How Free Can Our Speech Be?

 A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, Sept. 30, 2012

1 Corinthians 10:23-33 GNT

If you have watched the world news the past few weeks or read about international news in a newspaper or magazine, then you couldn’t have missed the stories about the uprising against U.S. and other embassies and the violence in Egypt, Libya, Greece and a number of other countries that has left dozens dead and much destruction of property.  It all started, or at least was fueled, because of an anti-Islam film produced by an angry, anti-Islamic amateur film maker currently living in California.  The film reportedly portrays the prophet Muhammad as a fraud, womanizer, and child molester.  The maker of the film calls Islam a “cancer.”  A short clip from the film was posted on YouTube.  I have not seen the film and can’t really comment on it, but that is not really the issue.  The issue is the furor that the release of the film has caused around the world. 

And then on the heels of that film came the news of the release of French political cartoons that denigrate the prophet Muhammad, adding fuel to the fire, as it were. 

Totally unrelated, but almost as disturbing to me, was the news that was carried by the Knoxville News Sentinel, The Tennessean, and even USA Today of the white supremacists’ gathering held right here in East Tennessee—somewhere in the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge area—the weekend of September 15-16.  It was billed as a national conference and was expected to draw people from around the United States and Canada.  Former presidential candidate and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, was expected to be here to lead “an informal nature walk through the Smokies.”  The publicity noted that “Tennessee is one of the states that has a strong presence of all of the five major white supremacist groups active right now.”  More than 30 white supremacist organizations operate in Tennessee, representing the five contemporary strains of white supremacists—neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, Ku Klux Klan, racist prison gangs, and Christian identity groups that espouse the belief that God favors white people.

At least one thing that ties these three stories together is the issue of free speech.  Because of free speech, the amateur film maker had free rein to both produce and release his anti-Islamic film.  Because of free speech the French political cartoons poking fun at the prophet Muhammad were possible.  Because of free speech white supremacist hate groups are allowed to post their online propaganda, print their posters, and hold a meeting in our back door.  But here is the question: How free can or should our speech be?  Does having the freedom to do something always justify doing it?

The Apostle Paul raises some good questions and makes some good points in his letter to the Christians living in Corinth.  Some in Corinth were saying, Because of our Christian freedom, “we are allowed to do anything.”  “That may be true,” Paul replied, “but not everything is good.”  And then someone else asked, “Why should my freedom to act be limited by another person’s conscience?”  One of the specific issues that the Corinthian Christians were dealing with was whether it was okay eat meat that had been placed upon a pagan altar and then later sold in the marketplace.  Was it okay for Christians to buy and eat such meat?  Or what if your neighbor invited you over for a dinner party and served meat they had bought in the marketplace that had earlier that day been killed and sacrificed on a pagan altar?  Was it okay for a Christian to eat it?  We don’t struggle with that kind of issue today.  But we still struggle with issues of freedom and conscience sake.

And the instructions that Paul gives, it seems to me, would apply to the issues of free speech and the making of films or the publication of cartoons that would denigrate any religion, as well as apply to the actions of so-called “Christian identity groups” that would denigrate or attack any particular race or segment of society.  Just because one has the freedom of speech to produce an inflammatory film or print inflammatory cartoons doesn’t mean that one should do so.  When facing such issues involving freedom of speech or conduct, there are some principles that should be borne in mind.

  Such as common sense.  Even if some of the material in the anti-Islamic film proved to be true, to produce such a thing knowing it is going to lead to uprisings, violence, and the loss of innocent life and the destruction of property of innocent bystanders is just not using common sense.  Somebody didn’t think things through.  Reportedly the maker of that controversial film and his family had to go into hiding.  Well, what did he expect?  In the Muslim faith it is anathema to depict the Prophet Muhammad at all, much less in a derogatory way.  Now, don’t get me wrong: My aim is not to defend the Prophet Muhammad.  I’m just saying that by purposely denigrating the prophet and Islam, what could become the world’s largest religion, in a way to incite violence is not using common sense. 

So the point is, in our own lives, when we are faced with issues of freedom and other people’s consciences, I think we would do well to use some common sense and consider the consequences of our actions ahead of time.  “Not everything is helpful,” as Paul says.  “Live in such a way as to cause no trouble either to Jews or Gentiles;” in other words, to those of other faiths or consciences.  

And then there is the principle of compassion.  How does the compassion that is supposed to be the guiding, polar star of the follower of Jesus, filter into the decisions we make when it comes to issues of freedom and conscience?  Maybe I can give an example.  The six years we lived in Albany, New York, our next-door neighbors were Conservative Jews.  Ari and Andrea were very strict in keeping the Jewish dietary laws, the Sabbath, Passover, and so on.  But they were also wonderful neighbors—probably the best next-door neighbors we have ever had.  Such good neighbors were they that we wanted to have them over for dinner one evening to show our appreciation.  So a couple of times when we saw Andrea out in the yard, we would say something about them coming over for dinner. And Andrea was always non-committal and a little evasive and never would give us a definite answer.  So finally one day I pinned Andrea down and said, “You know, we really would like to have your family over for dinner.”  And Andrea finally was honest enough with me to tell me why they had been evasive.  It was because they adhered to very strict dietary laws that included only Kosher food that was cooked in certain Kosher cookware and so on.  I said, “Okay, where do I buy Kosher chicken?”  So she relented and told me where to buy Kosher chicken and the other things they could eat and they agreed to come over for dinner.  Now here is the point of my story: Once I knew what was required to make it possible for our two families to have dinner together, compassion led me to do what was necessary to make it happen.  I made a trip to the Price Chopper grocery store on the far side of town to buy kosher chicken.  And I am convinced that compassion led our neighbors to bend the rules somewhat to eat the food we prepared in our non-Kosher kitchen.  When faced with issues regarding conscience and other religious faiths, compassion should be a guiding principle. As Paul says two chapters later in this letter: the greatest of all is love, or compassion.  

And then there is the principle of the concern for the well-being of all.  As Paul says, “I try to please everyone in all that I do, not thinking of my own good, but of the good of all.”  Now, we all know that you can’t please everyone.  As a minister, I am aware of that as much or more than most.  But whenever we can, we should strive to act in such a way that takes into account the good of everyone.  I like those questions in the Rotary International 4-Way Test that asks, “Is it fair to all concerned?” and “Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” 

So, whether it is making and releasing a YouTube video, or publishing cartoons and pictures of Muhammad or Jesus or anyone else, or having neighbors of another religion over for a dinner party, or doing anything else that involves our freedom and someone else’s conscience, it pays to stop and think and be a little considerate by remembering these three C’s:  common sense, compassion, and concern for all.  At least, that is the way I see it.  Amen.

 Cited:  Knoxville News Sentinel, September 9, 21, 2012.

Time Magazine, September 24, 2012.

USA Today, September 14, 2012.


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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