Elena Attfield

Finland’s Bible tweet trial should trouble us all

Finland's Bible tweet trial should trouble us all
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Is it a criminal offence to quote from the Bible? Finland’s former home secretary Päivi Räsänen found herself in hot water when she did just that. 'How does the doctrinal foundation of the Church fit in with shame and sin being raised as a matter of pride?' she asked. Räsänen's objection – which came after the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland partnered with a Helsinki Pride festival in 2019 – led to her being charged with incitement against a minority group. Finally this week, after a three-year legal battle, Räsänen has been cleared. Her ordeal offers a troubling case study of the way in which ‘hate speech’ legislation is being used as a modern blasphemy law.

In a tweet addressed to the leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (of which she is an active member), Räsänen included a passage from Romans (1:24-27) saying:

'Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.'

The language could certainly make some feel uncomfortable. But members of a congregation are surely entitled to ask where its leadership stands on big issues, not least whether it believes homosexuality to be sinful or not. 

Many of the 'national churches' of the Nordics have answered this question: no. Sweden's Lutheran Church has allowed same sex marriage since 2009; the Church of Denmark backed such unions in 2012; Iceland's in 2015; and Norway's in 2016. But the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland has sat on the fence. It has approved special prayers for same-sex couples following a civil union or marriage; otherwise it has demurred. Two years of talks culminated in a statement published in August 2020 saying simply that they had not reached an agreement on the issue.

Räsänen’s comment came in the midst of that debate, which is still ongoing. Being a former party leader (she led Finland’s Christian Democrats from 2004 to 2015) her contribution was high profile, and was seen by her detractors as an invitation: to dig for 'offensive' remarks she had made in the past. They soon unearthed a recent radio interview in which she speculated about the origins of homosexuality. A pamphlet on marriage from 2004, where she described homosexuality as 'a disorder of psychosexual development', was also found. The document was printed by the Evangelical Lutheran Mission so its leader, Juhana Pohjola, was also charged.

But the problem for her critics was that none of these comments were aimed at a minority group. This meant, as has been confirmed in recent days, that they did not violate the law in Finland, where hate speech is only defined by law as ethnic agitation. It took three years to establish this basic point.

Nonetheless, the prosecution sought to claim that Räsänen’s very language of 'sin' was insulting. Räsänen argued that her views did not differ in any way from the general doctrines of Christianity even if she accepted that the language she quoted is harsh to modern ears. She also insisted that calling someone a sinner is not disparaging in Christian doctrine. 'The dignity of no one is diminished by sin,' she said. 'Homosexuals are as valuable as I am.' 

As for the court, although it agreed with the prosecution that the Bible passages cited were 'offensive to homosexuals', it accepted that account must be taken of their context and purpose; it also had the humility to concede it had no place interpreting 'biblical concepts'. In the end, it decided that Räsänen had not broken the law. It said there was insufficient 'compelling social reason' to override freedom of religion and speech.

Räsänen, at least, is philosophical about her ordeal. She said the last three years had been a 'privilege' and an opportunity to give 'Bible studies to the police'. But while Räsänen's Christianity allows her to be magnanimous, this case should still trouble us. It is one that came close to setting a chilling precedent: standard Christian doctrine was seen by some to have fallen foul of 'hate speech' laws.

Although Räsänen has triumphantly said she will continue to quote the Bible and hopes the ruling will set precedent for traditional Christians to confidently share their beliefs without fear of mob prosecution, this seems unlikely unless we undergo a cultural shift. On this occasion, Räsänen was spared by a district court's ability to separate doctrine from discrimination. But who's to say the verdict won't go the other way next time?

Written byElena Attfield

Elena Attfield is a dual citizen of Great Britain and Finland

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