The recent slaying of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists as a jihadic response to Charlie’s satirical and irreverent cartoons of Mohammed has shocked the Western world. It has again pushed to the fore of western consciousness pressing questions regarding Islam that most in the West would prefer to avoid and it has led to a tsunami of support for what most in the West believe is an inalienable right, namely freedom of speech and expression. Recent marches in France and Spartacus cries of ‘Je suis Charlie’ express this surge of support.
How should Christians respond? For Christians it’s all too easy to give unqualified support for Charlie. In the face of atrocity, and the slaying of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in retaliation for blaspheming Mohamed is patently an atrocity, it is almost instinctive to give unqualified support to the cause of the slain. But gut reaction is rarely trustworthy for it is rarely considered; it is visceral rather than judicious. This post will argue that Christianity neither approves retaliation nor ill-judged provocation; it supports neither religious coercion nor untrammelled freedom of speech.
Let me repeat, Christianity is not coercive. When reviled it does not retaliate. Its model is Christ who when reviled did not retaliate and when threatened did not threaten in return. Peter the apostle writes plainly to some Christians being persecuted for their faith.
1 Peter 2:21-24
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
Peter’s instruction is the uniform teaching of NT Christianity informed both by Christ’s actions and his words (Matt 5:10,11, 38-45). History shows that Christians have not always followed this instruction. Christian history has all too many examples of the sword being employed in the defence and advance of the Christian faith. There are various reasons for this. Many who did so in the name of Christ were not Christians at all. Others used the battles of OT Israel to justify the NT church engaging in holy wars (the crusades) and the OT law to rationalise a Christian State that employed the power of the state to enforce Christian belief (consider the Inquisition, the Salem witch hunts, Calvin had a citizen, Servetus, burned at the stake for heresy). Both were a (culpable) failure to understand the proper relationship between OT Israel and the NT church. Such corruption of Christianity is a terrible stain on its history and makes it difficult for Christians to claim the moral high ground in any criticism of Islam.
However, here an important distinction must be made and it’s this: when Christians used force they did so in contradiction of authentic Christianity , whereas, when Muslims employ force they are consistent with their faith. Islam, despite protests to the contrary, advocates the use of the sword on behalf of the faith. In Christianity, the State and the Church are properly separate, while in Islam they are one. Islam believes in a theocratic State and where this is approved violent coercion is never far away.
The West tries desperately to dissociate Muslim terrorists and oppressive governments from Islam. It is a foolish and forlorn endeavour. Arguably these terrorists are truer to the spirit of Islam than more moderate westernised Muslims whose moderate views are more a product of secularisation than their Islāmic faith. Both Islam and Christianity are engaged in holy wars. The difference is that Muslims conquer by slaughtering others whereas Christians conquer by sacrificing themselves (Revelation 12:11). Both Christianity and Islam call for submission (Islam means submission) but there the similarity ends. The gospel calls for submission to Christ but the choice to do so or not lies completely with the individual; it is entirely voluntary. Islam demands submission and arrogates the right to impose it, by force if necessary. Islam wants to rule the world. Christianity, however, is radically apocalyptic; it hopes to reign not in this world but a world to come.
As an addendum, it’s worth pointing out that atheism has no better a record than religion in tolerating alternative world views. In fact, in the last century atheistic States murdered more people in their pursuit of a pure atheistic State than any religion in history. Atheism has no reason to be smug. Its track record is horrendous ( consider the Soviet Bloc, Red China, North Korea, Cuba, Revolutionary Mexico, the French Revolution).
It is Voltaire who said, ‘ I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. It seems a noble ideal and is much-lauded but it is not one any buy into; at least, not absolutely, not if they are responsible. Christianity, let me be up front, does not defend total freedom of speech and nor can any responsible worldview. No government has ever supported unfettered freedom of speech (there is no freedom in the UK to slander, libel, incite hatred etc). All draw lines and rightly so. The question is only where lines should be drawn.
Christianity is clear that Christians have no personal freedom of speech or expression; their speech is captive to Christ. They must always speak and act in ways that honour God. They must speak the truth and not lie but they must do so in love and with respect. They should choose words wisely and seek to be winsome. As much as is humanly possible they should seek to live at peace with all men. The wisdom of Proverbs is clear,
The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips. Gracious words are like a honeycomb, to the soul and health to the body.
Further, the Christian Faith does not condone unnecessarily inflammatory language. Proverbs again reminds us,
A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire.
The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness we are warned, ignited by hell itself (Jas 3:5-9). It’s vitriol sparks raging fires. It tempts the turned cheek to head-butt. Therefore it must at all costs be bridled (Jas 1:26; 1 Pet 3:10) for every careless word will be brought into judgement. By a man’s words he is justified or condemned (Matt 12:36-37). Praise God, the new life Christians have in Christ and the indwelling Spirit of Christ enable gracious speech (Ephesians 4:20-30). Far from encouraging uncensored speech it is clear that the highest standard of speech is demanded by God and required of a Christian. Paul says,
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
However, it is one thing to say what speech God demands of his people, even that he will call all humanity to account for on the day of judgement but that does not address the level of freedom of speech society should tolerate; what God requires and what a society may allow are two different things. What does Scripture teach is an acceptable level of freedom of speech for society? It doesn’t. It is silent on this question. It gives no specific guidance at all and there is a simple reason for this: the Bible never envisages a this-worldly Christian State. We are back to the sharp distinction between State and Church that Christianity affirms.
In the OT, God’s Kingdom was an earthly theocratic State with laws that reflect this but in the NT this Kingdom morphs into a heavenly theocratic State; is spiritual not physical. It is a spiritual realm entered by spiritual birth (Jn 3), enjoying spiritual life, and spiritual blessings (Eph 1:3), engaging in spiritual warfare (Eph 6:12-20) employing spiritual weapons (2 Cor 10:3-6) to win spiritual battles. It’s only weapon is the Word of God. It is not seeking power in this world it is content with weakness. It’s ambitions do not belong to this world at all for It does not belong to this world but a world to come (Jn 17). God’s throne, for now, is not located in any geo-political locale but in the hearts of those who trust in Christ.
Thus God’s Kingdom does not impose its values on those who do not belong to it. The UK, the USA, or any other earthly State, is not God’s Kingdom on earth. The OT Kingdom of Israel is not a paradigm for any present nation State; its present counterpart is the Church. The Church, and only the Church, is God’s holy nation (1 Peter 2:9) and there, among his people, his standards are honoured and upheld. That is not to say that Christians do not commend their values in the public square. They may well do, but they do so if citizenship gives them such rights and not because Christianity insists on influencing government; it doesn’t for, I repeat, it is not of this world (Jn 18:36-38). Here it embraces a cross and does not aspire to a crown.
What kind of freedom of speech and expression will Christians advocate? Certainly not that which promotes moral filth. Much that is tolerated even vaunted by modern liberal States under the pretext of freedom of speech is repugnant to Christians. The liberal arts are awash with what is little more than soft pornography. It is irresponsible, degrading and destructive of society. Christians, in all conscience, cannot approve such toleration.
What of satire?
For Christians all satire will be controlled by speaking the truth in love. Satire is intended to wound. Its aim is to make others look ridiculous. It is a sharp sword that cuts to the bone. If, as we have been regularly told in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, the pen is mightier than the sword, or the sketch more potent than the semi-automatic, then the pen and sketch must act responsibly. Ridiculing just because we can and openly mocking what another values should not be lightly undertaken. It is not normally the way to win friends and influence people. It hardly promotes peace and dialogue. It is possible to criticise without caricaturing and treating with open contempt; this must be the better way. It is certainly the Christian way. We should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. As John Stevens wrote,
Just as Paul called the Corinthian Christians to renounce the worldly methodology of sophistic rhetoric, we are called to renounce cheap and offensive satire. In relation to Muslims the use of such satire is entirely counter-productive. Our goal is not just to win an argument, to disempower a rival or to bolster our own fragile self-esteem in the face of a competing world-view, but to win others to faith in the Lord Jesus.
Christians cannot in all conscience say Je suis Charlie.
There is, of course, a great deal of hypocrisy in the shrill calls for freedom of speech and the apparent championing of it, for as already observed, no one supports full freedom of speech. Not even Charlie Hebdo. Try getting Charlie Hebdo to condone racism or the mocking of homosexuality. Speak intemperately about colour, race or gender in Western societies and see how quickly freedom of speech is stifled. Indeed, many seem to understand it as ‘freedom to screech’, for when Christians seek to express their views reasonably and quietly the screeching of the liberal left soon drowns them out… So much for freedom of speech.. As Dinesh D’Souza has said, ‘somehow freedom for religious expression has become freedom from religious expression’. Christianity is fine as long as its voice is not heard is the freedom that a liberal secular State is keen to grant. Freedom of speech is a myth. Only speech which enshrines the values of a culture at that point in time has freedom to express itself, anything that seriously challenges these will be anathema.
Christians, like many others, value freedom to express their views. They do not regard such freedom as an inalienable right. They understand that freedom of expression is never absolute, nor can be. To the degree they enjoy it they are thankful that God has granted it to them. But they do not take it for granted and Christians in the West recognise that for them the era of Christian privilege seems to be fast coming to an end. Yet this will not deter them for the authority to proclaim the gospel comes from God and not governments. As in the early church and every previous century of Christian witness, Christ’s followers will go out into the world preaching all that he has commanded, confident that all authority in heaven and earth is given to Christ who has promised to be with them always even to the end of the age (Matt 28 cf Acts 4:20). Je suis Christ.