The killings and demonstrations in Copenhagen, cyber attacks and threats in response to Sony’s movie The Interview and the recent massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris have put the issue of freedom of expression on the front burner of media coverage and public discourse. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are so critical to Western and American values that they are number one in the U.S. Bill of Rights. The international outpouring of protest and sympathy captured in the “Je Suis Charlie” movement is further evidence of how close to home this tragedy has struck.
Emotions run high when core values are threatened. As much as I believe in non-violence, even I am tempted to despair that we are on the brink of a horrible and perhaps inevitable violent confrontation between radical Islamists and the West.
In hopes of tempering emotional reaction with reason, I am reminded of two favorite quotes as I try to sort out my thinking on these complicated issues. I was introduced to the first many years ago in a book by Frederick Buechner entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. Buechner likens the task of preaching to the final lines of Shakespeare’s King Lear where Edgar says, “The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
As one who grew up in a family with the “unspoken” (of course) motto “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” saying what we feel is a radical notion and essential to freedom of expression. Saying only what one ought to say may be polite and tactful, but it is also a subtle form of censorship.
The question that must be addressed in this debate is where does one cross the line between freedom of expression and disregard for the feelings and values of other human beings. In the global information age where words and images circumnavigate the world in seconds what one says has far wider impact than ever before in human history.
The Sony and Charlie Hebdo cases provide excellent examples of that point. Unrestricted freedom of expression says we can make a movie about the assassination of a foreign leader or publish satirical ridicule of a figure considered to be a holy prophet by millions of people, but does the freedom to express those feelings justify the damage done to human relationships already stretched to the breaking point in our world?
Let me be perfectly clear that I am not saying that taking offense to any form of expression ever justifies violent reprisals. I am merely calling for more reflection on potential consequences of what we say and how we say it. Anger and conflict are natural human realities. (See my blog post “Prince of Peace,” April 1, 2014 for a more detailed discussion.) And because the Information Age makes interaction between different cultural values inevitable, it is imperative that we find non-violent ways to manage conflict while protecting basic human freedoms.
One way to do that is found in Ephesians 4:14-15, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” To “speak the truth in love” means a mature balance that is necessary between freedom of expression and consideration for other peoples’ feelings.
That does not mean failing to speak the truth, but it adds the critical dimension of thinking about how the truth is presented. Fred Craddock, another of my preaching mentors, says the preacher’s job is not to get things said, but to get them heard. That is true for all human communication and requires sensitivity and respect for one’s hearers to guide the choice of words and images we share with the world – and every tweet, whisper, Instagram, post and conversation has the potential for that kind of global sharing.
One of the lies many of us were told as children is that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Not true. Words and images have tremendous power to hurt and to heal; so use them wisely. Yes, the weight of these sad times demands that we say what we feel, but the peace and well-being of our world depends on our ability to learn to deliver that truth wrapped in love, even for those who call us enemy.