Freedom of speech has reached the top of the news agenda twice this week. First, we have witnessed the defeat of the Government's religious hatred legislation. That is a good thing! Long live free speech and religious liberty. Second, we have the furore over the publication of satirical religious cartoons, depicting Mohamed with a bomb for a turban. This has led to widespread and sometimes violent unrest in the Muslim world BBC Online . A French newspaper editor has been sacked over the publication of the offending cartoons Independent Online . What are the limits of free speech from Christian point of view?
Freedom to offend?
If my free speech is likely to offend others, should I self-censor? What the of "the offence of the cross" (Galatians 5:11) ? What of the offence of the uniqueness of Christ (John 14:6) and the exclusivity of salvation in him (Acts 4:12) ? Free speech must mean freedom to offend the sensibilities and challenge the prejudices of others. What of satire and mockery? Is humour a legitimate Theological weapon? Elijah thought so (1 Kings 18:25-27), as did Isaiah(40:18-20). Paul denounced Zeus and Hermes, the gods revered by the people of Lystra as "useless things" (Acts 14:15). The New Testament does not adopt the anodyne "all religions are the essentially same" rhetoric of the inter-faith movement. To John the baptist, the Pharisees and Sadducees were a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 3:7). Paul warned the Corinthians that the gods they once worshipped were "demons" (1 Corinthians 10:20).
Now those who were the objects of Elijah's cutting sarcasm were no doubt deeply offended. Paul did not exactly further the cause of inter-faith relations in Corinth by rejecting pagan deities as demonic. The remarkable thing is that the apostle's forthright preaching of Jesus and denunciation of idolatry caused countless pagans "turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God and wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come." (1 Thessalonians 1:9 & 10). We must preach the gospel in all its glorious and shocking offensiveness if we are to have a similar impact on our post-modern world. Does that mean that we have to be needlessly offensive? No! Do I approve of the controversial cartoons? No! But freedom of speech must entail freedom to offend or it is an empty, meaningless slogan.
Coping with being offended
How should Christian believers respond when our sensibilities are offended or our liberty threatened? When our God is blasphemed, we are wounded and hurt. But we must not resort to violence or threatening behaviour to protect our faith. Jesus' kingdom is not of this world. He forbids us to use force to further his cause (John 18:36.) We may peacefully protest. We may express our outrage that TV Licence fee payers money was used to broadcast the blasphemous "Jerry Spinger the Opera". But we must protest firmly, prayerfully and peacefully. It is interesting to contrast the Christians singing hymns outside Parliament on Tuesday with today's pictures of Muslims with Kalashnikovs, burning flags in Palestine.