Malachi O'Doherty: Of course, street preachers are entitled to their beliefs... but do they have to be so loud?
You wouldn’t put up with someone haranguing you in public about your appearance, so why should you tolerate being told you’re going to burn in hell, asks Malachi O’Doherty.
Imagine a gorgeous summer’s evening in Ballycastle. The light is so fresh and crisp that the Mull of Kintyre looks close enough to hit with a stone. You’re taking a leisurely stroll along the front, thinking perhaps of settling yourself at one of the tables outside the hotel and having a pint. But there is an awful racket going on.
The yelps of children in the playground are no irritation at all. Isn’t it wonderful they are enjoying themselves?
The odd motorbiker revving for the hill out of town would annoy you, but it only lasts a few seconds.
But those preachers would turn anybody’s head with their haranguing passersby about their sins and inevitable damnation.
They would certainly discourage you from taking your pint in front of them.
We have heard it all before. Fundamentalist preachers have their plain and simple religious conviction. It is that they are saved and the rest of us are damned, unless we accept Jesus as our personal saviour and the sacrifice that he made for us.
And they are entitled to their beliefs. But, surely, they were raised to have better manners than to be shouting at people in the street?
Worse, on this particular night, they have microphones and amplification, so you can’t get away from their raucous and ungainly shouting.
None of this, of course, is unusual, or unfamiliar.
We have grown up with people like this disturbing the peace around us routinely. It is part of the character of Northern Ireland and we endure it. But should we?
If someone was standing on the street shouting at you that you are ugly, that you have no dress sense, that you smell, that you are fat, would we put up with that? Yet, people who think they are perfectly respectable citizens can tell their neighbours that they are going to burn in Hell.
They can shout this at them in the presence of their children. They can tell us we are sinners living worthless and meaningless lives, unlike themselves.
This is an insult. Yet, it is almost as familiar in our seaside resorts as the hardly less melodious shrieking of gulls that we put up with it.
Of course, they don’t see it that way. The street preachers think they have a duty to warn us of the damnation that our sinful lives are taking us towards.
Would you shout at someone to save them from a burning building? Then why not from the fires of Hell? That’s what they say.
Some will even have the cheek to call at your home in the hope of discussing the state of your soul with you on your doorstep.
It’s not just the self-described Christians who do that, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons.
They will tell you that they are humble labourers in the Lord’s vineyard and that they have no wish to set themselves above you, that they bring a message of God’s love, even that they love you themselves.
But they are deluding themselves. To tell another person that you have the answer to their lives is supreme arrogance. What the fundamentalists do not understand is that the best they can hope for in the modern world is that they be regarded as having an opinion, not a truth. And my opinion that they are deluded has equal value in the marketplace.
And the Bible can be quoted back at them. Matthew 10:14 says that Jesus told the disciples that, if they preached in a town where they were not listened to, they should shake the dust from their feet as they left. I would have been very happy to see them shake the dust of Ballycastle off their feet, declaring a clear resolve not to come back.
I also happen to think it is not very Protestant to be roaring at people and telling them what the Bible means, since the advice of Luther was that we should read it for ourselves and have no mediator. In his day, he saw the Catholic Church as interposing itself between the people and the Bible, but these guys are up to the same, presumptuous stunt.
But seriously: how many people walked down to the Marine Hotel that Sunday night, perhaps thinking they would enjoy a pint outside in the evening light and changed their minds because they couldn’t bear to listen to this moralistic abuse?
If any, that is business lost. And we are supposed to be constructing our economy for the future around tourism.
Councils and Government departments have a responsibility to preserve the environment of our holiday resorts as genial and attractive. So, they invest in hotels and festivals. They clean up the litter and embellish the frontage of vacant unsightly old buildings. They see that work as an investment that has returns, not just for the comfort of residents, but in making our towns more attractive to outsiders.
We would not tolerate rowdiness and antisocial behaviour if we could catch it in time and stamp it out, even if that entailed arresting offenders and increasing the police presence. But we will allow some impertinent ganch with a loudhailer and a Bible to berate passersby with accusations that they are sinful and lost.
And, even if the wind blows away their words, the racket they create is something that should not be allowed — let alone indulged.
Of course, maybe they are right. Maybe God has urged them to come out and present “good news” to lost souls. Would they not then consider that most of us have already heard that message and given it some thought?
Would they not admit that intelligent people have resolved to dismiss it, or think about it at another time, and that the least likely way of getting through to them now is to prattle strings of familiar tracts at them.
Jesus didn’t stand on the street and shout at people. He had qualities to draw people to him so powerfully that he often had to try to get away from them.
If our depressing street preachers can’t attract people and then resort to shouting at them, and even then find most of us ignoring them, would they not think it is time to try some other approach?
My own view is that they are wasting their own lives, indulging a fantasy of martyrdom in which our rejection of them is the reward, the confirmation of their distinct value, the evidence that they are different from us.
Well, I think it is time we told them to go and assure themselves of their virtue in some less disruptive way.