Does the friendly image of the member of the Parliament hide an ultra-conservative woman full of hatred?
Yesterday, 14 November, Päivi Räsänen spoke to media outlets after her new victory in court, or, in other words, the second defeat for the state prosecutor that has led her to what some are calling Finland’s Bible trial.
One thing has not changed in this veteran doctor and politician since she became well-known beyond her country’s borders in 2019: the smile on her face.
At the press conference for international media at 3’30pm, attended by Evangelical Focus along with others such as the Washington Times and Christianity Today, the Finnish Member of Parliament investigated for 4 years for “ethnic agitation” and “insulting homosexuals”, was calm.
She repeated several times her thankfulness for the “wholehearted support” received by her husband and children, and mentioned her 11 grandchildren, the last one born only a few days ago.
Neither her time as her country’s Interior Minister, heading the police and other security forces, nor the debates with opponents during her 28 years as a national politician seem to have dented her unassuming demeanour. Räsänen speaks in a direct and concise way, without the usual political roundaboutness and gesticulation. And when she listens to a question from the audience, she does so with an almost pastoral attitude (her husband, Niilo, by the way, is a Lutheran minister).
Her joy, contained but evident, was described in details she told journalists. Like the fact that she did not know the unanimous sentence of the three judges until an hour before it was made public. Or that a 16-year-old student wrote her an email after learning of the verdict saying she now felt safer to talk about her faith at school.
Bishop Juhana Pohjola (also acquitted by the Helsinki Court of Appeal) spoke of his relief for not being branded “a criminal” and how he shared Psalm 103, “a psalm of thankfulness”, with his family.
[photo_footer] Päivi Räsänen, speaking at the press conference for international media on 14 November 2023. / Photo: Evangelical Focus.
Does this kindly image of the member of the small Christian Democrats party hide an ultra-conservative woman full of hatred? There is no doubt that she is a controversial figure in Finland. While it is true that she has received support from some rival politicians and atheist figures for her defence of free speech, it is also a reality that most voices in the media have portrayed her as “extremist” and “fundamentalist”. Labels that most of society applies to anyone who reads the Bible as an authority for life, Reverend Pohjola added with a sense of worry.
The Lutheran Church of Finland (of which Räsänen is a member) has left behind the historic Christian position on sexual ethics, and several of its leading theologians have taken a stand against Räsänen for not joining the national Protestant church’s new interpretations of marriage and sexual identity.
But the problem for those who say that Räsänen is only looking for political mileage is that neither her political ideology nor her party appears in her narrative these days. In the trial and in his public statements, her discourse revolves around three axes: fundamental freedoms for all, the important role of faith in the public space, and interestingly enough, the message of the gospel. It is striking how many times in this case she has explained that “all people are sinners” and that God’s forgiveness is available to everyone.
“No one should be punished for peacefully expressing their beliefs”, Räsänen told the international media hours after her acquittal. “In a free society, people’s faith is not to be kept hidden” and “freedom of expression should not be attacked by the state”, she stated. To agree with this, one does not need to be a Christian, she said.
With references to Esther in the Old Testament, Räsänen has come to the conclusion that her trials are an opportunity to fight for other believers. And in the face of reports that the prosecutor will now take her case to the Supreme Court (which only accepts 6% of appeals but could go ahead due to the case’s media impact), the Christian doctor insists she is ready.
Defending freedoms before a judge, nevertheless, is not enough. “Both Christian churches and Christian individuals have a responsibility and duty to try to impact society and spread the good news, persuading people’s thinking”, she said.
In a post-Christian Europe, Bishop Pohjola added, “our vocation as Christians - and as a pastor in my case - is to guard the faith, to teach it publicly and to carry the cross, paying the price of being a witness for Christ in this age”.
All this, of course, without losing our smile.
Joel Forster, journalist and director of Evangelical Focus.