how free is speech?

see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

One of the foundational principles of life is ‘freedom of speech’ (or freedom of expression to use the more inclusive term). In many countries it is enshrined in the Constitution and a basic ‘right’, and where it is denied by those in power it is one of the things that the people crave. It is one of the ‘self-evident’ principles of life that everyone should be free to say what they think without fear of persecution. People still die for this principle. The associated principle of ‘freedom of conscience’ (the freedom to believe whatever you want to believe) is one of the principles that drove the early Anabaptist dissenters to separate from the Established Church – Baptist Christians (should) have it in our DNA.

But even in a country that champions freedom of speech we put legal limits around it in public – those limits are defined by criminal and civil laws. You do not have the right to say things that are threatening, abusive or insulting to others. You do not have the right to say things that will incite others to hatred or violence. You do not have the right to say things that are factually incorrect about another person. If you do any of these things there are consequences: you may find that you are prosecuted or sued.

But aside from the legal sanctions that exist I think that there should be other limits on freedom of speech. Those limits are grace, love and humility.

I might disagree completely with someone else.

That is freedom of conscience.

I don’t have to agree with someone.

They don’t have to agree with me.

But if my disagreement leads me to vitriolic condemnation of that person or their position I have already lost the argument. If I resort to name-calling and insults the integrity of my position is undermined. If I insist on winning at all costs I have missed the opportunity to learn. If I misquote or am selective about what the other person has said in order to make them look silly I have only succeeded in making myself look silly. If I am motivated by prejudice it says nothing about the other person and everything about me

I can disagree. I do disagree. I seek to explain and educate. I proclaim (although that precludes conversation). I ask to be heard. I listen. I discuss. I defend. I even attack. I promote my position. But as a follower of Jesus these things need to be done with grace, love and humility. If not, see the previous paragraph.

I fervently believe in Jesus Christ, his message, his mission and his ministry. His life, death and resurrection are central to who I am, what I am and how I am. I believe that they are the most important events in human history. I would love everyone I know to share that because of what I believe. But I have no right to impose my views on others. If I resort to vitriol, condemnation, name-calling, insults, victory, misquoting or am motivated by prejudice then I have missed so much of what Jesus said and did.

You see the only time he really got angry, the only really harsh words that he had, the only stinging criticism he had was reserved for the religious leaders of his day (his own people). With everyone else he had a different approach: he invited, he explained, he illustrated, he was a living example, he laughed with, he told engaging stories, he challenged (provocatively), he was winsome, he wept with… he was loving, gracious and humble.

Speech is not free. It costs. If it is misused or abused the price we pay is the right to be heard, the right to be taken seriously and the opportunity to grow and learn from others.

Please, God, may I be more like Jesus?

Be blessed, be a blessing

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