There’s been a whole lot about “free speech” in the news lately. So much so that I hesitated to even write this article for fear of further saturating the airwaves. I felt like the subject was all but passé, and that it was probably time to move on to bigger, but not necessarily better things. Then the circus came to Charlottesville, VA and the show went off the rails. One person died. What a mess.
Somehow, all of this supposedly was to defend free speech, and maybe a statue or two. At first, I really didn’t think too much of it, apart from the girl who was killed. I had in mind the usual scene: a miniscule group of attention-seeking people in white hoods or a few cave dwellers emerging onto the steps of some city hall to briefly holler into megaphones before getting shouted down and possibly beat up by a much larger group of protesters. Happens on the regular, makes page 2 of the newspaper, maybe, then it’s on to things of more importance, like the sports section. Maybe, I thought, it was just a group of nostalgic southerners trying to prop up an embellished and partly fanciful version of confederate heritage. But this time was different. Hordes of swastika waving white nationalists going toe to toe with a brigade of black bandannas was not just another bemusing spectacle. Just ask the parents of the girl that was mowed down by that car. I guess I never expected, in 2017, to see the ideological descendants of those who made book burning famous clamoring for “free speech” just an hour from where I went to college. Creepy.
Creepier still is the growing association of America’s premier constitutional right with the image of white men screaming racial slurs, and their black-clad opponents. Mention the first amendment to a random college student, and I’ll bet you the first image in their head is now smoke bombs and fistfights, white hoods and black bandannas. Whether this association exists by accident or by conspiratorial design, we have a huge problem.
Even more creepy is a knee-jerk tendency from many, including some in the church, to somehow sympathize with these groups. Considering where our society is at right now, it’s almost hard not to. We’re all tired of seeing speakers shouted down, of spoiled college students squealing out their demands, and of constantly being told what we can and can’t say to keep someone else from throwing a fit or launching a lawsuit. Besides, although the constant news coverage is more recent, Christianity has been being squeezed from the American public square for years. Maybe it is time to give these people a taste of their own medicine, and break a jaw or two. Somebody has to stand for free speech, even if they do have a dubious dark side. The saying is true. Common enemies can make for bizarre bedfellows.
As far as I know, the Bible never mentions constitutional rights, or free speech. It does, however, have a lot to say about wise speech. And wise speech can take many forms depending on the context. There is a time to shout (Joshua), a time to speak out boldly (Acts), a time to use words with restraint (Proverbs 17) and privately explain things in detail (Acts 18), and a time for the wise person to keep silent (Amos 5). The wise man in Proverbs is repeatedly marked by gentleness and discretion, in sharp contrast to the loose lips and loud mouth of the fool. Perhaps the verse that comes first to my own mind is the familiar command in 1 Peter 3 to “always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”.
Less well known, however, is the sentence that comes right before it, “But in your hearts, revere Christ as Lord.” Giving an answer to those who ask depends on having Christ as Lord in our hearts. What comes out of our mouths, whether our speech is wise or foolish, is a reflection of who rules our hearts, and when Christ does not dictate, culture will, in one of two ways.* One is that we get blown whichever way the wind is blowing. Love first, judge never, offend no one. We may not be ready to fly rainbow flags in our sanctuary, but what about young Christians living together before marriage? Really? Don’t we have bigger fish to fry? And what about the sanctity of life? Isn’t that fight getting old? Anything to not be associated with that overweight aging hick from the sticks squawking about traditional values, whatever those are supposed to be. Segregated water fountains perhaps? Who knows. Times are changing, and the church needs to get with it. Besides, the cooler and less offensive the Gospel sounds to people, the faster it will spread, right? Being cool, at least within our own social circle, is important. Let’s not pretend otherwise. And being a sexually prude, submissive slave to an oppressively racist, hetero-normative and patriarchal society is definitely not cool.
The flipside is the reactionary response, where culture continues to dictate, but in reverse. In this scenario, we dig in our heels and take culture head on, even when, by God’s grace, culture gets it right. Judge first, love those who look and sound like us, offend everybody else, just because we can. Social justice and racial reconciliation? Better not touch that one, that’s liberal church territory. Women serving in the church? Whoa now, that’s a slippery slope to radical feminism. The homeless? The sojourner within our gates? Widows and orphans (and single moms) in their distress? I mean, the Bible mentions that but . . . don’t they have government programs for that? Why couldn’t those people just follow the rules? What are we here for, to subsidize poor choices by irresponsible people? We can’t afford to get our hands dirty, we have an image to protect.
One thing to remember: The Gospel will never, ever, be cool. It will always be offensive. The King of Glory didn’t willingly give up His cool card and utterly humiliate himself to rescue good, decent and dignified people. The Gospel is good news to filthy slobs wallowing helplessly in a sea of irresponsible and rebellious choices. Free speech is a blessing to be protected. Our persecuted brothers and sisters know the alternative. But what will we do with our privilege? God doesn’t need constitutional rights to advance his kingdom, and the church certainly doesn’t need neo-Nazis to defend its cause in the streets. The world needs us to boldly proclaim the Good News, not taking a verbal blowtorch to melt “snowflakes”. So may the church boldly proclaim Christ, not culture. May we speak freely, but wisely. May we live out the Gospel faithfully, and always do so with gentleness and respect.
*The idea of culture dictating to the church in two ways was shamelessly swiped from my dad, whom I have heard speak on this topic more than once.