Jerry Springer The Opera is set to come to Dublin this week. (I hadn’t noticed til someone told me).
Back in 2005 the BBC received a record number of complaints when it was screened on BBC2 (around 55,000). And it had regular protests when on tour in the UK. There were failed court cases by some Christian groups to get it shut down – on incitement of religious hatred and blasphemy.
Yes it’s a comedic exploration of the darkside of our obsession with celebrity culture at whatever cost yada yada … but personally, I do find distasteful the depictions of Jesus in the show (I’ve watched clips).
And that’s the point. It is designed to cause offence – and the free publicity it generates ain’t bad for business.
Some Christians may want to respond as some did in the UK – with protests and campaigns to stop the show. But such protests don’t do well. At a pragmatic level they don’t succeed. They also reinforce wider cultural perceptions of Christians defending their own ‘rights’ while simultaneously wanting to control and tell others what do to. And that’s especially unfortunate given Ireland’s recent past when the church was in power. So missionally I don’t think that they are a good idea.
Some will shrug shoulders and say nothing – that’s the world we live in. There are endless films and shows and books that dismiss, mock or denigrate Christianity … Let’s get on with Christian life and service where we are without getting distracted. God doesn’t need our legal defence. What really matters is being authentic community on the ground, loving God, loving others.There are also far more important issues of justice to get worked up about – such as the disgraceful way Ireland treats asylum seekers for example.
But maybe Springer coming to Dublin it is an opportunity to say something about a hard-edged tolerance within a plural society.
For tolerance, properly understood is not just accepting what you agree with or can reluctantly live with. That’s such a soft form of tolerance it hardly qualifies as tolerance at all.
A robust tolerance is engaging with views you disagree with, views you find offensive and distasteful, even blasphemous. Getting into discussion and debate with the people who hold those views. Naming and identifying where and why those views are harmful or destructive. But at the same time tolerating the right of people to hold those views.
[Obviously there are legal, ethical and moral boundaries to tolerance. There are views that should not be tolerated in a civil society and this needs to be worked through in each case – views that promote violence, abuse, exploitation of others and so on.]
But the bigger point is that a robust tolerance works both ways. For the ‘flip-side’ of Jerry Springer in Dublin is that Christians also have every right to hold and communicate their views – beliefs that their opponents may find offensive and distasteful, even dangerous.
And there are voices today who do think exactly that and would seek to exclude legally Christianity from any legitimate place in public life because of the perceived ‘threat’ it poses to a plural society.
But a hard-edged or robust form of tolerance will mean that Christians who believe that their mission is to proclaim and teach the good news of Jesus Christ who is the risen Lord of all and before whom every knee will one day bow, will not only be tolerated but that their freedom to engage in mission should be defended by their opponents.
That’s quite a different thing from an increasingly shrill form of public discourse where ‘tolerance’ is redefined as meaning not having the right to disagree or say something is actually wrong. To do so is ‘offensive’ and ‘hurtful’ and ‘intolerant’. This is not tolerance at all, but a thinly disguised manipulative power-game that insists that to have a legitimate place in the public square ‘you must agree with me’.
So, even though I dislike it, I’m not going to be protesting against Jerry Springer The Opera. I’d defend the right of the Grand Canal Theatre to put on the show. And I’d argue for a robust tolerance that cuts both ways.
Comments, as ever, welcome.