Image courtesy @hertzbarry on Twitter.
A couple of weeks ago, a minor storm of controversy erupted in Twitter over the TTC’s allowance of religious ads. Actually, it was about one ad in particular but as is often the case with these things as they move into the mainstream media, somewhere we stopped talking about specifics and started talking about generalities. Should the TTC run religious ads at all? Should we be encouraging the TTC to ban religious advertising?
Perhaps it’s the timing, as we enter the Easter weekend, but this editorial from the Sun seems to be pretty standard commentary on this debate at present:
By allowing these ads, the TTC isn’t endorsing Islamic, Christian, or, for that matter, atheistic views.
True, religious-themed ads offend some people, and there have been complaints about both the latest Islamic and Christian ads to the TTC. But living in a democracy doesn’t guarantee anyone the right to never be offended.
People are free to accept, reject or ignore the messages of these ads, just as they are any other ad on the TTC.
The alternative is to ban all religious ads — including ones by atheists — which would raise concerns about freedom of expression and religion.
In fact, we support allowing more religious expression in the public square.
It’s actually quite a nuanced and considerate editorial from the Toronto Sun, but I think reading the debate along these lines ignores or forgets the original issue that brought this controversy to the surface in the first place. Nowhere does the Sun, or other commentators, ask, why now? Why this particular ad?
Because it was a particular ad that started the Twitter controversy — one that I myself participated in. Twitter commentators were upset over a particular advertisement, a copy of which you can see over at OpenFile Toronto. Posing as an advice column, the ad contains the following text:
Dear Jesus, My mom and dad do drugs at home and it scares me. Will you help them stop? Thank you for hearing my prayer.
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. If you do this you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand.”
—The Bible, Philippians 4:6-7, New Living Translation
Look, I’m a Christian, but I couldn’t help but smack my hand to my face at how utterly tone-deaf this ad is. I think you can see my problem, and the problem that any reasonable individual, regardless of faith, would have, especially if they had any idea of the sort of problems children of drug addicted parents face in their daily lives. I mean, let me sum this up in simpler terms: “Dear Jesus, my parents are on drugs, what do I do?”/”Pray!!”
Dear Jesus, I’m standing in the middle of the highway and a tractor trailer is barrelling towards me, what do I do? “PRAY!!”
Dear Jesus, I’m sinking in quicksand! What do I do? “PRAY!!”
Dear Jesus, an asteroid bigger than the one that killed the dinosaurs is barrelling towards Earth and I’m right under it. What do I do? “PRAY!!”
Actually, that last one might well be good advice, if you do it quickly.
But you get my problem here? It’s not that the ad is religious, it’s that the ad gives spectacularly bad advice to a big real-world problem, such that I as a Christian was embarrassed to have this go out in the name of my faith. If the ad had said, “Pray! And then call Family and Children’s Services, here’s their number,” then I’d have had much less objection to it. Similarly, if secular Coca Cola had advertised itself as the only cancer remedy anybody would ever need, I could see the resulting firestorm being much brighter.
And what happened to the practical advice that religious people used to offer? Didn’t Cromwell used to say “Put your faith in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.” Or what about the old Islamic saying: “trust in Allah, but tie up your camel”? When did religion become about ignoring prudent, real-world solutions, in favour of the catch-all tonic of prayer?