January 19, 2015

The high cost of free speech: Charlie Hebdo and Christianity

by Clint Archer

Voltaire on free speechMy American friends who were born into a bastion of free speech sometimes take their First Amendment privilege for granted. But I was raised in South Africa under the Apartheid regime. We were taught brainwashed that freedom of speech was a destabilizing ideology held by Liberals, Communists (ironic!), and terrorists (more ironic in the shadow of the attacks on a French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo). Banned books, censorship, and a regulated media were commonplace and seemed normal and necessary in order to provide order in our society.

“Yikes,” you say, “Orwell much?” But this was all we knew. We lived in the nescient pre-Internet world where information came from regulated news stations and government libraries.

Thankfully, under our new and improved constitution (est. 1996) freedom of expression and a free press are rights that have been granted and protected in perpetuity. But this newfound freedom ushered in a fresh set of ethical conundrums.

Should I, as a Christian, be politically in favor of the right Muslims have to denounce my faith? Am I to joyfully accept that public schools present teaching on various world religions to my children? May I justifiably be upset when a satirical cartoonist or movie maker ridicules Jesus?

The guideline I have used in my thinking on these issues is concurrently comforting and disconcerting: the law that allows others to decry my faith is the same law that protects my right to defend, explain, and proclaim my faith vociferously.

"100 lashes if you don't die laughing"

“100 lashes if you don’t die laughing”

So, yes I would favor a law that gave unbelievers the right to denounce my beliefs; because that same ideal means I may expose theirs as false. I might prickle that someone ridicules Jesus, but I cherish the right they have to do so, because it means I can decry their attack and stage a defence. And it is the same law that provides both those freedoms.

As Frenchman Voltaire said,

I disapprove of what you say but I will die to defend your right to say it.

Not that I need it to be legal for me to evangelize, but it does make it significantly easier to do so effectively. Just ask Peter and John (Acts 4).

So, what do I make of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in France? What those Islamic fundamentalists did was obviously unconscionable, but it was also self-defeating. The practically insignificant circulation of that cartoon has now, as a direct result of their attempt to muzzle its publicity, gone viral globally and will be printed in history textbooks for generations. Also, the very violence of Mohammed that was being satirized has now been given the ultimate credibility by the bloody retaliation of his disciples. Just like the discovery of the picture of Dorian Gray, the caricature has been exposed as reality.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • pearlbaker

    Thank you for this post, Clint. It might be just semantics, but I prefer not say that any of us has the “right” to anything, but rather to say that I honor our sovereign God, who is slow to anger, but who will not hold His anger forever, to wisely allow the Charlie Hebdo’s of the world the temporary freedom to dishonor the Holy Name of Christ, because in the end it will only glorify Him when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. No matter what it looks like now, and no matter who has temporary rule over the media (the prince of the air), this IS our Father’s world and as the old hymn says “O let me ne’er forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

    • You have the right to prefer different semantics 🙂 I guess I meant a legal right. I agree we have no innate rights, as sinners deserving hell. But among humans, there are conventions that should be accorded to each other, like the right to life and liberty. I almost sound American.

      • pearlbaker

        Yes, I see the distinction, among humans as dictated by the law of their particular land, while it is still upheld (fast fading.) “I almost sound American.” Yeah, that’s because we cannot actually hear you.
        :-)) But, don’t get mad at me, I fairly recently told you that I quite fancied your accent. And I had a fair amount of agreement right here on The Gate!

  • Really enjoyed this as it brought perspective. Thank you!

  • The Charlie Hebdo incident made me question why we treasure Free Speech so highly. The conclusion I’m tending towards is that the reason people suppress free speech is the same as the reason people want it – everyone wants the ability (right?) to force his or her worldview on everyone else. Whether a government using propaganda or the Newsweek portraying the Bible as untrustworthy, we consistently attempt to manipulate truth and I think the notion of “free speech” is actually a decoy.

    One thing I think perhaps you misunderstand about what “those Islamic fundamentalists did” is that they are acting out of an honour culture. It doesn’t matter that the cartoon went viral; it would have been a greater dishonour had no one defended the dignity of Muhammed.

    • Patricia Grace

      I think the “honour culture” you mention is an important point to remember. However, one can “honorably” defend his false prophet without violence and instead use the same free speech right afforded to his supposed enemies. Seems the Islamic fundamentalists act out of wounded pride, not honor.

      I disagree that all want free speech laws so that personal ideas can be forced on others. I simply want them for one of the reasons put forth in this article–for the sake of the Gospel, making evangelism easier. However, not because I believe I can force my Christian worldview on others–only God can give sight to the blind– but because I know and believe that God uses His word in the mouths of feeble humans (like me!) to draw those in darkness to Himself. Blessings to you.

  • Nou toe nou

    Clint, just one point. Even under the current South African constitution Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons would probably not been allowed on grounds of hate speech.
    I do however agree with your opinion on free speech.

    • Yes, Sunette Bridges has just been taken to court for hate speech because of racism and to be honest she looks like she’s probably pretty offensive (I don’t know any details) there was also uproar a few years ago when the SAX Appeal (from UCT) pushed boundaries too far. South Africa is still quite conservative (and for the good, I think).

      • Nou toe nou

        I still did not make up my mind 100% on this issue, I think freedom of speech was originally designed to criticize government and thus try to avoid dictatorships, I do think it get abused in order to push things like pornography.
        The whole thing about hate speech seem to be an idea invented by liberals to protect their ideas from criticism e.g the gay agenda.
        Anyway I think like all human ideas freedom of speech is also flawed, but it is probably the better than not having it.

  • Mary Elizabeth Palshan

    What a great article, Clint.

    I have often stated that I abhor
    the thought that foreigners, because of our lax immigration standards, can
    bring their false god’s to our soil; but when you think about it, there really are
    only two classes of people—the righteous and the unrighteous.

    If we look at the
    extreme Muslims/terrorists, we need only to look at our neighbors, who hate God
    and worship this world and all its trappings. They may have God’s common grace
    which keeps them from committing the heinous acts that the terrorist
    perpetrate, but when the shades are pulled up, we know what their true nature
    is. And only by God’s restraining hand does he keep them from committing the
    worst possible acts of all.

    God was determined to scatter people of all ethnicities
    so that we might be able, not only to lead them to Christ, but, as you so
    rightly concluded in your article, have our right to expose the workers of
    darkness. It falls directly in line with our responsibility to defend the faith
    once delivered to the saints. I don’t think God made such a mistake here, after
    all.

    • Maybe we should be grateful when non-Christians move next door to us, even those flaunting their other religions. They may never have had the opportunity to witness the transformative power of the gospel at work in the lives of Christians had they stayed in some distant, unreached area. We should praise God when the mission field moves to us!

      • Mary Elizabeth Palshan

        I fully agree, James. And “until” Clint posted this amazing article, my position was untenable in my own way of thinking (as far as the foreign god issue), only I didn’t know it.

        I so love this blog!

  • Barbara

    The first amendment of the constitution was written to recognize Mankind’s right to freedom of religion and speech, the constitution never “grants” these things, but recognized them. They are human rights that are innate, not granted by the government, and not easily removed by the government. That the American constitution ruffles so many feathers is that, in the hands of the ungodly things feel pretty dicey sometimes, but it’s NOT conservative to curb someone elses free speech, that’s a liberal ideology.. curbing someone else’s free speech so others won’t be offended. ( Conservatives in the US want to conserve the constitution, liberals always want to take liberties with the constitution) And to say we, as citizens should not have a right to freedomof speech etc, because we are all sinners, is a ridiculous argument contrary to all of the thinking of the framers of the US constitution. Here in the US speaking about your faith in any medium is more and more considered hate speech because of liberals.. who want to take liberties with our rights and our constitution., yes as a human I am a sinner, how does that translate to nations saying to its citizens, “well, you’re all sinners, so we, the State, cannot give you rights.. you don’t deserve them” Freedom, when it goes your way is great, it helps spread the Good news and allows for free association and dialog. But it seems when it’s not making you feel comfortable curbing freedoms” is a good thing” That’s not conservative.. THAT’S Liberal. Let freedom continue, Christians will always be marginalized, but having a Socialist, Communist or worse yet, a Sharia govt well, yeah, much worse. All these types rule by the sword (gun), but here in the US , so far, we can still speak. BTW, for Clint’s book on Hell, so far so good!! Talking about hell in the US is also considered hate speech by many……. Barb L