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On Free Speech: Reasoning Together, Allowing Much, and Loving Always

Weeks have passed since my last post. What has happened between then and now? Lots of listening and talking, but mostly listening.

Listening to the screaming political rhetoric in our country. Watching people attribute evil motives to their opponents, accuse each other of stupidity, and, like little children, put hands over their ears to shut out explanations. These subjects seem too weighty for a mama-blog, but after encountering the same questions again and again this week, I share my thoughts and questions anyway.

At the week’s beginning, I participated in a conversation that alarmed me. People whom I admire and respect advocated for 1) restricting the free speech of a group whose message they found de-humanizing and hateful, and 2) explaining to the community why the message was shut-down. These Christians advocated this censure because they want the best for both each individual and the community as a whole. With love and compassion, they want to take action against ideas that limit the glorious life often experienced when we live the way God made us to live. They want to exhibit “tough love,” the kind of love that restricts a child’s freedom to run in the street precisely because that action could bring harm or death. The problem with the previous situation is that we are talking about adults – people who have the ability to reason, make choices, and experience the consequences of those choices. I believe that the truly compassionate action to take would involve speaking the truth in love to someone (even at the risk of being offensive), and to try and persuade them to a different idea or course of action. This is what the people in the conversation wanted to do. Yet in the public square, we must go a step further and allow people to disagree and act accordingly.*

In our First Amendment, we are guaranteed freedom of speech. As Tyson Langhofer said in the Colson Center Short Course on Freedom, “the only type of speech that needs protecting is offensive speech.” Yes! I find this statement compelling because it is the people in power that define offensiveness. Since one cannot know who will be in power, this amendment provides protection for Americans who disagree with the reigning authorities to speak anyway. The Christian message often seems offensive and hateful to those who reject Christ’s Lordship, yet with our right to free speech we can still have a place at the discussion table when people disagree with the Gospel. In a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington wrote that America’s “enlarged and liberal policy” meant that citizens should neither persecute nor begrudgingly tolerate notions they find offensive, but instead respect each other’s “inherent natural rights.” To recognize and uphold these rights, it seems important to allow much and hope that reality and conversations about the truth knock out today’s more bizarre, self-harmful, and untrue beliefs from common practice.

Can we please allow our interlocutors a place at the conversation table? Can we listen to them because we are confident of the truth, and not frightened by what they might say? Can we listen to people out of respect for their being creations of God? Can we then appeal to them with the Truth because we want their best? And then turn around and love them no matter what way these same people choose?

 

* I admit that there seems to be a fuzzy area where one asks how far can a person go without censure on their words or actions, and I have not yet worked out my own ideas of those boundaries. The “do not harm” principle is a great one, but the question of where harm begins looms large. Setting this question of detail aside for another day, the basic point is that laws and regulations should be the least restrictive possible, and that people should be able to do what they want as long as they do not harm others.

 

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