These have been difficult days for US embassy workers and people living in the Middle East and Africa. They and we are caught in a complex situation that is neither easily understood nor simply resolved.
This blog typically does not comment directly on political events. Certainly the world doesn’t need another opinion about events in the Middle East and Africa, especially by someone who has not been there.
However as a Christian living in the United States, I do have something to offer to Christians in the US for their consideration.
These recent events certainly aren’t the first time that a person or a group has said or done something that others of a different faith find deeply offensive. When this happens, the common American reaction is to cite our Constitutionally enshrined freedom of speech. Americans disagree about a lot of things, but there is widespread agreement that people should-within some broad parameters- be able to say what they think. If you don’t like what someone says, you may also state your dissenting opinion, both acts protected by the Constitution. We are willing as a society to tolerate some quite obnoxious statements in the name of free speech. Americans believe that everyone should be able to express their views and thoughts openly.
Because freedom of speech is such an important value for us, it is not uncommon for Americans think that if people somewhere react strongly, even violently, in response to a statement/video/song/cartoon/etc the “problem” is with the other people and their reaction to the statement. Our initial reaction is that each individual is responsible for their own behavior. I and I alone am responsible for how I react to what you say. You are responsible for the way you react to what I say. This combination of free speech and individualism means the typical US perspective on speech relieves the speaker of much of the responsibility for the hearer’s reaction. ( There are some exceptions, the classic example is one cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater is there is no fire. Hate speech and slander are also prohibited, although it is sometimes difficult to reach agreement on what exactly constitutes hate speech and slander.)
This idea- that I can say anything I want and that I am not responsible for your response to my statement- is deeply American.
It is, however, not Christian.
Christians are responsible for the results of our speech and our actions. We are, indeed, our brother’s keeper. Jesus and Paul are quite clear on this*. If our words or actions are harmful or distressing to another, we need to alter our actions and words. Paul, for example, spends a lot of time in 1 Corinthians explaining that while it may not actually matter whether the meat one ate had been sacrificed to idols, if your eating of that meat causes another distress, you should not eat that meat. In Paul’s view we need to consider the effect our actions have on others. If our actions might cause anxiety or distress to another, we should modify our actions.
And to go deliberately out of our way to be offensive and hurtful, heedless of the consequences? Do we really need to be reminder that such behavior is wrong? We can’t justify bad behavior by saying the Constitution allows it. To paraphrase Paul, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.(1Cor 10 esp 23, 28-29,32)
If we take Jesus’ command to love our neighbors and even our enemies seriously, we don’t deliberately say or write things designed to provoke others to anger or violence. And we don’t condone those who do. Which means we don’t excuse un loving behavior by invoking “freedom of speech”. Christians may not invoke the Constitution’s freedom of speech clause to excuse un Christlike speech.
I’m glad I am a citizen of the United States, but there are times when “American values” conflict with “Christian values”. This issue of free speech is one of them. You are, of course, free to disagree with me. But my understanding of what it means to be a Christian will place limits on the way I speak and respond to you. How can it not?
I’d like to know, what do you think?
I’m not saying we can’t disagree with each other. I’m not saying we can’t disagree over who Jesus or Mohammed are and what they mean for the world. But differences of opinion and belief can be stated in respectful, non offensive ways.
* The examples are too many to cite, but you could start with this list:
1 Cor 8
1 Cor 10:23-33
1 Cor 13
2 Cor 5:18-19,20
This list is the result of , oh, about 10 minutes of paging through the New Testament. There is more that could be added; feel free to do so.