Recently The Guardian ran a wide ranging article by Richard Ackland on the nature of free speech being restricted by defamation actions by those with deep pockets.
Here are a selected few quotes:
* 2006: only very small corporations, of less than 10 employees, could sue in their own name.
* 2015: Tasmania is proposing to break ranks, amend its act and let corporations of all stripes off the leash.
* in the US these sort of legal claims were christened Slapp actions – strategic lawsuits against public participation. They were designed to shut people up, drown them in huge legal bills and generally put annoying small fry out of business.
* in Australia this implied they were using the courts as an abuse of process, and that that in itself might be defamatory.
* Quite apart from courts allowing competition law to be used as a weapon against public interest campaigners, the real enemy of free speech lies in a cumbersome, expensive, uniform Defamation Act, skewed in favour of plaintiffs.
Richard Ackland's article gives many very specific examples and it's a good read. It brings a breadth of concerns to the table and illustrates stories from the deep pocket brigade.
Christian life and defamation
But what about dramas involving those with the Christian churches and Jesus' plea to try and work things out before it gets to such a public interface.
Should you be naïve and think that such villainy does not occur within the Christian family you would be greatly mistaken. Church politics is rife with defamatory dramas on both the big stage and the little stage in local church life.
In 2011 one such incident became very public and went through the courts. It involved a Sydney Diocese Bishop, congregation leaders and a disgruntled congregant. As they said in the press, read all about it. The NSW Supreme court cleared the church leaders.
Should you be inquisitive type and want to know the ins and outs of how a defamation action actually works in NSW, I invite you to read this from the Judicial Commission of NSW. It is quite an eye-opener.
I found a Canadian case where an elder of a congregation sued the leaders of the church in the way in which a new minister was engaged. The court found that the by-laws were not followed and then the church had published in the newspaper their version and again the elder sued and the court awarded the elder against the church $5,000.
Then I came across an on-line book titled "Churches, Clergy and the Law" and the table of contents of actions went into 9 pages of fine print – many of these were associated with such things as church owned nursing homes and the like. The defamation section is introduced: Defamation is all about the protection of an individual's personal reputation in the eyes of others. Then it examines what "without lawful excuse" might mean explaining how the protection of one's good name is held in balance with the right to freedom of expression. Let me assure, you its all a bit tricky.
Ministers are the butt of all injustices when it comes to the blame game for when something is not working as well as it should in the local church. Ministers inevitably get a thick skin and a lot rubs off their shoulders and the name of the game is to protect their partners and family members from the church political scene.
That's at that level, but sometimes it gets out of hand and the way that is handled is generally through diplomacy and careful management of a situation. Defaming the minister can be a nasty business and often the full facts are not made public due to confidentialities and matters that are private in conversations that are kept 'mum'.
Most churches have disciplinary clauses in their constitutions and by-laws but these are quite difficult to enact where parties are unwilling to participate. Sadly, sometimes, years later, the real evidence comes out and the person thought to be the innocent party was actually the culprit. Yes, injustice is rife in church life as it is elsewhere throughout our society. We are in need of a Saviour.
Will it all be revealed
The Scriptures says three things, first that vengeance is the Lord's, second there is a clarion call for all Christians stand up for righteousness and injustice and third, there will come a day when everything will be revealed for all to see.
Contradictory? No, these are perspectives of the same picture, as vigilantism creates chaos whereas order is a clear feature of the Gospel message; we are required to be a people of right over wrong, yet finally not every wrong will be righted here, and moreover there is a confidence wrong will finally be outed.
The heartache is when wrong triumphs in this world. Consider the blatant deaths (murders) and unintended deaths (manslaughters), motor vehicle accidents where a life (often a young life) is taken and the other driver is given leniency by the court (for many a good reason). Consider the injustices in the school room where a student gets wrongly blamed, or in junior sports teams where the favoured lad gets in when a better player is left out.
Consider when a member of the congregation becomes brave enough to highlight something they consider to be alien to the scriptures – perhaps money, behaviour, governance .... and they get ostracised. Consider missions where well planned political manoeuvres see someone removed from the scene. Consider where true and just acknowledgement for legitimate honour is by-passed and that honour is given to someone else. That is theft.
Church life is a microcosm of society. Defamation is rife. But there is more than financial cost, the emotional drain of any nasty business is phenomenal and has led many to heart failure and other medical, emotional and physiological issues.
Many Christians live with such ongoing pain, yet they stick with Jesus whose suffering was beyond measure with the sin of this world. Little wonder so many Christians simply pack their bags and leave yet retain their love for Jesus.
Only last week I received a letter from an elderly mother whose son and daughter in-law (now retired) have removed themselves from any form of Christian communal worship. The pain just got too much. Likewise I received another note some weeks ago, from a young person who just couldn't hack what they witnessed first hand in church life and threw out the baby and the bath water and now walks as a unbeliever.
Yes, church life is a microcosm of society. All the more reason for Christians to live lives worthy of their Calling by Christ. It's not an easy pathway, it's the narrow road, yet with the help of the Holy Spirit, following Jesus (not rules of institutions) as attested through the centuries, is by far the best route for life. Pointing to Jesus is a sure and tested path.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html