What a chilling day. It wasn’t just the icy Scandinavian wind that had protesters gathered outside the Helsinki District Court shivering. The day’s significance and its potentially harmful consequences for free speech was reflected in the swarm of reporters waiting for Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola to arrive.
What they were about to witness was a first after all. A bishop, and a longstanding MP and former government minister, were about to be put on trial by the General Prosecutor for having publicly expressed their faith-based views. Päivi had done so in 2019 when she directed a tweet, accompanied by a picture of Bible verses, at her church leadership to question their official partnership with the Helsinki Pride event. She had also participated in a radio debate on marriage and human sexuality that same year and had authored a pamphlet on the topic for her church all the way back in 2004. Bishop Pohjola was on trial for having published the pamphlet.
As proceedings began, the defendants and their lawyers, the two prosecutors and the judge took their seats as the media observed with interest. It quickly became clear that the question of whether biblical teachings may be shared was at the center of this trial. In their opening statements, the prosecutors insisted that the fact that Päivi’s statements were based on the Bible and her faith in it was irrelevant. Yet, in the next breath, they proceeded to cite verses from the Old Testament, arguing that while it was ok to cite the Bible, expressing some opinions based on it may be punishable. They then read cherry-picked statements from Päivi’s pamphlet and presented the extracts in such a way that misrepresented the gist of what Päivi had written.
The prosecution went on to argue that adage “love the sinner, hate the sin” goes too far, because criticizing someone’s deeds, attacks a person’s core identity and people should be protected from that. Ironically, although this phrase is often attributed to the Bible, it actually originates from Gandhi – widely recognized as one of the greatest civil rights leaders of the 20th century. If we followed the prosecutor’s logic, however, and equated disapproving of certain actions with depriving someone of their intrinsic value, the whole court system would break down and we would all be found guilty.
Even though the prosecution was supposed to present the “evidence” against Päivi and the Bishop at the beginning, the prosecutors strayed far into their argumentation. The judge reprimanded them twice, but their statements ended up costing so much time that all the media heard in the morning was one side of the argument. It became clear that this battle was not only being fought in the court room, but also in the court of public opinion.
Päivi’s team then proceeded to make a strong case for free speech, arguing that religious texts are at the heart of religious freedom. If sharing these texts and teachings is regulated by the state, then that threatens and undermines the freedoms we enjoy in a pluralistic society.
Finally, in the late afternoon, it was time for the defendants to be heard for the first time. Päivi explained the context of her writings. Her criticism in the tweet was addressed at her church leadership. Nowhere did she mention a sexual minority in the tweet, other than in the Bible passage she attached. Admitting that some of the phrasing in her pamphlet, written almost two decades ago, was outdated, she nevertheless argued that it should not be censored. Rather, it should be able to exist as a record of the time as do other academic texts that use similar language to hers. She called attention to the parts in her pamphlet where she repeatedly emphasized God’s love for all people. Her writings were addressed to a Christian audience seeking to follow God’s design of the world and his plan for their life. Rather than shaming people, she advocated for understanding and love of all people.
The bombshell came at the end when the prosecutors cross-examined Bishop Pohjola. What is the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament? Do you believe religious speech is above the law? Would you follow the law of the Bible or the law of Finland? Can religious understanding change? Here was a senior state prosecutor questioning a bishop about his faith! But Bishop Pohjola called this out in his closing statement, lamenting that even though the prosecutor had said the case is not about the Bible or theology, she had gone into the Bible and made negative pejorative statements about those who believe in classical Christianity. In his estimation, she had not been neutral in any way.
To recap: The day began with a prosecutor reading bible verses she evidently didn’t like and ended with her cross examining a Bishop on his theology. This should serve as a huge warning to us all.
The court adjourned and closing arguments were postponed to mid-February. As the world watches on and awaits a ruling, the day’s events stand as a chilling warning to all who believe they are free to speak their mind in Europe without fear of state censorship.