Results tagged “freedom of speech” from Reformation21 Blog

A Sensitive Muzzle


The young man was sitting in the airport, wearing a Harry Potter World cap and a simple black tee shirt. The non-stylized white text on the shirt was small enough to make you linger an extra moment in order to read the sentence: "Freedom of speech is not a license to be stupid." This slogan, in tweet form, advocates for something far more pervasive than the reaction of a bemused chuckle. It is, in fact, promoting a restructuring of the first amendment. This revised version of the amendment might well read: "Congress will make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, except when you want to say something stupid."

As a matter of fact, the first amendment is designed to protect precisely that--your right to say something stupid. Not in service of proliferating ignorance, but rather from a desire to protect its citizens from a much greater menace, namely, the establishment of an oligarchy with the power to arbitrate which statements, which beliefs, and which thoughts are and are not "stupid."

One might very well ask how we arrived here? When did people become so sensitive? Or is it perhaps rather the case that we have only now progressed to a level of humanitarian care for our fellows such that we understand and wish to protect against hurtful words? The sentiment of defensive outrage is only too understandable when we see the context from which these voices have arisen.

Imagine I'm a child of the culture at large. I am taught, from a young age, that truth is relative and people should be permitted to form and hold whatever beliefs they find most suitable. Therefore, I have no basis, nor do I want a basis for analyzing and critiquing judgments of value outside of what I feel. Abruptly I am thrust out into the larger world, nearly an 'adult', to discover that, not only do other people hold different values and beliefs, but some of those people may loudly and forcefully convey beliefs which assault my own ideas, including things which cut to the core of my identity and self-worth.

I have no tools to examine the structure of the other person's beliefs, to engage in dialogue, or to argue in search of, or in subject to some larger universal truth. We are two islands floating in sight of one another, but I have no ability, and certainly no desire to make a bridge to the other island. I refuse to be so gross in my inconsistency as to call the other person's ideas 'wrong'. All I know is that they are very hurtful ideas, and thus should not be expressed. Therefore, in great danger, and in mortal fear of these hurtful ideas against which I have no defense, I, the victim, throw my hands up in a desperate plea for a larger authority to have mercy, and allow me to exist in a protected, or 'safe space' from such personal abuse. The authorities can intervene by stopping the proclamation of those ideas, which are 'stupid', because they are hurting me. After all, we've long had laws on the books prohibiting false testimony, libel, and the like. Those got us somewhere, but wasn't the chief purpose of those laws all along to protect people from getting unfairly hurt? So we arrive in a muddled swamp of ideas, out of which the only clear arbitrating objective is to demand that we all 'get along' and 'be nice.'

Government and policy issues aside, what does a Christian say to the desire we all feel to not be hurt by offensive, demeaning, and disrespectful words? It is doubtful you will have much success in trying to upload to the other person a coherent, logical pattern for examining truth claims during the course of your conversation. Nor is that the deepest issue. The real issue is that people are mean, and they say mean things, and that hurts. The impulse to protect people from cruel verbal attacks on their worth and human dignity is a Christ-like response. However, the real solution we are looking for must dig far deeper than banning hate-speech.

Jesus says in Luke 6:45: "The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks." That means when you hear someone say vulgar, disrespectful, or unkind things, those words didn't arise out of an absence of good, restrictive legislation. There's a heart problem. That person has deeply set views and opinions, priorities and idolatries which they cannot hide. "The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence." (Prov 10:11 ESV) We observe an inextricable link between someone's character and their words, but the solution lies in the transforming work of God's Spirit within a life submitted to the Lordship of Christ, not in crafting a better, wider muzzle.

Last Friday, September 2, 2016, a group of students at Clemson University gathered to protest the suppression of free speech by campus officials. Christian evangelist Robbie Roberts had been removed from campus for sitting in a chair with a small sign marked, "Prayer" (see video and Wall Street Journal coverage). According to Clemson officials, Roberts was not in a "free speech zone," even though he was seated in a public park. WeRoar, a student group in support of first amendment rights, saw this as a violation of the US Constitution, as well as a betrayal of the spirit of inquiry for which a university exists. Many of the protesters were Christians, which has raised objections from some observers.   Let me respond with five questions and answers on the theme, "Should Christians Roar?"

  1. Q: Some observers have claimed that this is a safety issue for colleges. Is safety a valid reason to limit free speech in public places? A: Only if we believe that ideas are dangerous. Of all the nations that have ever existed, America stands out as a nation that does not believe that people - university students least of all - need to be protected from ideas.
  2. Q: Is it sinful for Christians to protest against government (or university) actions? Doesn't Romans 13:1-2 forbid civil resistance or disobedience? A: Romans 13:1-2 is often cited against Christians who resist or protest, since God has established the secular sovereign over each nation. However, in America at least, our sovereign is not a king but the United States Constitution. This is why government leaders enter office by swearing to uphold and defend the Constitution. Christian students who protest campus officials in defense of the Constitution are fulfilling the requirement of Romans 13:1-2, as in the case of the WeRoar protest, by showing loyalty to the authority God has established for our blessed land.
  3. Q: Should church leaders or campus evangelistic groups enter into campus protests? A: As a rule, the answer is No. Churches and their evangelistic auxiliaries on campus are charged by Christ with the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20), which focuses their calling on the spread of the gospel and the discipling of believers. When their members are involved in protests, pastors should of course provide them with counsel and prayer. Sometimes, the issues behind the protests will need to be illuminated by clear teaching from God's Word. But in general, the mission of the church is not well served by its direct involvement in government action.
  4. Q: If the church is called to proclaim the gospel, are Christians betraying the gospel when they protest about matters like free speech? A: The answer is 'No!' for the simple reason that Christians have multiple duties, one of which is their duty as citizens and members of a secular society. The idea that ordinary Christians should refuse to involve themselves in important public controversies, so that the gospel may be seen in an attractive light, has little support from history and often masks a culture-accommodating cowardice.
  5. Q: The conflict at Clemson started when an evangelist went onto campus and publicly practiced his faith. Should Christians be doing this? Isn't it obnoxious for us to preach and pray in public places where people are trying to take a break? A: Not if we believe that the eternal destiny of souls is at stake, as Christians do believe. Consider the example of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7:37-38 and John 8:12. Consider the public witness of the apostle Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16-21). Culturally trendy Christians may loathe the label of "proselytizing," but the Christian faith has always sought to bring the saving message of Jesus, and the peace that he gives through prayer, to where the needy sinners are.

Not quite Charlie Hebdo


It is not particularly surprising but it is disappointing. Furthermore, it is dangerous. It is in some respects the typical kneejerk reaction to current events (by which I mean events over the last few months, even years, rather than merely weeks), and the typical danger that you can never be entirely sure in which direction the knee will jerk and the foot will strike. It is the continued assault on freedom in the name of freedom.

In the last week or so school inspectors in the UK gave an unseemly grilling to primary school pupils at Grindon Hall Christian School, where the impression was clearly given (even if not intended) of a real hostility - in the name of promoting "British values" - to the school's distinctive Christian ethos.

Quite apart from the inappropriateness and intrusiveness of some of the questions asked by almost-complete strangers to young children (questions which, in any other context, might have been taken in an altogether distasteful way), it rather opened a window into the attitudes of some of those who are appointed guardians of freedom.

But time marches on, and new challenges are already arising. The government is now rapidly pushing forward legislation that will preserve our "British values" and combat anti-extremism. Among the consequences of this legislation would be the opportunity - even the requirement - for university authorities to vet the addresses and materials of visiting speakers. That is the context in which I first saw the warning given, but the consultation document is pushing it across the public sector at the very least, with a variety of services and spheres impacted. Effectively, a proactive and preventative demand for censorship would be imposed in a variety of key public settings and environments.

I am sure that the opportunities for those who believe that "British values" demand, or provide the opportunity to pursue, a sort of amorphous atheistic amorality will not be slow to use the weapon put in their hands. As so often, the latest two-edged Excalibur, offered as the key to defending freedom, may become the very means by which freedoms are curtailed.

Naturally, the government provides all manner of assurances about how such things are enforced. With regard to school inspections, for example, Department for Education guidance makes very clear that in advancing our ill-defined "British values" schools are not required to promote "other beliefs" or "alternative lifestyles." However, this seems to be precisely the point at which pressure was applied to the school in question not only corporately but individually and inappropriately with regard to particular students. We can expect that the same will happen with these new powers, should they come into law.

So, while our politicians line up with their pens and pencils aloft to trumpet their allegiance to free speech, they are simultaneously - and in the name of freedom - preparing to crack down on freedom of speech. It is, it seems, OK to be Charlie Hebdo (not personally, one understands, that would be a little dangerous, but it's fine for other people to be Charlie Hebdo), and be able to poke fun at the fundies of all stripes. That must be defended. But I suggest that it must be made clear that such swipes and skewerings are not the only expressions of freedom of speech.

Generally speaking, and despite media attempts to push us into the first of the following categories, true Christians are neither violent extremists (dogmatic conviction need not translate into militant physical aggression) nor extravagant satirists (willing and able to undermine and offend for the mere sake of it, and call it wit and art - never having read Charlie Hebdo, I cannot comment on whether or not or to what extent they fall into this category). The Christian's only real offense should be the offense of the cross, though the rugged edges and sharp points of that cross have a habit of puncturing pride and pomposity wherever it is found, and pride is of the essence of fallen man's sense of himself. The weapons of our spiritual warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. The armoury of God's kingdom bears little relation to those of the kingdoms of the world. However, those without spiritual discernment are quite prepared to lump true Christians in with the violent extremists and deny them any of the privileges of the extravagant satirists. Indeed, the very nature of our message indicates that the gospel will be among the first and most aggressively pursued targets of those who - in the name of freedom - wish to silence dissent.

Only a fool would deny the difficulty of ensuring genuine freedom of speech and expression while at the same time preserving a measure of social order and cultural decency. But the response to terrorism, even Islam's militarised religious supremacism, should not be to diminish all freedoms. That will not halt the terrorists, not least those driven by religionised hatred. In some respects, it will simply simplify their task.

But watch this space, for this is the brave new world. As mentioned in a previous post, to the humanist unbeliever who denies that he or she exists in their own tightly woven cocoon of a certain kind of 'faith', the Christian is just one of a range of dangerously nutty voices in the gallery of the fruitcakes. Indeed, the offense of the cross means that our gospel words will prove the pre-eminent spiritual red rag to the bulls of mere human reason and religion. But, if we are true to our convictions, we know that we echo the one voice of true reason, the single declaration of spiritual sanity, the alone hope of salvation, in an otherwise unstable and disordered world, wrecked by sin and riddled with its consequences. Unbelieving humanism is one among the range of rotten systematised alternatives to the truth as it is in Jesus. To whom else should we go? Christ has the words of eternal life.

We should expect that our freedom to make known the hope of the world will be deliberately (whether incrementally or more abruptly) assaulted and where possible eroded and removed by the very world that needs to hear it. The patients will assault the envoys of the only doctor with a cure for their condition. We must therefore ensure that our declarations and their accompanying actions are entirely consistent, that we bring with us everywhere the savour of Christ. As citizens of earthly kingdoms, we are entitled graciously yet firmly to assert our rights as citizens. But as citizens of heaven, we do not expect to find the warmest of welcomes in a hostile world. So let us brace ourselves against the storm, hold fast to the Christ who holds fast to us, speak the truth in love, call sinners to repent and believe, love our enemies, serve our Redeemer, and press on toward glory.