The Christian MP is now accused of incitement and discrimination. Her trial is a test of religious freedom. I am talking to Päivi Räsänen.
Dear Päivi, Please briefly introduce yourself to the readers of the Igeidők Magazin.
I studied medicine at the University of Helsinki, graduated 1984, and worked as a medical doctor until 1995 when I was elected to the Parliament of Finland.
Faith is the basis for my life.
I chose to be a member of the Christian Democrats because of its unique view on human dignity. During my university years, I led the missionary work among the university students, and we went from door to door talking about Jesus to other students. During the summer times I participated to missionary trips abroad. I am married to Niilo Räsänen, D.Th. and the Principal of the Finnish Lutheran Mission Bible College. We have five grown-up children and ten grandchildren.
In 1993, I was elected to the Riihimäki City Council and in 1995 a Member of Parliament. Since June 2011 to 2015, I held the office of the Minister of the Interior of Finland. As a minister, I was responsible for internal security and migration in addition to church affairs. I am currently the chair of the Christian Democratic Parliamentary Group. From 2004 to 2015, I was the chair of our party, Christian Democrats of Finland. Currently, I am also a member of the local Church Council. Just in February, I was elected to wellbeing service county council.
The prosecutor general filed three charges against me.
The whole process started in June 2019, when I posted a tweet addressing a question to the leadership of my church that had signed up to support Pride. The essential content of the tweet was a photo from the Bible, Romans 1:24-27. The other charges are about a pamphlet I had written in 2004, ” Male and female He created them” and a humorous radio interview “What would Jesus think about homosexuals?”.
How are you? A few weeks have passed since your court trial. How do you feel now, and how is your everyday life?
I am doing very well thank you. I am relieved that the long waited and heavy trial days are over. I hope that the court will acquit me and Bishop Juhana Pohjola from all the charges and declare us not guilty. The decision of the court will come on 30th March. I am hopeful to win the case but even if I do not win, I think this whole chain of events is part of my calling as a Christian influencer.
Let us talk a little bit about how this case started. How is it possible that a court proceeding could begin against a Christian in Finland who had quoted from the Bible? When could you sense the change? Since when have you had to think twice about how to describe marriage, and about what kind of words you should use when you talk about being created male and female, on the basis of the truth written in the Bible?
I have been member of the parliament for 27 years and all the time open of my faith and Christian values.
I was very surprised, even shocked, of the prosecutor general’s decision to file charges against me.
The pressure to stay away from the influence of Christian faith is strongly growing in our societies. This is visible both in the political discussions and in the decision making, whether we think of the protection of life at the very beginning or at the end of life, or marriage. Expressing opinions about marriage belonging between one man and one woman, or the sinfulness of homosexual acts, has become politically incorrect.
This case is about whether it is allowed in Finland to cite the Bible and to agree with it in current topics that create controversy. In all the charges, I have denied any wrongdoing. The points of view for which I am accused do not deviate from so-called classical Christianity, nor does my view on marriage deviate from the official policy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. The prosecution’s interpretation would have a material impact on the narrowing of the scope of religious freedom in Finland – and is therefore highly damaging from the perspective of fundamental rights. I have always stressed that all human beings are created in the image of God and have equal dignity and human rights.
What did you feel when it became a reality that a court proceeding had begun because of the message and the words written in the Bible which you believe?
Being criminally charged for voicing my deeply held beliefs in a country that has such deep roots in freedom of speech and religion feels unreal. I have been talking about these same issues for a very long time and never thought I would someday be in court because of them. According to the law of Finland, it is legal to speak and preach about what the Bible teaches.
I never thought publishing a biblical tweet might be criminal.
I do not see I would have in any way defamed homosexuals whose human dignity and human rights I have constantly said to respect and defend. However, the Bible’s teaching on marriage belonging between man and woman is clear.
Most likely, I am facing a series of trials that will take several years. I expect this case to go even to the European Court of Human rights and I am ready to defend free speech and freedom of religion as far as it needs. My case sets a precedent in Finland, but also more widely. The decision of the court will be set a significant precedent that may impact the legislation within Europe in the future.
How can we imagine that fundamental human rights such as the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech and expression could be so much restricted and even understood as hate speech in a western well-developed country?
Freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of expression are firmly guaranteed in the International Human Rights Treaties and in the Constitution of Finland.
There is no universally agreed definition of ‘hate speech’.
Nobody knows exactly what it is. If hate speech was in our legislation, there would be a great risk that it limited our freedom of religion and free speech.
These criminal procedures are attempts to restrict free speech and freedom of religion. The same kind of development is visible in the whole Europe. However, it is strange that we have gone so far in Finland. It makes me think of Finlandization: we were once afraid to publicly criticize the Soviet Union. Nowadays it is politically incorrect to say anything negative about gender ideology. The rise of “cancel culture”, the idea of publicly defaming and thrusting a person who holds certain beliefs out of social media or professional circles, is a threat to any free society that claims to be tolerant and equal.
What was the reaction of the Finnish society and church to your court trial?
Many churches and leading figures from different Christian organizations from Finland and abroad have shown their strong support for my case for which I am thankful. I have received thousands of messages from Finland and abroad, in which people have told how God has through my case encouraged them to pray and trust God’s word.
Many Christians in Finland have wakened up to defend faith and religious freedom.
In July, over one thousand people gathered in front of our Parliament building and concretely raised up in their hands their Bibles to collectively show strong support for the freedom of God’s Word. The Finnish Association for Freedom of Speech and Religion was founded in June to support the case and possibly similar cases in the future.
What was the reaction of the police? How can we imagine the interrogation of the formal Interior Minister?
The filing of the charges was preceded by 1,5 years of police investigation and several long police interrogations The police did not consider any crime to have been committed in two of the cases, but the Prosecutor General nevertheless ordered preliminary investigations to be carried out. It was a strange experience to be questioned by the police, who were under my responsibility when I was minister.
But in a way I felt privileged to have the possibility to explain the core message of the Bible to the police.
I have sat hours in police interrogations, and the questions have mainly focused on the Bible and its interpretation.
The pamphlet I wrote back in 2004 takes a stand on ecclesiastical policy, social policy, sexuality and marriage from a Christian perspective. What is worth noting here is the fact that the police prepared and released earlier a thorough 11-page decision that my pamphlet gave no cause for criminal investigation nor was there any reason to suspect that any crime had taken place. In the decision, the police also noted: “If, for example, any of the viewpoints contained in the Bible would be considered sufficient, as such, to fulfil the criteria for the crime of ethnic agitation, then the distribution of the Bible or rendering it available would, in principle, be considered a crime of ethnic agitation and thus punishable.”
In regard to the due process of law it is problematic that highly educated public authorities take stands so far from one another in their interpretation of the law. If an MP, a legislator, who has been in office for the past 25 years, does not recognize a potential crime, how then can an ordinary citizen detect the possibility of such crime? The police also asked if I agree to delete within two weeks my writings. I answered that I stand behind these teachings of the Bible, whatever the consequences are. For the Christians, the Bible is the Word of God, and we must have the possibility to agree with it.
The followers of liberal theology have turned against you. What is their reasoning for the acceptance of gender and LMBTQ ideology? What Bible verses do they use to support their argument?
It is unfortunate how uncritically even the churches have adopted a very liberal stance towards Christianity and endorsed especially all the LGBT activism. The majority Church in Finland is very silent about these issues.
At the trial, the prosecutor targeted the core doctrine of Christianity.
She claimed that my views are known as “fundamentalist” doctrine, which she summarized as “love the sinner, hate the sin”. This doctrine she regarded as insulting and defaming, because according to her, you cannot make a distinction between the person’s identity and his or her action. If you condemn the act, you also condemn the human being and regard him or her as inferior.
Here, the prosecutor tries to deny the core message of the Bible: the teaching of law and gospel. God has created all human beings as His own image and we all have equal value, but we all are also sinners. No-one’s human dignity decreases because of sin. God still loves the person, but hates the sin. The Christian concept of loving one’s neighbour does not mean accepting sin. We must speak the whole biblical truth in love to our neighbours. It is tragic that people have so false conceptions about true Christianity. When people do not know the loving and merciful God, what is left is a punishing and a very limited picture of the Christian faith.
Together with your husband, who is a pastor, what is your reaction to these attacks on these views? Is dialogue possible at all?
In a democratic country, we should have the possibility to disagree and debate about controversial issues.
Otherwise, the development is towards a totalitarian system. A true problem is that many of the conservative-minded people are silent about important issues, whereas the advocacy groups of sexual minorities are very aggressive and well organized and have strongly affected the development of the church and the media.
We believe that ultimately the purpose of these attacks is to eliminate the Word of God and discard the Law of God. It is impossible for us to think that the classical Christian views and the doctrine of the majority of denominations would become illegal. We have also been amazed how this case has opened up new, unexpected opportunities to spread the Gospel.
We have also written together a book titled “What About Marriage?” The book is a statement on marriage from a Christian perspective. We are worried about how uncritically same sex partnerships has been supported in some churches across the world. The book is available at Amazon and has been translated in several languages, for example in English.
We have a great responsibility for the next generations. As a mother and a grandmother how do you suggest we should talk about the gender ideology to our children?
The battle between values is largely fought with language,
by capturing the concepts like love, freedom, equality and even rainbow into new interpretations. Concepts such as man and woman, father and mother, are dearly loved and as old as the history of humanity. We Christians and our values are unfamiliar to everyday life or even considered to be dangerous.
I am concerned that in the future Christians will have a higher threshold presenting teachings based on the Bible. If we do not now use our right to speak freely, the space to use our rights will eventually get even smaller. It is absolutely vital that Christians have the liberty to teach and speak about God’s Holy Word also at those times when Christianity and the values that derive from it go against the tide and challenge the current ethos and thinking. The parents’ right to raise their children needs to be strengthened and acknowledged. The attempt to break down the gender system based on two different genders hurts especially the children.
Trends come and go. How do you see the future of Christianity in the light of these events? What might be the consequences? What do you think the reaction of Christians should be and what should we be prepared for?
The decision of the court has consequences not only to Christians’ freedom to express their conviction, but to everyone else’s also. The possible sentence for the crime of ethnic agitation would be up to two years imprisonment or a fine. But an even more serious problem would be the resulting censorship: an order to remove social media updates or a ban on posting.
The sentence would open the floodgates to a ban on similar publications and the threat of modern book burnings. It is my honour to defend freedom of speech and religion.
If we neglect the right to speak up and publicly confess our faith, the space for speaking will eventually get smaller. We are especially called to stand firm in those parts of the Scriptures that contradict the spirit of the time. When cases like mine arise, the international community should voice their concern over such attacks on free speech. Christians should encourage their countries to adhere to their national and international commitments to protect the freedom of speech and be courageous in speaking according to their faith in the public.
How can we be faithful to the truth and loving at the same time?
The question here is about the core of Christian faith. About the trustworthiness of the Bible’s teachings and ultimately how a person gets saved into unity with God and into everlasting life though the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus. Every person has the right to hear the whole truth of God’s Word.
The problem is that people do not want to accept the concept of sin. This is the marketing problem of Christianity.
We must recognize that for example child welfare, human dignity, appreciation of human rights and the foundation of our civilization have their roots in the Christian view of man. We need to defend this. The teachings concerning marriage and sexuality in the Bible arise from love to one’s neighbour, not from hate towards a group of people.
The prosecutor has tried to deny the core message of the Bible: the teaching of law and gospel. God has created all human beings as His own image and we all have equal value, but we all are also sinners. No-one’s human dignity decreases because of sin. God still loves the person but hates the sin.
Sin is a theological concept that describes the relationship between God and man and God is the one who defines what sin is. God so loved all the people that He gave His only Son to die on the cross to suffer the punishment that belonged to us because of our sins.
Jesus condemned the sin but loved the sinners. The world needs to hear this and we Christians need to use our basic rights to speak up in public spaces.
What does the support of your family, of your husband and of your children mean to you during these difficult times of trial?
I am grateful for having had the support of my family throughout my public career. Throughout my parliamentarian career I have received much criticism, also regarding these statements for which I was prosecuted. I am thankful that all my children have encouraged me to stay strong and not to give up when facing opposition.
Besides your family, many Christians have stood up for you and have prayed for you all over the world, including in Hungary. What has this support of prayer and brotherly fellowship meant to you?
It has been astonishing to witness the huge international and national support I have received. People have told how God has through my case encouraged them to pray and trust God’s word.
Many churches and leading figures from different Christian organizations from abroad have shown their strong support for my case. For example, the Union of Pentecostal Churches of Lithuania, the European Evangelical Alliance, representing tens of millions of evangelical Christians in Europe, and the International Lutheran Council with Bishops and presidents of Synods from several countries have expressed support. The strong support I continually receive from abroad feels very encouraging. For example, a couple of weekends ago, just before the second trial day, thousands of people rallied in Budapest in front of the Finnish Embassy!
The verdict will be announced on the 30th March. What is your hope and prayer?
According to my knowledge, the court has to for the first time take a stand on whether it is legal or not to cite the Bible. The judges have to weigh the relations between the foundational rights and the criminal law and the interrelationship between different foundational laws. I pray that righteousness and justice would prevail in Finland, that Christians would not be afraid of speaking up during these challenging times and that my case would set a positive precedent for the future regarding Christians and their right to express their faith in the public.
Dear Päivi! Thank you very much for the interview. Jesus says: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” (Mt 10,32). Let this promise be an encouragement to you. May God bless and keep you and your family.
* Finlandization: is the process by which one powerful country makes a smaller neighboring country refrain from opposing the former’s foreign policy rules, while allowing it to keep its nominal independence and its own political system. The term means “to become like Finland” referring to the influence of the Soviet Union on Finland’s policies during the Cold War.
The original interview was published in Hungarian for the ‘Igeidők Magazin’, which is a Hungarian Christian online magazine edited by the Hungarian Baptist Church.
Main photo: Sofia Hörder