The New Zealand Government is proposing changes to strengthen and clarify the protection of people from discrimination against aspects of their identity, such as ethnicity, religion, or sexuality. This has come after a review by the Ministry of Justice and the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack at Christchurch mosques on 15th March 2019. 

To quote the Minister of Justice, Hon Kris Faafoi:  

“Freedom of expression is an important value that this Government defends. It is enshrined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, alongside freedom from discrimination. An aim of these proposals is to better protect these rights, including the rights of people who are the targets of hate speech to express themselves freely.”1

Proposals like this are set up to invite response from the public, and this has been called for up until 6th August 2021. 

How might New Zealand Christians respond to these proposals? 

I have asked two New Zealand Baptists from two different Baptist churches to share their views with us to help stimulate and inform our own thinking. Five questions were asked which they each responded to within given word limits, they each provide two resources they recommend for further information, and finally they respond to each other’s responses. I hope this will help you pursue this topic further in your own local context. 

Jonathan Ayling is a former Ministerial and Parliamentary Advisor, and is the Campaign Manager for the Free Speech Union. He has postgraduate qualifications in both politics and theology, and travels and writes widely on public issues related to faith. He is a leader at Carterton Baptist Church where he preaches regularly.

Jonathan Robinson is the pastor of Musselburgh Baptist Church in Dunedin and a researcher at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago. He has previously pastored churches in both the United Kingdom and Auckland, and he completed a PhD in Theology (Otago) in 2020.

Information from the New Zealand Government on these proposals and how to submit your own response is online here.

1. In your own words briefly describe the government’s proposal

Jonathan Ayling: The Minister of Justice has released six proposals to amend New Zealand’s hate speech law which effectively achieve four things:
1. Increase the number of groups specifically protected under hate speech law (including trans, gender diverse, and intersex, and potentially religion and political views);
2. Move the primarily law related to “hate speech” from the Human Rights Act to the Crimes Act to highlight the increased significance of this law going forward;
3. Significantly increase the penalties for “hate speech”, by allowing for fines of up to $50,000 (previously $7,000) or up to three years in prison (previously 3 months);
4. Lower the bar substantially by changing the criteria for “hate speech”, which previously was effectively ‘incitement to violence’. It would now simply be ‘incitement to hatred’, which is defined as being insulting, or threatening, or abusive.

Jonathan Robinson: When 51 people were killed and 40 injured in Christchurch on the 15th March 2019 by a single gunman, it was clear that these people had been targeted because they were Muslims and that the gunman had been influenced and guided in his actions by white supremacist hate speech and ideology. Following this horrifying event, the New Zealand government seeks to extend the laws around hate speech, which presently only cover colour, race, ethnicity and nationality, to also include religious groups and sexual orientation. Further they seek to increase the range of speech which can be prosecuted, from inciting violence specifically to incitement or normalisation of hatred, and to include all forms of communication. Additionally, they seek to increase the maximum penalties for such speech from three months’ imprisonment or a $7,000 fine, to three years’ imprisonment or a $50,000 fine.

2. With being Christian in mind, what do you think is good about the proposal?

Jonathan Ayling: The Government’s proposals come, in part, as a response to the Royal Commission of Inquiry to the terrorist attack in Christchurch. While we can all agree with the intention to increase social cohesion, safety, and kindness for minorities, the proposed laws would in no way have hindered the Christchurch attack. Christians should take great care with their speech and opinions, and consider its impact on others. God forgive us for the carelessness and the absence of love that frequently defines our interactions. In our age, particularly in public forums like social media, basic civility, let alone kindness, has all but disappeared and these proposals seek to limit the detrimental impact of harmful speech.

Yet, beyond the supposed intention of these changes, there is little positive for Christians in these proposals. As is frequently noted, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. If Christians act more kindly or lovingly to others, simply because the law now demands it, that is an indictment on our character, a sad indication of our immaturity. Law is not the antidote of hate.

Jonathan Robinson: I commend the government on taking steps to combat the impact of hate speech on our society. As a Christian I note that under the proposed changes I would now become part of a group protected from hate speech. The government aims to foster an inclusive and tolerant society in which we can all live in peace, this seems to me exactly what Christians are called to pray for (1 Timothy 2:1-3). Recent events here and overseas have shown the growing power of the internet, social media, and the dark-web to propagate and promote hate-speech (as well as fake-news and other forms of propaganda) and the destructive results that can follow. It is important that the government is taking this seriously and seeking ways to police this form of communication. Finally, given the potentially lethal and traumatic effects of hate speech the increased penalties will hopefully act as a deterrent, at least to those who are not fully committed to hate but still capable of contributing to the problem.

3. With being Christian in mind, what are your concerns about the proposal?

Jonathan Ayling: While we must dedicate ourselves to communicating in a way that is considerate and loving, the gospel is uncompromising and by nature offensive to all who oppose or resist it. Christ and his Apostles frequently warn us of this (Matthew 10:22; Matthew 5:10-12; John 15:18-25; John 15:25; James 4:4; 1 Corinthians 1:18). There is no freedom of thought without freedom of expression. If today I cannot say something, tomorrow I will not think it. The gospel is by nature a living entity that thrives on its proclamation, because it is the good news of a resurrected, living King and a present Holy Spirit.

These proposals present a credible threat to the capacity of the Church to function as the minister of the gospel with freedom. Law which gags our freedom of conscience and thought is law which suppresses truth, regardless of its intentions. These proposals would not only limit the ability to publicly state positions which may be particularly offensive, such as on sexuality, gender, or education, but could even prohibit them being stated in church meetings or within families (as the law would prohibit behaviour which ‘maintains or normalises hatred’). It also introduces the real possibility that the Bible, our statements of faith, or membership covenants may be labelled as offensive and normalising of hatred.

The proposals would sentence insulting speech to jail sentences three times longer than physical assault, a clearly disproportionate assessment of the harm caused. No jurisdiction in the world has been able to adequately define ‘hatred’, so ‘hate speech’ can easily simply become the speech of people you disagree with. Ultimately, this would be detrimental to our democracy, our national unity, and our faith.

Jonathan Robinson: The desire to protect the rights of groups liable to discrimination and hatred will potentially impinge upon the individual’s right to freedom of expression. The question of course, is where those lines will be drawn and how the rights of individuals will be balanced against the protection of groups. Regrettably Justice Minister Faafoi and Prime Minister Ardern have not been consistent in their messaging around this, and other political groups have capitalised on the confusion to push their own agendas rather than help clarify the debate. The previous laws which this one proposes to strengthen had hardly been utilised at all, and I think the greater risk is not that we will all suddenly be afraid to say anything for fear of being branded hate-speech but that police and courts are still not able, willing, or focused on prosecuting those whose hate-speech endangers our society. My concern is how this proposal would be practically implemented and whether it would in practice make our society a safer and more tolerant place, without considerable resources being allocated in our already stretched justice system.

4. Is there anything unique about being Baptist that shapes our response to these proposals?

Jonathan Ayling: From the advent of Baptist theology, Christians have faced horrific persecution for the expression of their beliefs. Not simply from the dominant Catholic Church at the Reformation, but even from fellow Reformed perspectives such as Lutheranism, murderous opposition worked against the simple beliefs of personal salvation expressed in Baptist theology. For Baptists to have attained the freedom to share the gospel and to express their faith publicly without reprisal is a wonderful and rare blessing. To give up this liberty, notwithstanding the good intentions, is to fundamentally misunderstand the necessarily confronting, insulting, and provocative nature of our faith. Further, Baptist theology is especially missional, where the proclamation of the gospel, confronting and offensive though it may be, is at the forefront of our ministry and worship.

Simply put, these reforms are incompatible with a Baptist perspective of Christianity.

Jonathan Robinson: Baptists (beginning with their roots in Anabaptism) have long championed the separation of church and state, and the importance of a tolerant secular society in which people are free to pursue their religion in peace. The intent of this proposal is, then, something Baptists should absolutely be behind. Equally, we should be comfortable with, and engaged with, a process of discernment—or in government terms, consultation—where our leaders do not present us with all the answers immediately but gain wisdom from the wider community.

Something not unique to Baptists, but consonant with our emphasis on discipleship and following the teachings of Jesus, is that this proposal (and our reactions to it) also give us pause to consider our own discipleship, our attention to the words we use, and the way we express ourselves (see Matthew 12:36). Before God, are hateful words any better than violent actions (see Matthew 5:21-22)?

5. What do you encourage New Zealand Christians to do through this proposal process?

Jonathan Ayling: I encourage you to submit in the Ministry of Justice’s consultation, telling them that policed speech does not protect the vulnerable and it simply pushes those who spout indefensible and condemnable opinions underground, where it is harder for the light to reveal their true nature. The Free Speech Union have set up an online submission form here. Also, please sign the petition launched by The Free Speech Union, a secular, broad coalition of individuals and organisations. If you sign the petition, we will also provide you with a template submission, if that is helpful. Finally, please contact your Member of Parliament to inform them that you have signed the petition, and submitted against the proposals. They will be interested to hear your perspective.

Jonathan Robinson: I think Christians should make the most of this opportunity for public consultation on the detail of the proposals so that we, along with the rest of New Zealand, can contribute to the process. However, I think we should aim to engage out of a desire for the peace of our nation rather than fear for our own rights.

What are two online resources you recommend for people wanting more information?

Jonathan Ayling: I drafted a briefing paper to outline in greater detail the content and intent of the proposed changes, and why the Free Speech Union is concerned by these changes: fsu.nz/briefing_paper

Bruce Logan (board member of Family First New Zealand) has written insightfully on this subject, also highlighting troubling concerns he has regarding these proposed changes: familyfirst.org.nz/bruce-logan-hate-speech-legislation-is-hateful

Jonathan Robinson: The best source of information on the proposals is the government document containing those proposals, listed above. I found the following articles useful and digestible to clarify some of the issues we’ve heard talked about in the media.

This is a good discussion of the issues around the proposals in general: thespinoff.co.nz/everyones-confused-about-the-new-hate-speech-law-heres-what-it-actually-says

This is a helpful legal point of view on why we need stronger hate speech laws: theconversation.com/why-inciting-violence-should-not-be-the-only-threshold-for-defining-hate-speech-in-new-zealand

Contributors respond to each other

Jonathan Ayling: Robinson’s claims outline a common belief – the Government is the best tool to address many of our society’s ills. Unfortunately this is demonstrably not the case.

Despite commending the Government for these proposed changes, Robinson fails to address any of the major concerns raised against them. How will hate be defined? Who will define it? Why is ‘insulting’ a group sufficient to be considered ‘hate speech’? If the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice are both unable to clearly outline what constitutes ‘hate speech’, what hope is there for the common citizen? These are crucial questions, and the law is irresponsible until they are addressed.

Rather than introducing laws to censor speech, I would prefer that leaders speak up against the vile comments they might otherwise criminalise. When good counter-arguments are presented, when fools are silenced through reason, not threats of imprisonment, when honest conversations on difficult topics are allowed to be had, it is then that we won’t make martyrs of bigots and we won’t drive them underground.

Robinson’s concern for the marginalised or abused in our country is applaudable. The means he would seek to use however, is naive. Free speech, while a secular notion, is one of the great blessings in our society, and Christians must not unappreciatively give it up.

Jonathan Robinson: I read with interest Jonathan Ayling’s responses to the questions. I think there are a couple of assumptions we do not share. I do not agree that essential to the Baptist faith is being “insulting” and “offensive”. The Gospel is considered offensive to human wisdom certainly (1 Corinthians 1:18-31), and people may be offended by Jesus’ claim of lordship over them, but I am sure that does not require us being offensive to human persons and groups, or spreading hatred of particular groups, in fact scripture teaches the opposite (1 Peter 2:17; 3:15-16). The sad truth is that confessing Christians in this and other nations do need laws as some have been involved in racism, misogyny, sexual abuse, and financial misbehaviour, among other things. Being a Christian does not render you immune to spreading hate, and those who spread hate should not be permitted to hide behind religious freedom, any more than we would grant such freedom to a militant jihadi cleric.

Up to a point, I agree with Jonathan Ayling that “the law is not the antidote to hate”. But he is also right that for many people, “If today I cannot say something, tomorrow I will not think it”. Thus, many people who might otherwise be susceptible to spreading or being influenced by hateful speech towards vulnerable groups would behave differently under this law (especially if it was adequately enforced). Law change may not be the antidote to all hate, but it can effectively change behaviour.

Thank you

Firstly, thank you to Jonathan Ayling and Jonathan Robinson for being willing to contribute in this way: two Baptists from two different Baptist churches helping us to engage with this topic, steering us in various directions, sharing resources for us to investigate further, and demonstrating to us something of the difference that is normal within our New Zealand Baptist faith communities.

Secondly, thank you as a reader for getting to the end of these more than 2,000 words, seeing how these two Christian views on the proposals against incitement of hatred and discrimination both converge and diverge with each other in various ways, and perhaps with your own understanding or views. I encourage you to pursue this further in your own local context, and feel free to share in the comments section below.

Host: Mike Crudge
Communications Director, Baptist Churches of New Zealand

Reference:

  1. Faafoi, K (2021). Proposals against incitement of hatred and discrimination. Ministry of Justice, New Zealand Government. Pg 3.