Freedom Of Speech


Benjamin_Franklin_freedom_of_speech_quoteFreedom of speech has become increasingly complicated. For one thing, the US Supreme Court ruled back in the mid-1900s that “speech” included things like burning the American flag. In other words, acts of protest were repositioned as speech.

Hence, the people here in SoCal protesting the August 2014 shooting in Ferguson had freedom of “speech” to block traffic by walking down the middle of some streets. Not freeways, though. Their freedom of “speech” had some limits.

A few weeks ago, freedom of speech was front and center because of the supposed North Korean threats to Sony and movie theaters that would release The Interview. This film purportedly was about two reporters who were recruited to assassinate North Korea’s leader.

It strikes me now that The Interview joked about doing what the Islamic terrorists actually did in France. Be that as it may, actors and directors and pretty much anyone in Hollywood were up in arms about the “censorship” North Korea was trying to impose on the US movie industry.

Of course those cries would be far different if the film depicted North Koreans coming to the US to assassinate President Obama. I suspect Homeland Security would have been heavily involved in squashing such a project—which probably would not have been called censorship.

Most recently, of course, has been the horrific murder of the French cartoonists/satirists which has stirred great support for freedom of speech. These individuals had the right to say what they wanted, no matter how vile. Here’s one characterization of their work:

you are underestimating the vulgarity of Charlie Hebdo. It goes beyond “offensive and immature”, the cartoons you describe are only the shallow end of the cesspool that is this publication. I grew up in France, I love the country and it’s people, and while I would defend to the death their right to do what they choose to do, I would never go as far as saying “I am Charlie”. Even for solidarity purposes. They are vile, divisive and go out of their way to insult matters of faith in ways that are just simply sick and deranged. (JMerkh’s comment to Chip MacGregor’s blog post “Je Suis Charlie”)

This latest wrinkle in the freedom of speech issue, then, has to do with whether offensive speech should still be free.

While we claim here in the US that the French satirists had the write to spoof and mock to their vile, insulting content, we don’t practice that same kind of free speech. If in doubt, think back to Donald Sterling who spoke in the privacy of his own home in a way that offended others and suffered the consequences for it.

University of California campuses and others across the country are famous for banning speech that is deemed offensive. Speakers have been dis-invited, funding has been cut off, student papers have been shut down.

NYTimes columnist David Brooks elaborated on this point in his article “I Am Not Charlie Hedbo”:

Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.

One example of this fact is the recent firing of the Atlanta fire chief Kevin Cochran. Cochran’s crime? He published a book that carried a few lines strongly condemning homosexuality, along with other sexual sins. First the mayor suspended Cochran and required him to take sensitivity training. At the end of his suspension, however, he was fired.

The mayor explained the decision:

I appreciate Chief Cochran’s service as fire chief. His personal religious beliefs are not an issue at all, despite the number of comments and emails I have been receiving on a daily basis. The city and my administration stand firmly in support of the right of religious freedom, freedom of speech and the right to freely observe their faith.” (“The Mayor of Atlanta Declares War on Religious Freedom”; for more information, see the Atlanta Sun Times)

George_Washington_freedom_of_speech_quoteSo the mayor affirms his belief in freedom of speech and yet fired Cochran for what he said.

I’ll say again: freedom of speech has become increasingly complicated. We’ve allowed public figures to be maligned in the name of free speech and pornography to run rampant under the same banner.

But the fire chief can’t say homosexuality is sin.

In fact in the US we’ve created a forbidden category called “hate speech” which apparently trumps the US Constitution’s protection of speech. Hate speech, you see, is not allowed.

And who determines what hate speech is?

Another of the free speech complications I mentioned.

Of course, if people didn’t malign others or say vile things about a particular religion or people group, then this topic would be moot. Free speech could be free because people regulated their own speech by determining if it is offensive and harmful to others. At the same time, groups and individuals could be a bit more forbearing rather than thin-skinned when someone directs criticism their way.

Are there really no ways of satirizing without being “sick and deranged”? Can we no longer state our religious beliefs without someone becoming offended?

The problem is clearly on both ends—speakers who have no filters for what comes out of their mouths, and hearers who assume an insult at the slightest hint of disagreement.

We’ve come a long way from the adage I was taught as a child: if you can’t say something nice, don’t talk at all is my advice.

Critique—which is the point of satire—doesn’t fall into the category of “nice,” but neither does it have to be offensive.

I wonder if there’s any hope that civilized people can once again discuss issues without rancor and name calling. It seems as if “to express an opinion” means “to offend others who see things differently.”

That certainly seems to be what the mayor of Atlanta thought.

I think we need two changes: 1) a renewal of free speech as opposed to a demand for politically correct speech and 2) a recommitment to civil discourse instead of slinging insults and engaging in vile and deranged satire.

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And The Most Thankful Person Is . . .


First_Thanksgiving_in_AmericaJesus told a story once about two people who owed money. The first was in the hole for the equivalent of 500 days worth of wages and the second a tenth of that, but neither could pay what they owed.

The thing is, the moneylender forgave both their debts. Jesus then asked the key question: Which of the two will love him the most? The man Jesus was talking to answered, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”

Bingo! Right answer.

A person who’s drowning and the person who’s arms are tired but who is still a mile from shore are both in need of rescue. However, the former will be overwhelmed with gratitude because he knows how truly great his need was. The second guy still had options. He could float on his back for a while, for instance, or ride a wave or rest his arms and simply kick. He wants to be rescued; his glad, relieved even, when he is. And thankful.

But the guy overwhelmed by the waves and on his way down for the last time, with no more strength to fight—well, there’s no end to his gratitude when he’s rescued. He loves much.

Here in the US we’re approaching Thanksgiving Day, but you’d hardly know it. On Twitter and Facebook the topics that are trending are Black Friday and Ferguson. The latter refers to the center of unrest generated in response to the grand jury deciding not indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown last August. Black Friday refers to the day-after-Thanksgiving sales that will help retail stores finish the year in the black.

Happy Thanksgiving, but first let’s loot and burn stores that had nothing to do with the events last August.

Happy Thanksgiving, now excuse me while I rush to the story to push and shove my way to the best sales I can find.

I’d say off hand, Americans as a group don’t love much. We’ve been given so much, but we’re blind to the freedom and opportunity we enjoy. We think we’re oppressed and disadvantaged, but few of us are. Our thanksgiving is cursory, more like lip service than genuine, heart-felt gratitude.

Those who love much are likely those who have lived in want or in fear. When someone gives them a job or gives blood to help them survive Ebola or gives their son a soccer ball and a note when they can’t do so themselves because they’re in prison—these people love much. They know what thanksgiving means.

Thanksgiving is a mindset. We can choose to be thankful or we can choose to take what we have for granted and focus on what we want instead of what we have.

Much of this choice depends on our view of God and His goodness and sovereignty. If God is good, then the gifts He gives are good, though we may not always realize in what way they can be so classified.

As it happens, I don’t believe all things are good. They aren’t. When a surgeon working in Sierra Leone contracted Ebola and died, I wouldn’t categorize that as good. When Jim Elliott and the missionaries with him were killed, that act was murder and evil, not good.

But God is bigger than the circumstances and He can make from the evil that which is a good beyond our comprehension. Consequentially we can always be thankful—not for stuff but for God who is faithful, who loves righteousness and justice and lovingkindness.

So who is the most thankful person? I think the person who sees and understands who God is and what we have when we have Jesus Christ who came to save us. When you’re rescued, eternally rescued and safe, you have a lot to be thankful for.

Published in: on November 25, 2014 at 7:13 pm  Comments (1)  
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Christians And Ferguson


Riot_Police_tear_gasRioting and looting broke out in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, last week, and calm has only just been restored in the last day or two.

The issue that incited the unrest was the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year-old who’d been caught on a surveillance camera walking out of a story carrying some merchandise. As he left, he thrust an arm against the throat of an older man who seemed to be confronting him.

At some point he and a police officer came into conflict. Witnesses reported that the unarmed young man had his hands up and was in compliance with the officer, who nevertheless opened fire and killed him.

The officer, Darren Wilson, who received a broken eye socket and other facial injuries, reportedly shot because he feared for his life. One report says he was beaten almost unconscious, another that Mr. Brown tried to take his gun from him.

Soon after the shooting, sides were being drawn. Any number of people jumped in to make a political statement of some kind—about racist America (since only a small percentage of the Ferguson police force is African-American), police brutality (since the man who died didn’t have a weapon), gun violence, the undermining of American society.

The media carefully framed the story by introducing it, nearly without exception, as about an unarmed teen shot and killed by police. The exception I heard was “an unarmed black man shot and killed by police.”

The problem, of course, is that those sparse details, while sounding factual, are actually painting a one-sided picture. Buried in the story was why the officer confronted the young man or where he was coming from and what he’d just done.

On the other hand, the small number of African-American officers on the Ferguson police force made its way into the story about one officer and one alleged robber (though he was confronted for walking in the street, not for robbing the store)—somewhere near the lead.

Evidence has surfaced that indicates Mr. Brown may have been moving toward Officer Wilson, as he reported and in contradiction to the witnesses who claimed he was backing away with his hands up.

The media reports generated a burst of anger from around the country. Soon Ferguson was the poster town for racial violence as rioting and looting, military-style police presence with tear gas and curfews brought an escalation of the tension.

In that mix, outsiders arrived—those who simply wanted an excuse to steal and those who wanted to exploit the situation for their own political or social agenda. Still others wanted to perpetrate hatred. According to one source, outside agitators who joined the protest began calling for the death of the officer:

Just prior to Saturday’s governor-ordered curfew in Ferguson, Missouri, New Black Panthers leader Malik Zulu Shabazz led a crowd in a chant, calling for the death of Darren Wilson, the officer identified in the shooting death of Michael Brown:

“What do we want?” “Darren Wilson.”
“How do we want him?” “Dead.” (“New Black Panthers Lead Death Chant Against Officer Involved in Ferguson Shooting“)

My first thought is that this kind of behavior reminds me of the old stories about the Wild West when mobs formed their own opinion and went after the person they determined to be guilty with the intent to lynch him.

The French Revolution also comes to mind, with their nominal trials of those who had once held a place of influence in society, which always led to the guillotine.

Of course there are also the recent beheadings that have taken place in Iraq.

If nothing else, the latter should cause Americans to pause and think. Is this the kind of “justice” we want?

But more importantly, what should we as Christians think? It’s hard not to form an opinion, certainly. I mean, when an eighteen-year-old dies, no matter what the circumstances, it’s a sad story. Someone who drives drunk and dies isn’t “deserving” of death any more than a looter would be or someone committing adultery and caught by an enraged husband.

Understandably parents, friends, and loved ones will be grieved. How media people think it’s OK to shove a microphone in the face of someone who’s just lost a person they care about and say, “How do you feel?” is beyond me.

So the first thing I think that should frame a Christian response is compassion. Someone died—and people are rightly devastated.

The second thing I think that should guide a Christian response is a desire for truth. Consequently we should avoid forming a definitive opinion until the facts are known.

Often times, the side which gets to tell their story first is the one many people believe, but “first” doesn’t count in a court of law. According to our judicial system, a person is innocent until proven guilty, and that applies to police officers as much as to a home owner who shoots someone because he says he thought his life was in danger.

Christians should refrain from repeating as fact a statement, even if it comes from the press, about the guilt or innocence of individuals until such time as both sides have had their say and the experts have weighed in with their evidence. Anything else is gossip. It serves no constructive purpose.

Third, Christians should be advocates for changing the culture that creates antagonism between police and citizens and that tolerates looting and violence as a way to protest. What can we do differently to bring communities together?

Ferguson has come up with some creative ideas in the last few days. But what if Christians around the country or the world, did what we could to bring our own communities together without waiting for a crisis such as Ferguson has experienced? What if we did random acts of kindness? What if we showed the love of Jesus to our neighbors? What if we made a lifestyle of serving others?

One more thing. We Christians can turn the heat down on the debate. For one, we can point out how media slants articles (watch for loaded words, either particularly negative or positive, and watch for what details get into the beginning of the story), and we can determine not to be bandwagon jumpers—on either side. We can be more concerned about speaking kindly to others and discussing rather than debating.

Christians should not be silent about events like the shooting death of Michael Brown or its aftermath, but we should have kingdom purposes for what and how we enter into the conversation. Let’s put away political agendas and think long term—about people and their need for a Savior—and may that guide what we say.

Published in: on August 21, 2014 at 6:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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