's what the Bible says. Jesus warned that there was no way to the Father except through Him. We can all choose to believe that or not, but is it really a criminal offence to quote that warning in a public place? More fundamentally, is it really a criminal offence, despite the protection of freedom of speech provided by the Bill of Rights, to offend anyone who doesn't believe it?
At one point the preacher asked if the council employees would rather he was a gang member sitting in that same spot smoking dope. He didn't get an answer, but if he had it would no doubt have been in the affirmative.
Whatever one thinks of the fate that awaits sinners, surely we must defend the right of those who believe in the Bible to preach it? This man made it clear that he was doing what the Bible obliged him to do, warning sinners of what awaited them if they didn't change their ways. It will be a very sad day, and an alarming one, if the reaction to this piece of street theatre turns out to be the new law of the land.
One would hope that a couple of Whangārei District Council staff and a solitary cop grossly exceeded their authority, and that their ill-informed display of intolerance is not indicative of how either organisation actually functions. If it is, then the same standards must apply across the board.
Some take offence at the sight of school teachers protesting about their pay and conditions. Some take offence at people occupying land. Are they too to be banned? Would the council employees have scuttled off to find a policeman if the preacher had been protesting against a lack of action to save us from climate change?
Or, as the person who posted the video to YouTube asked, would they have acted as they did had the preacher been a Muslim?
Someone said recently, apropos Israel Folau, that if Christ was living in Australia today he would be unemployable. He would have His work cut out in Whangārei too. Hopefully He will get a council permit for His second coming.