Tuesday, 27 January 2015
Murals and Free Speech
From our website: ‘St John's has a history over more than thirty years of displaying murals on topical subjects. The intention behind our murals is to provoke thought and debate. To do that, it is sometimes necessary to raise questions, which some people may find uncomfortable, though it is never our intention to cause offence.'
I have pondered these words quite frequently over the last eight weeks because our last two murals, which were both conceived within the same couple of hours one evening, garnered a multitude of reactions.
I suspect many of you had had reactions too and had much opportunity to discuss these with family and friends. Let me just say: I do believe that there is no right or wrong reaction. Even the most vocal ones are part of a process that is doing exactly what the murals set out to do.
Our faith tradition is full of examples of prophetic voices that raised questions, and often raised them uncomfortably and for some even offensively. God’s prophet Hosea, for example, married a prostitute simply to make a point about the political situation. Nathan’s challenge of King David would have been understood as a serious lese-majesty in his and many other cultures. (And yes, the biblical prophets are very political indeed, as they deal with such topics as injustice, war, exploitation, and the treatment of orphans, widows, and aliens.) The separation of matters spiritual and temporal is really a rather recent development and confined to Western culture. Not too long ago, religion was very much intertwined with the polis, the state, even in the West. We can see vestiges of this reality in the very fact that twenty six Church of England bishops are still ‘ex-officio’ members of Parliament.
Thirty years ago the murals were created as a response to this prophetic tradition. Not unlike Hosea and Nathan they are at times rather uncomfortable and at other times really affirming. Most of the times they are somewhere in between. And sometimes they miss the target. It all depends on the subject matter and on one’s particular viewpoint. But all the time the murals strive to set a question mark amongst the indifference and the fears of our world. And at times these question marks have to be most powerful. This is why the murals are appreciated by many.
Our website states that ‘currently there is an active debate going on in Scotland and the UK as a whole around immigration and we hope that our contribution will stimulate people as they think about that issue’. The December murals indeed stimulated a lot of feedback within a debate that often leaves out the most vulnerable and most affected. They also resulted in interaction with national politicians, something I hope will bring about personal conversation, mutual challenges, and maybe even public debate.