Round Table: Free Speech
“How should Christians think about free speech?” We asked three of our editors to reflect on this question. Their essays raise fundamental issues Christians must wrestle through if we hope to facilitate real dialogue in our increasingly polarized society. These reflections center on the definition of free speech, when free speech becomes a problem, and what sort of action ought to be taken in our current moment. In the spirit of Christian charity, we have also asked our regular authors and contributors to weigh in on this question from their own personal perspectives and from the standpoint of their Christian traditions.
Benjamin Winter, Roman CatholicClick Here to Expand this Response
The July 7th publication of A Letter on Justice and Open Debate in Harper’s Magazine sounded an alarm: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” Glancing at the list of signatories, many of us will find figures we respect—or at least figures to whom we listen. Their letter argues against “swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” It accuses media outlets of stifling free speech by creating a cancel culture (although they do not use this exact term), which rules out “experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”
There is no denying the fact that American society is trending toward radicalization. In the current moment, how could it be otherwise? We’ve become the global pandemic hotspot, yet basic health information and action has been politicized—transforming a tragedy into yet another opportunity for “us versus them” thinking. The murder of George Floyd catalyzed protests against police brutality and, more importantly, against the enduring legacy of slavery. Racism is embedded systematically in our society—and particularly in our criminal justice system (note that both hyperlinks reference pastoral letters from US Catholic Bishops). To make things worse, we have a president who has exacerbated the racist and xenophobic undercurrents in American thought. Without a change in direction from the top, being black in America will continue to feel like an existential threat. And with the events unfolding in response to Jacob Blake’s shooting at the hands of police, I am worried that we are moving hopelessly away from dialogue.
How should we use our right to free speech at times like these? When the protests began, I purposefully avoided commenting on social media. It felt like a time not for words but for actions. But as the weeks pass and things don’t seem to change, it is now important to ask why. And to do so, we need free speech. We need to draw from a wide range of ideas and experiences in order to make sense of this moment—yet we need to do so critically, understanding that some voices must carry more weight than others. Perhaps analogous to the preferential option for the poor, we ought to exercise a preferential option for the marginalized in terms of speech. As my friend Jacob wrote back in 2016, we need to truly listen, especially to voices we haven’t heard well.
Liberalism has provided many marginalized individuals with platforms, but this action comes at a cost. On the one hand, authors like Michael Hobbes point out that the loudest voices critiquing “cancel culture” have maintained supporters and weathered controversies largely unscathed. Characterizing the latest slew of free speech concerns as a thinly-veiled attempt by media gatekeepers to retain power, he concludes:
“Cancel culture” is nothing more than the latest repackaging of the argument that the true threat to liberalism resides not in lawmakers or large corporations but in overly sensitive college students and random social media users. It is no more sophisticated than the “war on Christmas” and has the same goal: to imply that those pushing back against injustice are equivalent to the injustice itself.
On the other hand, authors like Andrew Sullivan argue that said gatekeepers have become echo chambers. According to Sullivan, “any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is [seen as] actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.” I can sympathize with this critique. The principles of rhetoric dictate that we taper speech to meet audiences “in the middle.” But when sides are so radicalized, preaching to the choir has become the norm.
I sometimes wonder where this is all going. It’s certainly easier to deconstruct (Michael Hobbes) and complain (Andrew Sullivan) than it is to contribute meaningfully to discourse. Both of these authors have an axe to grind—but don’t we all?
Here in America, people tend to say (and do) what they want most of the time. As John Ehrett writes below, this fact can a boon for Christianity: “Any meaningful ‘freedom to’ seek the good (ultimately, God) entails a commitment to a certain degree of ‘freedom from’ constraint, because the good (God) is imperfectly known by human beings.” I would add that “freedom from” includes putting the best construction on everything and thinking of our neighbors as better than ourselves.
As such, Christians cannot portion hate speech. Hate speech must be defined on both an individual and a societal level—with the former casting a wider net than the latter. Person-to-person, it is usually easy to tell when someone I know is engaged in hate speech. I can then follow Jesus’ instructions from Matt 18 on how to reprove one who sins publicly. But considering American society as a whole, I don’t think passing blanket laws restricting speech would do any good. The problem of pollution proceeds from the heart (Matt 15). What can be passed, however, are laws that prevent profiteering from hate speech (e.g. via advertisement revenues). We should not let slippery slope fears override our ethical duty to meet the current moment and to act—the prioritization of free speech at any cost is not an acceptable solution to the problems posed above.
Christians are called to disciplined speech. We must maintain prudence. To exercise that virtue aright, I think it’s now more important than ever to take a step back from the cacophony of free speech debates. We ought to fully embrace neither “side,” and instead contemplate the prescient words of Nietzsche:
[The modern human being] has been reduced to a condition in which even great wars and great revolutions can scarcely change anything even for a moment. Before the war is even over, it has already been transformed into a hundred thousand pages of printed paper, it has already been served up as the latest delicacy to the exhausted palates of the history-hungry.
People (including myself, unfortunately) have gotten into the habit of churning out opinions—for instance, quickly commenting on articles that may have taken weeks to write, or, using hasty generalizations to tidily sum up complex topics. This proliferation of speech is having an inflationary effect on the information economy; words have depreciated in value. They are now rarely used to point to the reality that we are all members of one human family. Instead, speech in America today trends toward tribalism and selfishness.
We all need to be more responsible.
1] In the words of one of our own authors: “When we say to ‘black lives matter’ movements that ‘all lives matter,’ we are saying that what you experience as an individual black person does not matter. When one sweepingly remarks, ‘all lives matter,’ what they are saying is that my individual suffering as a black person is not all that unique. Hence, my life is not worthy of attention.”
 I wanted to avoid “virtue signaling,” which in this case means taking great pains to show that you are not racist by (for example) denigrating yourself, debating the nuances of statistics and slogans, or even sending random cash payments to black friends.
 A corollary to this argument is that, by contrast, those who are less privileged suffer real harm. See Hannah Giorgis’ response to the Harpers article in The Atlantic: “There’s something darkly comical about the fretfulness of these elite petitioners. It’s telling that the censoriousness they identify as a national plague isn’t the racism that keeps Black journalists from reporting on political issues, or the transphobia that threatens their colleagues’ lives. The letter denounces ‘the restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society,’ strategically blurring the line between these two forces.”
 Nietzsche, “The Utility and Liability of History,” 116.
John Ehrett, Lutheran Church Missouri SynodClick Here to Expand this Response
The problem of liberty is a frequent motif among right-of-center political commentators these days. According to a growing number of writers informed by the Christian (primarily Catholic) theological tradition, the “traditional” or “libertarian” American case for personal freedom—understood in the sense of an abstract commitment to certain procedural limitations or an ill-defined ideal of absolute autonomy—is no longer sufficient. Rather, any arguments for social policies or practices must be founded in a substantive account of the common good.
In other words, it is not theologically sufficient to simply assert about a law “this is an infringement on my rights.” Here, “rights” is a functionally bloodless term, and so must be fleshed out for any such assertion to be morally compelling. (This critique would apply in particular to recent voices on the center and left who have defended free speech as a liberal value against alleged instigators of “cancel culture.”)
Many of the critics who take this line subsequently argue that most of the freedoms Americans take for granted—from economic liberties to freedom of the press—are far too expansive and need to be substantially corralled. As it were, they share that instinct with the proponentsof “cancel culture,” who broadly seek to suppress speech that violates certain norms. But though I won’t argue the point here, there’s good reason to think that some of the Catholic critics’ conclusions don’t really follow as principles of natural law, but rather flow from an overreading of splenetic encyclicals from some of the Roman Church’s darker chapters.
In all events, I do share these critics’ intuition that the traditional American language of “freedom” needs a richer metaphysical foundation. “Freedom from” outside constraint is, no doubt, a different sort of thing than “freedom to” pursue the good. But importantly, an ironclad distinction between these two conceptions of freedom can only be maintained if one purports to possess a fully exhaustive, determinate account of the nature of the good. I know of no Christian, or Christian tradition, that would make such a claim. Accordingly, any meaningful “freedom to” seek the good (ultimately, God) entails a commitment to a certain degree of “freedom from” constraint, because the good (God) is imperfectly known by human beings.
With that understanding in mind, I will here defend the claim that a largely unrestricted conception of free speech is a substantivemoral good. The Christian value of free speech may be seen by way of two principles: the principle of truth and the principle of beauty.
The principle of truth needs little theological defense. At the heart of Christian faith is an affirmation of the essential unity between God and Truth: Jesus defines Himself, after all, as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (Jn 14:6) Almost the entire book of Proverbs is an invitation to cherish and internalize truth.
But it is now quite commonplace to witness a reduction of the imperative to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) to merely “speak . . . in love.” This reduction, in turn, is frequently rooted in the assumption that any foundationalist claim to access “objective” truth is a screen for power plays. If there is no underlying truth to speak, social relations become a matter of merely policing the manner and mode of discourse.
This is the denuded condition of discourse that critics of “cancel culture” fear. And that fear flows from the Christian recognition that, in seeking to grasp and articulate the world, it is not always enough to merely be “nice”; sometimes hard and painful truths must be spoken, even if they will hurt the hearer in some ways. As Proverbs 27:6 puts it, “wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”
And so, “freedom from” prior restraints on speech is the logical corollary of the “freedom to” speak the truth.
But what, then, about hate speech? A number of thoughtful writers, including prominent legal philosophers like Jeremy Waldron (a Christian, incidentally), have advocated for laws that levy penalties on particularly derogatory forms of speech. For our purposes here, let us suppose that a proposed hate speech law prohibits speech that is deemed derogatory of any identifiable group, racial or otherwise.
As well-intentioned as such a policy might be, I would reject the imposition of such a law, because I submit that there are circumstances in which speaking the truth in love requires that an individual seek to deconstruct illegitimate group identity claims. Galatians 3:28, after all, points out that within the body of Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Here is an example. To my mind, to embrace and defend one’s “whiteness” is to perpetuate the lie that there is some biological reality that is the “white race,” as opposed to a historical construction used to develop an illegitimate system of social caste. There are people of German ancestry, there are people of Irish ancestry, and there are people of Russian ancestry (as well as people of European ancestry writ large)—but the categoryof “white” has never been fixed, static, or meaningfully biologically grounded. It has operated as a sort of catch-all term to refer to those not Black, and its boundaries have fluctuated over time. Thus, white nationalism and white supremacy are not only morally evil; they are built on conceptual quicksand.
And yet a hate speech law prohibiting attacks on any “racial group” would probably serve to silence the argument I just outlined—because my argument delegitimizes “whiteness” as a category, and in so doing delegitimizes any “racial group” understanding itself as “white.” As such, a hate speech law would operate to prevent individuals from speaking the truth—that the embrace of “whiteness” as a biologically fixed identity is, at bottom, a lie.
To address this, one might be tempted to propose “asymmetric” hate speech laws applying only to members of “historically privileged” groups. Any such proposal, however, would immediately give rise to ad hoc applications and pervasive line-drawing problems. The expression of hard truths—descriptions of reality spoken in love, but profoundly challenging to their hearers—would be seriously chilled.
The principle of beauty is rooted in a similar recognition: that there are elements of the created order—an order within which God is continually present—which are at once arrestingly beautiful anddeeply unsettling to our everyday sensibilities.
By this, I mean the fact that there is undeniably a hard beautyat work in films like First Reformed, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Silence, or books like Infinite Jestand Blood Meridian, or musical albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. I wouldn’t give any of these to children, but is it a misuse of one’s Christian freedom to create human artifacts intended to be engaged by those of a more mature age? I think not. One presumably would not dwell on the graphically erotic imagery in the Book of Ezekiel in a Bible class taught to kindergarteners.
Created beauty, of course, is a mirror of its Creator. And it is why, for Christians, the ultimate destiny of human beings has traditionally been described as the “beatific vision”—an ever-deeper encounter with the infinite God Himself, the Source of all beauty. The human inclination to draw near to the beautiful is, when rightly understood, an invitation to draw near to God. Free speech matters because it opens up the horizon of that invitation: a restriction on free speech, however well-intentioned, has the effect of introducing an essentially ad hoclimit on the range of possible manifestations of the beautiful. To those who would say this leaves too much room for blasphemy, I note that the opposite of devotion is not blasphemy, but indifference. Could Charles Péguy’s castigations of the churchmen of his day, or Elizabeth Bruenig’s recent reporting on Catholic sex abuse cover-ups, really be described as “blasphemous” for simply offering bracing challenges to ecclesiastical authorities? Beauty is found in the courage of those who face up to painful realities, rather than fleeing from them.
I haven’t hit on some of the issues that tend to arise in discussions of free speech and Christian principles (such as the question of pornography). Nevertheless, these reflections strike me as sufficient to demonstrate that one can make a strong case, on Christian theological grounds, for the relatively unrestricted freedom of speech. In all events, it certainly seems to me that, rather than arguing for the importance of absolute freedom as an end in itself, Christians should be basing their political convictions on a sturdier foundation.
Wesley Walker, AnglicanClick Here to Expand this Response
As Christians, our relationship to freedom of speech is complicated. On the one hand, it is certainly a gift. C.S. Lewis once remarked in Mere Christianity that it’s good Christians cannot impose their views of marriage onto non-Christians, because Christians would not want Muslims to forbid drinking alcohol. In an ever-secularizing world, freedom of speech is a necessity: I have to be okay with the existence of acts of speech like “Immersion (Piss Christ)” by Andres Serrano, because the principle which allows his work to exist allows me to preach the Gospel from the pulpit in my parish.
To assess freedom of speech as an Anglican will inevitably involve the blending of freedom of speech and religion, given the historic relationship between the Anglican Church and the English Crown. The intimate arrangement between Church and State means the concept of freedom of speech as understood by modern Americans is not historically inherent to Anglicanism. The 1662 Act of Uniformity led to what is now called the Great Ejection, where Puritans were forced out of the Church of England. The 1661 Corporation Act and 1673 Test Act required English officeholders to receive communion in Anglican churches. Universities often required assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. The tides began to change in 1688 with the Toleration Act, which allowed some Protestant nonconformists to worship—so long as they pledged allegiance to the Crown and acknowledged its supremacy. In 1791, things opened up for Roman Catholics with the Roman Catholic Relief Act, followed by the 1813 Unitarian Relief Act, which tolerated non-Trinitarian religion. These moves towards free speech and practice of religion were not always well-received. For example, the infamous “Seven Bishops” were prosecuted for seditious libel for refusing to read King James II’s Declaration of Indulgence (1687) from pulpits. That declaration was the first step towards the development of free speech in England.
However much some may wistfully long for the days of the Act of Uniformity, there really is no going back to that in the modern era. Freedom of speech is here to stay. Christians should, I think, as a result, make use of their freedoms in a way that contributes to the greater good of society. But it is difficult to endorse a view which makes freedom of speech a good in and of itself, without taking some pause to consider its downsides. First, freedom of speech means that ideas compete in a marketplace and, therefore, are subject to popular, democratic support. Because the state is committed to the freedom of the individual more than the content of the speech itself, ideas and acts of speech deemed acceptable are up to a kind of popular vote. This may seem to empower to the individual, but it also means that content is subject to cultural whims (this is, of course, true in most situations—but freedom of speech certainly accentuates the phenomenon). Consequently, speech celebrated in a society is almost purely descriptive (a statement of what that society is at a given time), not prescriptive (what it should aspire to be). This is true even in hortative acts of speech. Finally, it is not surprising that a culture that so highly values the right to free speech finds itself described as “post-truth.” Language is a means by which we create social realities. Freedom of speech, then, when paired with the proliferation of partisanship, allows us to live in our own bubbles where we create realities distinct from the realities of others.
So, the remaining question is how the Christian should orient themselves towards freedom of speech and the society which celebrates it. Certainly, as mentioned above, it is something we should value in our particular cultural situation—but as a necessity, not an ideal. Very often, with freedom of speech, the emphasis is on the right to speak, not to interrogate what should be said. Both questions are, of course, valid to certain degrees. But the primary focus from actors ought to be more on their ethical responsibility in speaking, rather than simply exercising their right. Oftentimes, abstention is wiser than indulgence.
And this raises the question of the definition and telos of freedom in the first place. What is a Christian definition of freedom? It is not to do whatever one wants. Rather, freedom is found in proximity to the divine. As Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe says, “We are free not because God is absent or leaves us alone, we are free because God is more present—not of course in the sense that there is more of God there in the free being, but in the sense that there is nothing, so to say, to distract us.” Participation with God makes us free, not the exercising of various rights. Just because something can be said does not mean it should be. In fact, when the can takes precedence over the should, Christians do the most damage to the message of the Gospel. I’ll leave the particular questions of if and how speech should be legislated to smarter people, like Ehrett. However, I would encourage Christians to be the first and most rigorous in terms of self-policing their speech, because we should be the first to understand the true nature of freedom. And I say that not as someone who has that balance figured out (far from it, in fact) but as someone who at least sees the need for it.
 Herbert McCabe, God Matters (New York: Continuum, 2012), 14.
Barbara Gausewitz, AnglicanClick Here to Expand this Response
Nobody likes free speech. This may seem incongruous or even controversial in a theological roundtable dedicated to weighing the relative merits and Christian response to issues of free speech, but I am convinced that it is true. Free speech guarantees that you will hear something you don’t like, or even that deeply offends and troubles you. You have to listen to mean people tell lies, sometimes about things you believe in.
And despite this, I am a First Amendment absolutist. I believe that both Citizens United vs. FEC, which allowed for unlimited financial contributions to political action committees (PACs) and Texas vs. Johnson, which eliminated the prohibition on desecrating the American flag, were rightly ruled. I don’t like the outcomes of these decisions. I think PACs have had a net-negative impact on the electoral process, and I think that desecrating the American flag does something dangerous to our national identity and the very idea of sanctity. And this is precisely why free expression is Constitutionally protected. Things that people like don’t need protection, things that no one likes do.
My colleague John Ehrett makes a compelling case for free speech as a good that flows from the Christian values of truth and goodness. I would argue that free expression is important not only because of what it gains, but because of what it avoids. Constitutionally-protected free expression and the other freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment exist because the Founders lived in a culture that knew what ours has forgotten: that man is terribly fallen, the will to power is part of our nature, and that we are constantly driven to exploit others for our own gain. Free speech, religion, and assembly are the Achilles heel of tyrants and dictators. It is why enslaved African-Americans in the American south were prohibited from learning to read or write. It is why totalitarian states are so quick to jail, execute, and “disappear” independent journalists. It is why the first thing the Communist governments of the 20th century did was outlaw religion.
But the real brilliance of Madison and the other Founders is not the recognition that mankind wants to rule—for that is obvious prima fascia—but that, under conditions of the Fall, men desire to be ruled. Humans are constantly looking for saviors in this life— and we are happy to give up our freedoms if it means gaining power for our appointed earthly leader. In a 2019 investigation into global press freedom, Freedom House found that, “In some of the most influential democracies in the world, populist leaders have overseen concerted attempts to throttle the independence of the media sector.” It is precisely the populist leaders, those supposed men and women of the people, the ones who promise to lead us into a brave new world, who are most likely to become tyrants. Tyrants do not need to take our freedoms; we hand them over willingly.
What inevitably flows from handing over these freedoms is that the tyrant—be it an individual dictator, a corporate conglomerate, a few oligarchs, or a mob—becomes the one to police speech, religion, and assembly. And that tyrant is fallen, just as all of us are fallen, and is likely further corrupted by the corroding effects of power, prestige, ambition, and ultimately sin. The result is disastrous not only for freedom in the abstract, but for discourse, community, trust, and fellowship.
Our desire to follow tyrants seems to be deeply rooted in our nature. Here again we are reminded that sin is a wasting disease. All desires, including our desire to be ruled, originate in our desire for God. As sin works in our wounded nature, we turn away from the true object of desire and tell ourselves that kings in this world will give us what we desire. But Christians must remember that we already have a true King and a righteous Judge.
As my colleagues have pointed out, not all speech is good, upbuilding, or faithful, and just because we have a political right to engage in unrestricted speech does not mean that our speech should be unrestricted. Christians must remember that the Great and Terrible day of the Lord is approaching, and that on that day that we will be held to account not only for our actions, but for the words behind them, as the Epistle of James cautions. Ben Winter is right: Christians do need to be responsible with their speech.
I would argue, however, that responsible Christian speech goes beyond what we choose not to say. We are a people called to speak out. Those of us with privilege and power have a duty to speak out for those who do not. And sometimes that may mean countering speech that we find offensive. To say that someone has the right to say something does not mean that what they said is right, and it does not mean that it should pass unheeded. Rebuttal is not censorship; it is the strongest weapon against offensive speech.
We are called not only to speak out for the material welfare of our brothers and sisters, but for Christ himself. “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven,” Our Lord said. “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” I will be the first to admit that this is a frightening commandment. Tyrants, after all, hate that we have another object of worship and devotion. It undercuts their temporal power and shows them to be powerless in the light of eternity. While Americans still enjoy a great amount of religious freedom, I fear that this is not a certain thing. We no longer live in the comforting embrace of Christendom.
Our free expression of our faith may be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but that does not mean that it is guaranteed. The witness of Christian martyrs in Pakistan, Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere are a sobering reminder of this fact. Here in America it is unlikely that proclaiming the Good News will get you killed, but it could have social and professional repercussions.
But this is no excuse to deny Christ before men. Because our King is not of this world, we do not need to fear. As is often the case, the Book of Common Prayer puts it best: “Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of all enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness.” Because we do not need to fear, we do not need to get angry, or to engage in the overheated rhetoric that too often passes for analysis. We can witness to the Gospel with strength, civility, and calm. We can speak out fiercely, but gently. For gentleness allows for a fierceness that mere kindness does not. And thus, in a world that seems to be gripped by tyrants, we can witness to the truth of another King and another way.
Brian Rebholtz, AnglicanClick Here to Expand this Response
Let me to begin with a confession: I do not 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 is right: 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 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 this relational framework, 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 something 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 more 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 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 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.
We invite your participation in charitable discussion of these viewpoints—and others—in the comments section.