Note: I first started writing this post over 2 years ago, but never published it. Since the advent of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent hot debates about cartoon depictions, religious expression, and equating Christian and Muslim extremism, I have decided to finish and post it.
One of the great ‘principles’ of the Free World is ‘Freedom of Speech’. I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ is a famous quote often attributed to the secular French Voltaire. The idea is that freedom of speech (or religious liberty) is not about everyone believing the same things, but rather about everyone respecting each other’s individual right towards choosing their beliefs.
After the Paris massacres, the application of Voltaire’s quote and the topic of censorship is increasingly questioned in secular France. Most mainstream media organisations chose not to reprint the Mohammed cartoons. I am not sure why Islamists react so violently to depictions of their prophet. Maybe it has something to do with how insecure they are. The Bible has similar prohibitions of depicting graven images of its God, but Bible believers are not rampaging through the streets over cartoons. However, en masse, the combined Muslim threat is ushering in new waves of self-censorship. For example, Facebook is proactively removing posts and pages in Turkey that depict Mohammed, so as to prevent their entire site from being shut down. So, it seems the application of Voltaire’s principle has now found some limits.
Over in the USA, when the freedom of speech principle is applied to religion, the first amendment of the US Constitution says
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”
Within America the principle of Freedom of Speech use to be nearly universally accepted. As America became a leader in sending Christian missionaries around the globe, the idea of freedom of speech seemed go alongside the gospel proclamation. Yet as America moves away from Christ’s teaching, so is it increasingly questioning the ‘Free Speech’.
Typically, the question goes, ‘Does Free Speech include the ‘Right to offend’?” The phrase ‘right to offend’ is a loaded one, because ‘offence’ is determined by the hearer, not the messenger. Putting aside, that I fully acknowledge that some messengers can be obnoxious in the way they communicate (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Athiests or otherwise), the key point is that ‘being offended’ is a response to communication, not the communication itself. As such, accusing someone of offending, becomes are solid foundation for launching a successful ‘Shoot the Messenger’ counter-attack. Increasingly the ‘fear of being labeled offensive’ has implications for Christians who want to remain faithful in proclaiming the gospel. Let’s explore:
Why would the Gospel Offend?
When understanding that the gospel means good news, it may seem odd that anyone would take offence at that. I mean, ‘Who doesn’t like receiving ‘Good News’.’ However, the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a specific message in two parts. The first part is that we are all sinners – by birth and in deed. The second part is that Jesus died to provide redemption to all. This second part is Good News as it solves the problem we have in the first part. While the reality is we can’t separate the gospels into parts, by en large most Evangelicals try to spend more time on the solution (Jesus) than the problem (our sin). Yet, the true gospel is predicated on each of us agreeing with God about our sin – our personal specific sin. In theological terms, we know this agreement as ‘repentance’ – or changing our mind about our sin to match what God says about our sin. See Matthew 3:2, Mark 1:15, Luke 13:3, Mark 6:12, Acts 2:38 and Act 17:30 for we can’t have the gospel without repentance.
So if the Christian is to faithfully proclaim the gospel (and not a truncated, false gospel), then it is necessary to preach repentance. And here is lies the rub. The first part of the gospel will not be well received. Repentance is a dirty word in today’s climate. Let us not forget, Jesus was offensive:
- “He [Jesus] is the stone that makes people stumble, the rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they do not obey God’s word, and so they meet the fate that was planned for them. – 1 Peter 2:8
- “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense” Romans 9:33
Jesus became so intolerable, that he was killed for proclaiming the gospel. He told us as his disciples that we would suffer similar persecution. The biographies of all of his 1st generation disciples bear that out. We as 2nd+ generation disciples should also expect to suffer for faithfully standing for the gospel. Those of us who have lived in the relatively peaceful West in the last 200 years have lived in a time of history that is an aberration, rather than the norm. We need to prepare to re-oriente our expectations towards persecution. Jesus set our expectations when he said, “You will be hated because of My name” Matthew 10:22.
As you read this, Christians in the Middle East are experiencing physical persecution, and the same persecution could come our way within a few years. I wish I could right a post that would say that the world would love you and welcome Christians with open arms, but our Lord told us in John 15:18, that the world hated Him and by extension they will hate us.
So how do we respond to these sobering prophecies? We do have a choice and there is a right answer.
What choices to Christians have?
1. We self-censor our speech, posts and gospel proclamation. The implications for that are huge, both for us and the world who needs Jesus.
2. We faithfully proclaim and stand for the true gospel. Our immediate comfort and well-being may be in jeopardy, but the eternal rewards will forever dwarf any persecution.
The years ahead do not appear to be easy for followers of Jesus. But the fact that our Lord has faithfully predicted this should give us comfort that he knows and controls the future. Let us remind and encourage one another of the physical, literal and imminent reality of heaven and Jesus. That will help us endure the tough times. Let us pray that Jesus will strength us and our fellow believers who are enduring hate and persecution. And finally, let us grow more deeply in love with Jesus so that when we are confronted with a choice about affirming or denying Jesus, that it really is no choice for us at all.