Words are incredibly powerful things. From the very beginning it is words that have exerted enormous influence in our universe.
Gen. 1:3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
The power of words is, in some way, linked to the power of the one speaking. I can’t stand in my darkened office as the sun goes down and illumine the place with the power of my speech. Yet at the same time, often I can underestimate the power of my words, and often not in a good way…
Job 19:2 “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?
Prov. 10:19 Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.
Prov. 12:18 The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
James 3:5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
So here is the great dilemma in speech. We can do so much good, and yet also so much harm. Any sensible person learns to be careful about words, both our own and those of others.
Which brings us to the dilemma our western culture has been bumped into having to consider at haste following on from the now notorious attack upon the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. How free can our speech be?
In the aftermath of the attacks the phrase “Je suis Charlie” was bandied about; “I am Charlie”.
“Je suis Charlie” (French pronunciation: [ʒə sɥi ʃaʁ.li], French for “I am Charlie”) is a slogan adopted by supporters of free speech and freedom of expression after the 7 January 2015 massacre in which twelve people were killed at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. It identifies a speaker or supporter with those who were killed at the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and by extension, a supporter of freedom of speech and resistance to armed threats. Some journalists embraced the expression as a rallying cry for the freedom of self-expression.
All of a sudden “freedom of speech” has become the order of the day, and the antidote to the violence we have seen on our streets. More accurately, “freedom of expression”, since Charlie Hebdo’s most prominent speech was actually in the form of cartoons, graphic words with graphic messages. The graphic message that prompted the terrible executions earlier this month was an image of the Prophet Mohammed, and not just any image. Making images of the Prophet is forbidden in Islam. But Charlie Hebdo went one brushstroke further, they produced a satirical, deliberately offensive and provocative cartoon.
Scholar Allan Bloom points out that Swift’s critique of science (the experiments of Laputa) is the first such questioning by a modern liberal democrat of the effects and cost on a society which embraces and celebrates policies pursuing scientific progress.
A possible reason for the book’s classic status is that it can be seen as many things to many different people. Broadly, the book has three themes:
A satirical view of the state of European government, and of petty differences between religions…
More recently there has been the joy of Spitting Image, including this kind of thing…
Making fun of things that we think are wrong is, of course, a Biblical trait…
Is. 44:13 The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. 14 He cut down or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
15 It is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. 16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” 17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”
How ridiculous to chop down a tree and use the same wood to both cook your supper and make an idol that you call on to save you! Sometimes the satire is, well, toilet humour…
Judg. 3:24 After [Ehud] had gone, the servants [of King Eglon] came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, “He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the palace.” 25 They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead.
1Kings 18:27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”
One fat king was apparently sitting on the throne. Another false God might as well have been. Here is a wonderfully creative, and yet at the same time destructive use of words.
Words are very powerful things.
And these words, we are told, must not be silenced. Je suis Charlie; we must keep freedom of expression. But what is the freedom that we are actually being asked to defend?
It’s tragically ironic that France should be the place where this so-called freedom is being championed. France, perhaps one of the most deliberately secular states in Europe, has not believed in genuine freedom of expression for quite a while…
The French ban on face covering (French: Loi interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace public, “Act prohibiting concealment of the face in public space”) is an act of parliament passed by the Senate of France on 14 September 2010, resulting in the ban on the wearing of face-covering headgear, including masks, helmets, balaclava, niqābs and other veils covering the face in public places, except under specified circumstances. The ban also applies to the burqa, a full-body covering, if it covers the face. Consequently, full body costumes and Zentais (skin-tight garments covering entire body) were banned. The bill had previously been passed by the National Assembly of France on 13 July 2010.
The key argument supporting this proposal is that face-coverings prevent the clear identification of a person, which is both a security risk, and a social hindrance within a society which relies on facial recognition and expression in communication. The key argument against the ban is that it encroaches on individual freedoms.
The French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools bans wearing conspicuous religious symbols in French public (i.e. government-operated) primary and secondary schools. The law is an amendment to the French Code of Education that expands principles founded in existing French law, especially the constitutional requirement of laïcité: the separation of state and religious activities.
That’s right; you can’t wear a cross to school in France.
Now how can this possibly in any way be spoken of as “freedom of expression”? It’s quite the opposite. It’s the silencing of any expression that we might consider out of place. We see a similar vein applied in different ways in the U.K.,
A Christian magistrate has been disciplined by a Tory Cabinet Minister for expressing the belief that children should be raised by both a mother and a father.
Richard Page told colleagues behind closed doors during an adoption case that he thought it would be better for a child to be brought up in a traditional family rather than by a gay couple.
He was shocked a week later when he found he had been reported to the judges’ watchdog for alleged prejudice, and was suspended from sitting on family court cases.
Mr Page, an experienced NHS manager, has now been found guilty of serious misconduct by Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling – who previously spoke in support of a Christian couple who turned away a gay couple from their B&B.
He has also been ordered to go on an equality course before he is allowed back in the courtroom.
The married 68-year-old was told he had broken the oath sworn by all Justices of the Peace (JPs) as well as Labour’s controversial Equality Act, by being guided by his religious views and discriminating against the same-sex adoptive parents.
Last night, critics said the case was another example of how people who hold traditional Christian views feel they have no freedom of speech and find it difficult to hold public office in modern Britain.
Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention guarantee not only freedom of belief and conscience but also the right to manifest such belief in public or in private.
In spite of subscribing to the UN Declaration and the European Convention, and contrary to our own Human Rights Act, the Government and law officers, it seems, are intent on preventing Christians from manifesting their belief in the public sphere.
The implications are wider than that for what is said about Mr Page could apply equally to Jews, Muslims and others.
The reality is that we increasingly see a rejection of genuine principles of free expression. I even notice it in the small things. My children used to have “International Day” at school. Everyone would come in a massive variety of national dress. Then it became “Harmony Day” and everyone comes wearing Orange. See the shift? If you don’t wear orange you’re not harmonious. As though harmony was about everyone playing the same note.
Any of us who have stood up in any kind of public forum and sought to advocate, however graciously, for what might be considered conservative moral values (especially in the field of sexual ethics) know just how “free” others want us to be. We are not encouraged to contribute to a rich and varied debate. No, many seek to silence us.
So what is the freedom of speech or expression that our Western culture wants to protect? Well, let’s return to Charlie Hebdo and think through what they do. Simply put, the freedom sought after is the freedom to ridicule those that we do not agree with, but not their freedom to make themselves heard and understood, or simply to express themselves.
Am I saying that the Mohammed cartoon caused the problem? No, but it’s certainly a remarkably illustrative expression of it. Giles Fraser, who I normally have little time for, hits this nail on the head…
Republican identity requires something new to define itself against – something just like radical Islam. As Voltaire put it: “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.” Thus France picked a fight with Islam by banning the headscarf from schools in 2004 and the niqab from all public life back in 2010 – bans which closely echo the hostility of earlier generations to the veiling of nuns.
But there is a huge difference between targeting grand bishops in Rome and a beleaguered, economically fragile Muslim community that has received a great many knocks at the hands of the French state and its colonial past. Rabelaisian derision aimed at the House of Saud or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is one thing. But aimed at the disaffected banlieues it is bullying and goading.
Again, am I saying that the Charlie Hebdo Mohammed cartoon caused the attacks? Of course not, but there is a deeply distressing irony that we now complain about such a violent response to an opposing point of view when our own expression or our view point can so often be violent in it’s own way. When we use our words to exclude, to defame, to misrepresent and to marginalise those we disagree with (and it’s surely the case that this is happening increasingly in our Western society over questions of human sexuality) then it’s pretty strong chutzpah to only point the finger at those pointing guns because, actually, the pen very often really is mightier than the sword. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons may not have in themselves been a violent blow to the heart, but the attitude that lingers behind them and so many other attacks on others who don’t conform to the new moral and societal standards can be the death of a thousand paper cuts.
Words are very powerful things. Perhaps that’s why our society really doesn’t want us all to speak and express ourselves freely. Silence is far easier on our ears.
So, having written my own editorial, where to from here? What do we do with our freedom of speech, or lack of it?
Well, as I have answered before, the only response must be to keep speaking. Why?
Some might argue that the right to speak freely is a basic human right on which any civilised, democratic society depends. That’s true as far as it goes and I think a good case can be mounted Biblically that we ought to defend such rights in and of themselves. It’s no coincidence that, in general, the freer the speech in a place the more there are other rights and wellbeings too. But that’s more an observation of correlation, not causation and there are yet greater things to speak of.
I want to draw your attention to the Freedom that Speech Brings.
Words are very powerful things.
Rom. 10:8 But what does [the Scripture] say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: 9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Rom. 10:14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
The gospel, the good news of what Jesus Christ has done for us, is brought to us in words. This sounds so obvious to our ears so as not to need stating, but in a world where our words are increasingly under scrunity and censorship we ought not to lose sight of it. The Scriptures are full of words that tell us exactly what Jesus has done and how we ought to respond and those words are then to be passed on by others with beautiful feet and computers and radio shows and whatever else it might be. Listen to Jesus,
John 8:31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my words, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Words are very powerful things. Jesus’ words, being truth, bring true freedom. Jesus Himself is the one true Word (John 1:1), the utterly clear expression of the Father and when He speaks the world should stop and listen and respond (Phil. 2:11). His voice is the one that brings us all into common speech (Acts 2:4), many tongues but one message of grace and truth. It is again ironic that the new cartoon produced by Charlie Hebdo in the aftermath of the killing has Mohammed saying “all is forgiven”. Mohammed forgiving Muslims for doing what he himself wrote of in the Qu’ran. Charlie Hebdo sought to speak for Mohammed using words that Mohammed would never have used. It hardly moves the engagement forward. Free speech, no doubt, but not speech that freed anything up.
But when the Christian speaks of what Jesus has said and done, well there are wonderful words that provide the answer to so much of the distress that we are in. There are words that seek the best for the other. There are words that are prepared to suffer for the one who has wronged us. There are words that reach out to smooth over terrible hurts, not simply make a point.
And there are words which will get us into a lot of trouble.
So now the great dilemma. The only true speech of freedom is a word that our society so often wishes to silence while at the same time claiming that it champions free speech. What are we to do? I’ll leave the last word to Peter and John.
Acts 4:18 Then [the Sanhedrin] called [Peter and John] in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! 20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Christian, go speak freely.