“So what?” I hear some people say. “He can do what he likes, can’t he? This is, after all, a free country, and however unreasonable someone’s views are, or ill-advised they may be in how they choose to promote them, what’s to stop him?” Actually, I wholeheartedly agree, couldn’t agree more in fact. Not that I agree with Sizer’s views, by a long shot. Having reviewed his first book for a scholarly journal (and currently reviewing his sequel), I find Sizer’s theology unpersuasive, overtly polemical and unnecessarily pejorative (and thus not particularly constructive or helpful). Meanwhile, a tendency to build straw men and parody his opponents suggests methodology takes somewhat of a back seat. More’s the pity really, because aspects of extreme Christian Zionism do need to be challenged, and I believe that had he set about his crusade (and make no mistake, it is a crusade) with a greater degree of charity towards those Christian brethren he disagrees with, he would likely have won some of their support, helping a number of Christians to be more objective and realistic in their support for Israel. Instead, his brusque and abrupt manner has merely served to polarise the Church unnecessarily.
However, leaving aside the manner in which he has gone about expressing his views (to the detriment of Christian unity), nonetheless Sizer has every right to express those views as he pleases. Likewise, given how and where he has chosen to express them, he must be prepared for and expect his foes to react and respond equally forcefully and brusquely. Seismic is one such critic, and while I have not read all his posts those I have seen seem to substantiate his criticisms and reports of Sizer's activities.
I do not suggest every response to Sizer has been necessarily expressed in a spirit of Christian gentleness, though this is not surprising given how his views have attracted the ire of all manner of people – Christian and non-Christian alike – from across the political spectrum. Sizer has no control whatsoever over how his views are cited by Holocaust deniers and far-right white supremacist groups, but that they do so with regularity is troubling to many and at the very least indicative of his tone and style. Meanwhile, if one chooses to disseminate views through the blogosphere (as Sizer has done), then quite frankly you must be prepared for others to respond robustly via the same medium. In short, if you engage in public theology, and do so publicly, then you’d better be prepared to be challenged and defend your views publicly. You would expect someone of Sizer’s educational background to understand and accept this.
But instead Sizer, already known for being a rather prickly character towards those taking issue with his views, together with Anthony McRoy (a lecturer at a UK theological college), made a complaint to the police about Seismic’s activity, resulting in his IP address being traced and the local bobbies paying a visit (in a strictly “informal” capacity, you understand) and putting pressure on the blogger, a young Messianic believer and ex-student of Leeds University, to delete one of his blogs. Somewhat alarmed, Seismic agreed. Ironically for both complainants, history caches of deleted websites remain in cyberspace for perpetuity. Thus, all this clumsy attempt at censorship has achieved is the so-called Streisand Effect, whereby censorship achieves the complete opposite and a far greater number of people than ever will view the material Sizer and McRoy sought to have removed from the Internet.
However, this issue is far more serious than an attempt to silence a single critic Apparently buoyed by his (mistaken) view he had silenced Seismic, Stephen Sizer last week sent a message to another blogger, Vee (Living Journey), who cross-links to Seismic and refers to Sizer and the Palestinian liberation theology organisation Sabeel (of which Sizer is a patron). Sizer wrote:
You must take a little more care who you brand as anti-semitic otherwise you too will be receiving a caution from the police as the young former student of Leeds did recently. One more reference to me and you will be reported.
BlessingsIt is not clear whether he expected Vee to publish the comment (the tone rather suggests not, that the tone was such she wouldn't dare), but she did anyway. Meanwhile, these two attempts at censorship quickly came to light and caused outrage across the blogosphere. I am rather convinced Sizer couldn’t have miscalculated more had he tried (signing off with the word “Blessings”, which was picked up by nearly blogger, certainly did him no favours). Any attempt at silencing critics or limiting free speech is red to a bull as far as bloggers (and in fact most people) are concerned. To do so once might be perceived as a foolish error, but twice is downright carelessness.
The result has been a story which has spread from blog to blog (it has appeared on literally dozens upon dozens of sites), quickly working its way up through the larger blogs with substantial readerships, and thence propelling upwards to nationwide mainstream media websites such as the Spectator, the BBC, and the Jewish Chronicle (and I suspect it won't end there). Even West Yorkshire Police issued a terse statement when pressed for more detail. Worse for Sizer and McRoy, it is highly significant that the critics of their actions come from Christians and non-Christians alike, as well as commentators and blogs on both the political left and right, all united in anger at this effort to censor a critic. Alluding to the end of the film Spartacus, one blogger has even taken up the motto, “I’m Seismic Shock” which has electrified the blogging community and been taken up with great gusto. (I'm waiting for the inevitable Youtube clip, with Kirk Douglas stepping forward to say, “I’m Seismic Shock”, with his friends stepping forward to do likewise.) Worse for both complainants, they appear to have achieved the complete opposite of what they intended, and I am beginning to feel rather sorry for these chaps because I rather think they're going to face more criticism than ever, with bolshy bloggers everywhere out to test the very boundaries of free speech.
And neither will it end there, I suspect, because the issue goes to heart of a debate already taking place in this country concerning diminishing freedoms and police powers. People are already asking why the police became involved in what appears to be a civil issue. Is criticism of someone’s views a crime? Can it really be considered harassment? Also, did this issue progress through the police’s proper complaints chain, and on what basis? Meanwhile, given how Sizer has blogged about his involvement and relationship with the police, I wouldn't be surprised if at some stage someone will want to know if this has had any bearing at all on how the complaint was handled. For his part, one wonders why Sizer is not prepared to take on his critics in the very arena he has himself entered and subsequently been challenged – the blogosphere – or else simply ignore the issue, which is what politicians, academics and others debating in the public square do on a daily basis.
One thing is certain: this sorry state of affairs offers the Church valuable lessons when it comes to debating publicly theological issues. If you are going to take a polemical stand on something, then you must be prepared to take whatever’s thrown back at you. The alternative is to avoid unnecessarily pejorative language and Christian disunity by expressing views in a collegial and respectful spirit. Scholars who disagree with each other strongly nonetheless manage to engage in respectful dialogue all over the world every day in a variety of arenas. On the other hand, pejoratively taking on those you disagree with will often result in a similarly expressed reaction. I may disagree with some dispensationalists or Reformed Christians on some issues, but they remain my Christian brothers and sisters, and while we have the right to discuss, debate and oppose theological views we disagree with, there is a proper way of doing it - even robustly - and quite another which is unprofitable and merely serves to polarise the debate. In short, there is little substitute for academic, objective argument, while polemics and straw man building either illustrate weak arguments or insincere motives. It is also important to note that as Christians we will be judged by the people we keep company and who we ally ourselves with. Too often, I think we consider our theological views so important that we at times allows ourselves to be compromised by allying ourselves with people or institutions we mistakenly believe will forward those views, but which merely serve to bring them into disrepute.Thus, to Christians of all sides I would say the world is watching how we hold our debates.
STOP PRESS: As I get ready to hit "publish" this story just made the Guardian website.
Further Resources Concerning This Story
Website of Seismic Shock
Original story concerning Seismic Shock, Vee and Sizer on Saturday, here and here.
Extensive list of sites running this story, listed here and here.
Stephen Sizer's comment sent to Vee at Living Journey
My review of Sizer's first book
Anthony McRoy's paper on the Mahdi and Jesus
West Yorkshire Police statement concerning their visit to Seismic's home
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