Most of us have heard about the “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in which two Muslims were killed and a security guard wounded.The event was sponsored by Pamela Geller, President of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an anti-Shari’ah organization. On this there are primarily two views: One claims it’s about free speech. Since radical Muslims oppose freedom, and want worldwide Shari’ah, they vehemently oppose anything deemed anti-Islam. The other thinks Geller’s action was not so much about free speech as it was about inciting Muslims and stirring up hatred against them.
Free speech advocates rightfully point out that the U.S. Constitution supports free speech within certain limits. They insist that giving in to radical Muslims empowers them and helps them implement Shari’ah in the West. Those critical of Geller argue her rhetoric is about free speech, but her intent is to anger Muslims, and fails to curb violent behavior.
The debate over this is not between conservatives and liberals. Many conservatives, as found on FOX News, have criticized Geller. For example, Bill O’Reilly, and several other FOX hosts, have spoken out against it. Yet liberal hosts on MSNBC, like Chris Hayes, have sided with Geller, but they also question her intent and way of speaking.
Are these the only options? So far, few Christian voices have been heard, as if the Bible has nothing to say on the subject. Undoubtedly, many of you are waiting to see how I will use the Bible to support my position, so let me say at the outset that my values include the following:
- I endorse freedom of speech and in no way argue against it.
- I do not, however, like speech that seeks to antagonize people.
Thus, I advocate freedom of speech, and want individuals to have the right to exercise that freedom. Those who become angry and turn to violence when someone exercises her/his right to free speech are engaging in evil acts and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. At the same time, I cannot support those who exercise freedom of speech in ugly and demeaning ways.
Let me turn to what the Bible has to say about speech to see if it supports absolute freedom of speech, limited free speech, or something else. Here are five passages that help us understand how God wants us to speak:
1. Ephesians 4:29—Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
Interpretation: While we are free to speak, we should consider the effect on others. We need to ask if it will be experienced as grace by those who hear it.
Application to Garland, TX: Would Muslims–or anyone, for that matter–hear Pamela Geller’s exercise of free speech as giving grace? Did her speech build up or tear down? How people hear speech is surely relevant in deciding whether it promotes grace and avoids a corrupting influence.
2. Colossians 4:6—Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
Interpretation: Again, God offers the “gracious test.” The salt image suggests that speech should be pleasing to the one who hears it.
Application to Garland, TX: Does Geller’s speech pass this test and did hearers experience it this way? Is there a way to speak truth so as to increase the likelihood that it be taken graciously?
3. James 3:10—Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
Interpretation: It seems that part of what we say can be praising and part can be cursing, but God doesn’t want us to mix them.
Application to Garland, TX: Is it possible that Geller rightfully praises freedom of speech and at the same time uses the kind of speech that incites violence? Is it possible that mixing the two pollutes praise? Does her way to praising freedom of speech end in death and dilute the beauty of her love for freedom of speech?
4. Proverbs 15:1—A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Interpretation: This is quite clear. Gentle speech increases the likelihood of dissipating anger, whereas harsh words tend to stir up anger.
Application to Garland, TX: Isn’t this exactly what happened? The harsh exercise of free speech stirred up violent anger. In other verses, God acknowledges that we will get angry, but wants us to control it, and not to hang on to it. Geller’s free speech was hateful and angry and this resulted in an even angrier response.
5. 1 Peter 3:9—Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
Interpretation: These are difficult words. As much as we may want to respond to anger with anger, evil with evil and insult with insult, we are told not to do so. Holding our tongue and controlling our actions lead to blessing. The words and actions of radical Muslims are evil, and while we are tempted to respond with anger and insult, that is not in keeping with God’s will. When that happens we fail to be the people God would have us be. We must not use the evil of others to justify our own anger and insulting speech.
Application to Garland, TX: A better exercise of free speech might have been to get people together, pray for radicals, and offer loving words. At the same time we should renounce the evil to which we are all prone. Why? Because fire added to fire will surely burn the house down, and too many houses have already been destroyed by fire.
Pamela Geller, and those who drew insulting pictures of Muhammad, are guaranteed the right to do so by the U.S. Constitution. But those who love God and desire to follow his word prefer a different response. We desire to draw a loving picture of Jesus and offer it to radical Muslims regardless of their response. It isn’t easy, but we are take up our cross and follow him. “Easy” is not the word I would use to describe the picture of Jesus on the cross.