Freedom of speech is a burning topic in Western democracies. Christian groups are rightly worried that the freedom to publicly dissent on a variety of topics, notably in the realm of public ethics, is in danger of being curtailed.
For the Christian, however, the freedom to speak is a subset of – or a benefit of – another speech freedom altogether: the freedom of what to speak. There is a difference, so let me explain.
Language is theological. Sin and rebellion enters the world through the lie of the serpent about what God really said. Since the time of human rebellion, indeed as proof of that rebellion in Adam’s ensuing verbal to-ing and fro-ing with his Creator, the gap between words and consequences – speech acts if you like – grows. The creation is broken and the break between language and intentions widens into a chasm.
We are no longer free in the way we use words – sin has bound us. So at our worst we use words to hide meaning, to hurt people, to be economic with the truth, to curse God, to praise what is unpraiseworthy. And at our best, our words do not line up with our actions, we over-promise and under deliver, we flatter others to boost our own egos or gain advantage. We vow to “love you forever” and fail. We are created Imago Dei, but fall short of this glory and our speech inevitably suffers as a result.
Clearly humans have maintained the freedom to speak, but the freedom to speak the way God – the ultimate Speaker – created us to speak, that we have lost as part of our total depravity. The command sits ever before us: “You shall not lie”, but we do. And to break the command of God means that we are worthy of death.
Of course the hope of the gospel is that true freedom of speech is once again available to us, through the benefits of the saving work of the Word of God himself – the Lord Jesus Christ. Well did his opponents say of him, “Never a man spoke like this man.” No hyperbole there!
This freedom, not so much to speak, but of what to speak, is granted to his Church by the power of His Spirit. And as the Church we become the one place in the world where there is true freedom to speak the way God intended. We become a speech-act ourselves as our words and actions are empowered to align as they once did back in the Garden.
It is no accident therefore that there is a litany of exhortations in the New Testament letters about what God’s people say and how they say it, and all of it clearly linked to the new creation work of Christ – a work that is returning us not simply to the image of God, but to the image of His Son! So we get this for instance:
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Col 3:8-10)
The command not to lie is linked to the old self being put off and the new being put on. And not simply that, but to the original creation image intention. That’s a freedom those who still belong to the old self just do not have!
The same request is then presented from the perspective of belonging to the body of Christ:
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.( (Ephesians 4:25)
And the standard language at a party in the suburbs these days is rejected with all of the confidence that it does not have to be this way:
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:4)
Note that as God’s people we have something to fill the awkward silences – thanksgiving! Imagine at every party you attended that when the room lulled for a moment, after all of the standard fare had been discussed, you quipped; “But hey, here’s something for us to thankful for!” The very idea of giving thanks so washes through the New Testament that we barely realise how significant that ongoing verbal assent to God’s goodness actually is – not the least of all in our ongoing daily prayer life.
And this good speech leaks out into the world:
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Col 4:5-6)
And of course the classic from 1Peter3:15:
…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,
Note that in both of these speech is as a response to a question, rather than something on the front foot itself in the culture.
Freedom of speech – the right to speak into a public forum – is, I believe, a fruit of this freedom we have as God’s people to speak words that are true, right and good. And this stands to reason because freedom of speech has so often been used to expose darkness, principalities and powers. Indeed even the good old unreconstructed Marxist in the liberal arts department believes that we must be able to speak truth to power.
And that’s why the loss of freedom of speech is a signal of a greater loss – the loss of the freedom of what to speak. As our culture rejects the ethical underpinnings of its Christian framework it will therefore pick and choose which speech is free and which speech is going to cost you. And this is where the rubber hits the road for the church.
The post-Christian culture will determine which powers you can speak truth to and which you cannot, and these will align with the cultural dictates and mores. God’s people lose the speech freedoms they have when they allow the culture to sway which things they speak about and which they do not in the public square.
It’s good for us to speak into terrible situations such as the plight of refugees in detention centres, and many Christians do – more so than the general populace in fact. But it must not stop there. We must also speak for those for whom this post-Imago-Dei culture has decided do not have a voice at all, and that they one they do must be silenced. And that is increasingly difficult.
So, for instance, we see the sad example of Christians being arrested in Victoria for publicly praying within 150m of abortion clinics in Victoria. I know it’s not sexy to be seen with the old nuns and mums of ten kids doing stuff like that – it’s certainly not going to get you a gig on the ABC. I admire their bravery for doing something that I would hesitate to do. It’s a reminder to self-declared sophisticated evangelicals that speaking for those who do not have the freedom to speak at all for themselves is a deep reflection of the one whose blood speaks for us a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24). What great cost He bore for our speechless selves.
Ultimately, in this post Imago-Dei era, the authorities cannot help but speak half-truths at best to us. The role of the church, in fact the gift of the church, is to speak to each other in such a way that new creation is seen and heard in us, and the benefits of that flow into a world that is still attuned to the Father of lies. We are the new – indeed the “renewed” body politic that speaks truth whatever the cost, not simply to others, but to itself.
The world might not always like what it hears from us, indeed it increasingly won’t and will increasingly attempt to shut us down, but rest assured we will be speaking words of life to it – and that is where true freedom of speech lies.