, Destiny Church, and hate speech


  1. There is a petition against Destiny Church.
  2. I agree that Brian Tamaki is wrong.
  3. The petition is an assault on the values enshrined in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.
  4. Freedom of speech is too valuable to throw away.

The Earthquake

Two minutes after midnight, Monday the 14th of 2016, New Zealand was hit by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. The magnitude 7.1 earthquake the previous month passed almost unnoticed; it was offshore. This one, in the Canterbury region, killed some people, blocked a major transport route, took out some buildings in the nation's capital (not even on the same island as the quake itself), and wrecked roads, homes, businesses, and even farms. The Government itself (Statistics NZ and the Ministry of Defence) has had to abandon new buildings that should have conformed to a code which would have seen them survive this shock.

It will be months before the roads are back to normal. It will be years, if ever, before the people most affected get over it.

Right now, the region is still getting aftershocks literally every few minutes. There was a magnitude 4.2 one just an hour ago at the time of writing.

One thing must be said.


The Shaky Isles” is a long-standing nickname for New Zealand. (And also the name for a chain of coffee shops in Auckland. Next time you're there, try them.)

“The GeoNet project locates between 50 and 80 earthquakes each day, or about 20,000 a year.” There were magnitude 7 or greater earthquakes in 1961, 1968, 1979, 1983, 1990, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1997 (2), 1998, 1999, 2000 (2), 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, or about one every two and a half years. We couldn't have predicted this one, but we shouldn't be surprised by it either. It anything, it was overdue.

Brian Tamaki

Brian Tamaki is the Bishop of Destiny Church, a denomination he founded. Destiny Church is everything liberals hate: Christian (as far as I know), literalist, traditionalist, socially and sexually strongly conservative, apparently authoritarian. Since its membership (including its leader) is largely Māori and Pasifika, the one charge that has not been made against it is racism. There are aspects of it that make otherwise sympathetic observers uneasy. That includes me. I have never had any association with Destiny Church, and don't want to.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990

That having been said, Brian Tamaki is a citizen of New Zealand, and is entitled both to hold and to express unpopular opinions.

Section 13: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference.

Section 14: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinion of any kind in any form.

Section 15: Every person has the right to manifest that person's religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private.

It is clear, for example, that telling a Muslim he must not stop and pray when it is time for prayer, is infringing on his right to manifest his religion in observance in public. We could perhaps insist that he do so on the footpath, not on the main roadway, but it would be as intolerable as it would be intolerant to prevent him doing so in public.

It is also clear that to prevent someone from imparting information of any kind in any form, including any attempt to punish them financially for doing so, would be as intolerable as it would be intolerant. I am not saying that commercial media should be obliged to carry absolutely everything. But to try to punish someone for what they say in a sermon or place on their own web site is a clear assault on their human rights and above all on that right dearest to the heart of any democrat: Freedom of Speech.

There is no right not to be offended.

Nobody ever needed a right to say things that please the people in power. If you are a feminist, your ability to criticise Patriarchy without being thrown in gaol depends on your right to freedom of speech. The people who hold the levers of power are not allowed to say “your speech isn't real political speech, it is just offensive and hateful, away with you!” An advocate of Gay Marriage, before we had it, could not be silenced on the grounds that some people found what he said offensive. When the news about some Catholic priests molesting children broke, the Catholic Church could not say “Your speech hurts our feelings, you are just being hateful, so shut up!” When an “artist” produced a “work of art” by taking an existing condom and an existing statuette of Mary and putting the one over the other, and this was exhibited in the country's national museum, a childishly offensive thing to do, the Solicitor General “ruled that a prosecution should not proceed due to the freedom-of-expression provisions enshrined in the … Bill of Rights”

The right to freedom of speech is nothing if it is not the right to say things that some people find offensive.

“But,” you might say, “your examples above were things that are true. Freedom of speech can't cover things that aren't true.” Ah, but who decides what is true? The Australian Human Rights Commissioner (a person in power) has decided “to ban male researchers from the 2017 Personal Safety Survey”. This is, in effect, a decision by a power holder that what men say cannot be true and their speech must be silenced, before anyone, including the Commissioner herself, could possibly know what they would say. If you allow the powerful to decide what is true, and so what may be banned, that is just like allowing them to decide what is offensive, and so what may be banned. (This follows a Canadian decision that the absence of shelters for battered men is not a human rights issue, despite their acceptance that there is a demonstrated need for them.)

What we can reasonably demand is that people who want the protection of the right to Freedom of Speech should be saying what they believe to be true (it is, after all, “opinion” that is protected, not “fact”, still less “pravda” — the official word). We might perhaps demand that they have some grounds for their belief that they are willing to share.

We must never make the mistake of taking pravda for truth, simply because it is the official or cultural narrative. It is precisely official and cultural narratives that need to be challenged. Many people who challenge received wisdom are of course crackpots or dishonest. The reason that Freedom of Speech has to be fought for, and that even crackpots have to be defended, is that challengers will always seem to be crackpots, or behind the times, or deluded or whatever, and therefore fit to be silenced.

I can testify that right now in this country there are opinions I hold on what I believe to be solid empirical grounds which I dare not express. (No, you can't guess what they are. I am taking great care not to go anywhere near them in this article.)

What did Brian Tamaki say?

He said that the Christchurch earthquake was due to “the land” being “defiled” by “sexual perversions” “To most men this would seem ridiculous and judgmental by God and US! But God is not judging us, nature is! The environment is suffering under mankind's iniquities.”

The odd thing is that he has bought into the pravda about global warming, but precisely because that is pravda, nobody in the media has noticed that, or his implicit attack on technological society (mining and oil exploration being decried, for example). I wonder how he thinks his car is fueled?

According to the New Zealand Herald, he didn't just blame gays, but also murderers and sinners.

It is simply fact that by the definitions shared by Destiny Church and many Christians, “sexual perversion” is widely accepted in New Zealand. The claim of an “Auckland Vicar” that the sermon was “completely illogical” is itself illogical: the contents of the sermon flow with utter logical consistency from Brian Tamaki's beliefs. His belief that the land itself is provoked to vomit us out is grounded in Leviticus, a book which the “Auckland Vicar”'s own church professes to hold basic (Article 6). Indeed, Article 7 of the Anglican Church says that “no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.” The “Auckland vicar” is fully in accord with today's pravda, but not with the pravda of her own church a hundred years ago.

Pravda isn't always wrong, even if it is always what suits the powerful. I am not saying that Brian Tamaki is right. No, but what he said is a necessary consequence of his sincere religious beliefs, and therefore counts as protected free speech.

The really strange thing here is that the sermon was not given after the earthquake, but the day before.

I can find no evidence that Brian Tamaki called in this sermon for anyone to do anything to gays (or murderers). We are not dealing with hate speech here. The point of his sermon was to say that other (un-named and un-threatened) people are sinning and that this has terrible consequences for the country so that his congregation should be careful not to sin in that way. He was careful not to say that the people who suffered in the quake deserved it. (He was also explicit that it wasn't God doing this but the land itself, which is one of the things that will have most of us judging him a crackpot.)

I guess I must repeat again: I believe that Brian Tamaki is empirically wrong here. As far as we can tell, there is nothing unusual about this earthquake, or the Christchurch earthquake, which is the one he was talking about. We live on a plate boundary; these things happen; they happen at a particular rate; that doesn't seem to have changed. I believe he is religiously wrong as well; the passage of Leviticus he based his sermon on is specifically about the Land of Israel. Amongst other things, this land has not vomited out its former inhabitants; some of them are members of Destiny Church.

Just to repeat again: I believe that Brian Tamaki is religiously and empirically wrong in his claim that recent large earthquakes in New Zealand are due to the sins of New Zealanders. But I also believe that he sincerely believes this on what he takes to be adequate grounds.

Somehow I have ended up on a mailing list. They take on a lot of good causes, like this one and this one. I have signed more than one of their petitions.

On Thursday the 17th of November, I received the following:

With the recent news from the self appointed 'Bishop' Brian Tamaki that 'Gays were to blame for the Earthquake in Kaikoura (read here). I call upon John Key and the New Zealand Government to classify Destiny Church as a hate group and strip them of their tax free status.

The claim there is factually incorrect. The sermon was given the day before the Kaikoura earthquake.

Tamaki has specifically denied referring only to gays, saying he actually meant anybody indulging in illicit sexual behaviour, adultery, child abuse, and more: “It's about adultery, morality, it's about any type of extra-sexual behaviour”

It is also arguably incorrect in its claim that Brian Tamaki was self-appointed: his ordination as bishop is reported as “a unanimous agreement by the 19 other pastors of Destiny Churches throughout New Zealand”.

That's three factual errors in one short paragraph, all easily discoverable with a few minutes mousing around on the Web.

Do I have to repeat again that I do not support Destiny Church, or Brian Tamaki? Or that I believe he is empirically and religiously wrong in this case? This is about freedom of speech, and I find it depressingly normal that an assault on freedom of speech should be accompanied by factual errors. There is a saying “Any stick will do to beat a dog” and it is fatally easy to believe that bad things about someone who is Wrong and Evil and Not One of Us don't need to be checked, or true.

Do you notice something else in that paragraph? It's identity thinking. One man says something, therefore many people must be made to suffer. Destiny Church has thousands of members, and the author of that paragraph wants them all punished for something they didn't say or do. Does that seem right to you? Does that seem even close to anything resembling justice? The petition began circulating before the members of Destiny Church had been given time to react to the situation. For many members of that church, the petition itself will have been their first news about it. Does that seem like justice?

According to the Wikipedia page on hate speech,

In the law of some countries, hate speech is described as speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it incites violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group.

In the same source, we learn that

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law”.

The relevant New Zealand law would seem to be the Human Rights Act 1993. Section 61 prohibits “words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting” “being matter or words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons in or who may be coming to New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons.”

As far as can be told from the (partial) recording and (partial) transcript of the sermon, Brian Tamaki's words and manner were in no way threatening or abusive. If to call a behaviour sinful is intrinsically insulting, then the words (but not the manner) were insulting. It's questionable whether there was any likelihood of the words exciting any hostility towards anyone that did not already exist, and far from bringing any group into contempt, his words have resulted in an outpouring of hatred for him. Since the sermon was in no way about “colour, race, or ethnic or national origins”, it does not seem that any action based on section 61 or 63 could succeed. Section 21(1)(m) does prohibit discrimination on the grounds of “sexual orientation, which means a heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation”. However, a sermon criticising homosexual acts and adultery and child abuse is not in itself “discrimination” in matters of employment or the provision of goods or services and since people who do not have a homosexual orientation may engage in homosexual acts (as those who work in prisons inform us), it's not obviously about orientation either. I suspect that like Muslims, Brian Tamaki would have no objection whatever to someone who wants to copulate with someone the same sex but doesn't, any more than he or they have any problem with someone who wants to commit adultery but doesn't.

I note as a curiosity that the government of New Zealand is explicitly allowed to discriminate against people on the basis of “(i) religious or ethical belief; or (ii) political opinion; (iii) disability … or (iv) family status … or (v) national origin; or (b) … national origin of any relative of that person” “in relation to work involving national security” (section 25 (1)). If, for example, I applied for a job involving in national security, and the decision was made, no, he has relatives who are part Samoan, I would have no redress. But hey, it's a free country.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Article 19, 1: Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

Article 19, 2: Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

Article 20, 2: Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

Article 27: In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.

The members of Destiny Church are just as much a religious minority as the members of the Rātana Church (Te Haahi Rātana). In fact, Destiny are a smaller religious minority than Islam, which claims nearly 50,000 adherents in this country. Attacking Destiny Church for what their leader said (not did) is clearly an attack on Article 27.

The petition is clearly a demand that one religious group should be discriminated against, as a whole, compared with other religious groups. Attacking Destiny Church for what their leader said (not did) is clearly an attack on Article 20, part 2. The petitioners are advocating religious hatred against Destiny Church in a way that is certainly incitement to economic and legal discrimination. That's the whole point of the petition.

The petition is clearly a demand that somewhere between two and three thousand people should be punished, because their religious leader made a statement about homosexual acts that goes against pravda. This is an attack on Article 19.

Remember, I am not defending the opinions of Brian Tamaki in this or any other matter. I am, as a matter of human rights, supporting his right to have unpopular opinions and to express them, in accord with the International Convention on Civil and Political rights and the laws of this country. Everyone who has signed this petition, and we are told there are thousands, has declared their opposition to the International Convention and to the Bill of Rights.

Ironically, the petition itself perfectly fits the definition of hate speech, not least because it seeks the punishment of an entire group because of the actions of one of its members.

Interestingly enough, there is no petition circulating to have Islam officially declared a hate group, despite anti-gay statements like these hadiths. Yes of course, “not all Muslims”. But by the same token, not all Destiny Church members. And no Destiny Church members have thrown gays off tall buildings. Once again, “not all Muslims”. I am not attacking Islam. I am pointing out the discriminatory treatment of all Destiny Church members compared with Islam in the petition. I am also pointing out that if we ask the government to proceed against Destiny, we are telling the government that it would be acceptable to proceed against Muslims on the same grounds. How long before it is we who are muzzled? You cannot defend minorities by attacking minorities. You cannot defend truth by attacking those who disagree with you. You cannot defend your own freedom by attacking the freedom of others.