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

ding dong (quietly)

Janitor DoorbellOur doorbell doesn’t work very well. Actually, it does function exactly as it was set up to work, but that was not well-thought-out.

The chime is in the kitchen, which is at the back of the house. It’s a gentle ‘ding dong’ sound. If you are in the kitchen and the doorbell goes, that’s great, you can hear it. But there are a couple of problems.

Problem number one is that you can’t really hear it from outside, so people often assume it hasn’t rung. It happened just now when the postman rang the bell and shortly afterwards knocked loudly on the door so he could hand over a parcel.

Problem number two is that because the chime is situated at the back of the house and because it is a gentle ‘ding dong’ you can’t always hear it if you are in a different part of the house, especially if there is some extra sound (TV, radio, music, computer game) in the part of the house you happen to be in.

I’m not so sure that they are problems. They are more like fundamental flaws. The idea of a doorbell is to let you know that there is somebody outside the front door who would like your attention. If the people outside don’t know whether they have got your attention they may assume you are not at home and go away again. If you don’t know that there are people outside the door who want your attention you may miss them and they will have to try again (or you’ll have to trek across town to the delivery office).

In some ways I think Christians can be like our doorbell. We make a gentle noise that cannot always be heard over the ambient noise of daily life. We’re polite and would rather not disturb anyone thank you very much. And if we are not heard, well at least we tried.

On Sunday evening the preacher looked at the prophecy about John the Baptist in Isaiah 40. He was described as ‘a voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”‘* If you read the gospel accounts, John was not timidly whispering or gently encouraging, he was definitely calling.

So, I ask myself, this Christmas will I be more like our doorbell, or a voice calling…?

Be blessed, be a blessing.


*In Hebrew and Greek they didn’t have speech marks so it could also be ‘a voice of one calling, “In the desert prepare the way of the Lord.”‘