My 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.
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.