Free Speech Roundtable: Speaking Freely in Christ
Let me begin with a confession: I do not know how freedom of speech should be legislated in a modern, democratic nation-state, and I will not do my readers the disservice of pretending otherwise. It seems probable to me that, in a fallen world, John Ehrett and Barbara White are correct: a largely unrestricted understanding of free speech is a substantive moral good and provides important safeguards against our sinful desire to control, coerce and re-shape the speech of others. At the same time, I find the admonitions of both Ben Winter and Wes Walker incontrovertible: Christians are called beyond our current “free speech” debates to witness to a deeper, non-voluntarist understanding of freedom (in which we joyfully submit our speech to the judgment of Christ).
This Christian articulation of freedom has implications for the public square. It can (and should) help us think about the types of speech restrictions and speech actions that a society concerned with truth, goodness and beauty might rightly endorse. But Christian ethics does not begin with public policy. It begins with our neighbor. Without the life and light of our neighbor, the true freedom of our speech is in danger. We will fool ourselves into thinking that the truth, goodness and beauty of our speech is something substantive—even ostensive. We will convince ourselves that these attributes are qualities that inhere in our words objectively each and every time we speak.
Yet as a parish priest, I am routinely reminded that it is not so. The character of our speech is not to be found in words alone, but also in the relationships that surround them. The truth, goodness and beauty of speech is akin not to solid matter, but to one of Madeleine L’Engle’s mysterious unicorns in Many Waters: it flickers in and out of being according to time and place and human capacity. I know this to be the case because I have seen it lived out in my own parish. I have witnessed the same sentence give life in one moment and take life away in another. I have watched well-meaning people make the world false, cruel, and ugly using the most Biblical and orthodox of words and phrases. I have, regrettably, spoken such words myself—even as I have been called upon to triage the spoken words of others. Time and again, I find myself struggling to both imbibe and impart one of the most important spiritual lessons ever gifted to me: the right word spoken at the wrong time is the wrong word.
This is so because the right word is never spoken for my sake alone. It is not a mere manifestation of my personal freedom. It is spoken to and for my neighbor. Contemporary Latter-Day Saint theologian, Adam S. Miller, conveys this insight with dazzling clarity when he reminds us that the truth borne by Christians stretches so far beyond the personal and the proprietary that it touches the heart of even that most contested of neighbors: the enemy. Miller writes:
It is, of course, possible to hold truths in a way that fails to be truthful. It is always possible to bear a truth untruthfully, to wield the truth as a weapon against my enemy or as a shield to justify my stupor. And it is, of course, always possible to assume that every truth held by my enemy must be held in just this way, in bad faith, blinkered, untruthfully. But this is a scam. It’s a diversion. The very work of seeing truth as truth, of bearing that truth truthfully, depends on our willingness to take up the perpetually necessary project of thinking through the truth again—always once more—from the position of the enemy. Every truth must be thought through again because truths are bigger than we can manage. They cannot be confined to our own limited perspective. Though truths may fill us and transfigure us, they always do so only from somewhere else and on the way to somewhere new. A truth that is small enough to be thinkable only from my position and only in opposition to my enemy is no truth at all.
Miller’s meditation on the nature of true speech points to a freedom that is possible only in Jesus Christ. In Christ, we discover that the truth, goodness and beauty of our speech rises or falls on our willingness to see the self-implicating, relational and transfigurative nature of all speech. Our words connect us to ourselves and to our neighbors, be they friend or enemy. Our words also connect us to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This latter connection bears directly on the former. In Christ our speech becomes cruciform; it joyfully submits to his judgment, and by so doing it becomes truly free: free to be not a word spoken in the abstract, but a word offered in love to my neighbor. Free to remind us that when God speaks, His fullest meaning is conveyed not by definition and syntax, but by the cry of a child, the dereliction of a cross, the emptiness of a garden tomb.
All this is to say that to speak freely in Christ is to speak justly, constrained by the love of Christ. His love tilts the balance of our speech. Love alone can justify our words in a particular time and place. Love alone is what the late Stratford Caldecott called the “supra-transcendental,” which presides over truth, goodness and beauty at every time and in every place. Jesus Christ shows us that without this Divine love, our speech will never be free—for in its absence our neighbors are unlikely to hear words at all, but only the noise of gongs and the clanging of cymbals.