Bridling the Tongue

Mark Ross has an article entitled “Guarding Our Speech” in the October issue of Tabletalk magazine. The article is not limited to discussing political speech, but Ross does use that as an example at the beginning of the article, and it is quite timely for this particular time of this particular year. After all, one week from today the voters of the United States will be deciding whether Barack Obama will serve another four years as president, or whether he will be replaced in January by Mitt Romney. The vote next week will be the conclusion of months and months of campaigning, advertising and debating. According to a recent article, this year’s presidential campaign is going to cost more than $2 billion all told. That’s a lot of speech!

Of course, that is only the paid speech that comes from the campaigns and the various groups that seek to influence the outcome of the election through paid communications. In other words, is does not take into consideration at all the millions of hours of conversation pro and con around cafe tables, kitchen tables and water coolers. And while the content of the paid advertising is relevant, it is this informal conversation that is what I want to address.

Ross writes, “Discussions of politics are especially notorious. Few people hesitate to represent candidates of the opposing party in the worst possible light. Did you know that all Democrats are left-wing liberals bent on turning the whole U.S. economy into a socialist state? Did you know that all Republicans are extreme right-wing conservatives who have no compassion for the poor or any sense of social responsibility? These and other ‘truths’ like them are purportedly discerned simply from a person’s party affiliation. It is not necessary to meet any of these people or speak with them about their views at any length.”

His analysis is sad but true. Far too many of us jump to quick conclusions about politicians based solely on their party, and then we shape our opinions–which shape our speech–around these assumptions.

Even worse, perhaps, is the vitriolic rhetoric that “we the people” tend to throw at elected officials and political candidates. There is nothing wrong with being politically involved (I encourage it, in fact) or with trying to influence the opinions of others, but there is something wrong with hurling insults, half-truths and even outright lies at those with whom we disagree.

Far too often this happens most easily in forums like this one–a blog–or on social networking sites, like Facebook or Twitter. We see or hear something and want to reply, and, let’s face it, we get a kick out of stoking the fires of the debate, so we will post something that is over the top. Maybe we do it specifically to get a reaction, maybe we really believe it; regardless, it’s wrong. The Scripture has plenty to say about bridling our tongues and carefully choosing our words. I believe those passages apply equally to our blog posts, status updates and tweets.

Jesus made it clear that the sixth commandment’s prohibition against murder is violated not only by actually taking a life, but by angry and insulting words. Numerous passages of Scripture refer to the one who is careless in speech as a fool.

Should we engage in political debate? Yes. Should we avoid critiquing or criticizing those with whom we disagree? Not necessarily. But we need to stick to the issues, not attack the people, and we need to, to the fullest extent possible, adhere to the facts. Scripture is equally clear, by the way, that those in positions of authority are there because God has placed them there or allowed them to be there, and as such they are His representatives–and their positions are worthy of our respect.

Lessons We Can Learn

I strive to avoid being overtly political in this blog, but that is not for lack of political opinions or positions. Rather, it is the result of my desire that this space be used for thought-provoking dialogue and not become another political blog that will only be read by people who agree with me.

That said, I have a few comments relating to the handling of the attacks on U.S. embassies in the Middle East, and then some thoughts on what lessons can be taken from these events and applied to the Christian life.

First, I have to join with Mitt Romney, Charles Krauthammer, Mike Huckabee and others and say that I find the statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Egypt to be spineless and inappropriate. While I have not seen the movie, or the trailer for the movie, in question, there is no excuse for the United States, in any way, shape or form to apologize for the freedoms upon which our nation is built. According to the New York Times, the embassy issued the statement before the attack on the embassies in Egypt and Libya occurred. Be that as it may, the statement, which begins with, “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims”–sounds like the result of a politically correct sensitivity seminar. Does the United States really need to apologize that the actions of an individual–actions that are protected by free speech–hurt peoples’ feelings? If the U.S. government is going to assume the role of apologizing every time free speech results in someone’s feelings getting hurt, I have news for you: the government will do nothing else, as this will become a more-than-full-time job in and of itself. There are plenty of people who make comments on a regular basis that I find offensive (yes, Bill Maher, Howard Stern and Roseanne Barr, I am talking to you). I find many of their comments offensive to my sense of decency and politeness, to my Christian beliefs, and to my conservative political tendencies. Yet, never have I received an apology from the government (at any level) for the idiotic statements they make with such regularity, nor do I ever expect to. Why? Because one of the great things about the United States is the freedom that we have to speak our minds without fear of reprisal. I am exercising free speech right now by expressing my dissatisfaction with the actions of the U.S. government. I do not want the government telling me what I can and cannot say, but that means I must also accept that that freedom necessarily allows others to say things that I may find offensive. What should I do about it? Turn it off, ignore it, or, when I feel the need, respond to it, but I would not suggest that the three individuals mentioned above should lose the right to say what they think and I certainly would not expect the government to apology to Christians around the world when those individuals “hurt the religious feelings” of Christians.

(Just to be equitable, by the way, I find plenty of things that Rush Limbaugh, et. al, Ann Coulter and Pat Robertson say to be offensive, too).

The embassy statement ends with, “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” Here’s the thing: religious freedom is a cornerstone of American democracy, yes, but no more and no less a cornerstone than freedom of speech–even when that speech “hurt[s] the religious beliefs of others.”

I do not agree with some of the attacks that I have seen directed at President Obama’s statement made Wednesday morning. I do not see in that statement an apology for America. At the same time, Mr. President, you do not have the liberty to say that the statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Egypt does not reflect the U.S. government’s position, because it does, whether you want it to or not. Every U.S. embassy is the U.S. government to the people in those countries, for all intents and purposes, and whether authorized or not, any statement those embassies may issue becomes–even if only temporarily–the position of the U.S. government. What I do find disturbing is that President Obama’s statement does not unequivocally state that the U.S. will punish those who attacked our embassies. A U.S. embassy is sovereign U.S. soil, and an attack on one of our embassies should be treated no differently than an attack on Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Center. Do I want another war? No. But these attacks must not be allowed to pass quietly into yesterday’s news.

So, what lessons are there in this for Christians? First of all, just another clear example of the difference between Christianity and other religions–most strikingly, Islam. Christians do not respond with violence when their faith is mocked, ridiculed or even threatened. Historically, Christians respond in civil disobedience, and they suffer whatever consequences come their way as a result of doing so. Most Muslims are unapologetic about their desire to destroy Christianity…yet Christians do not respond with violence.

Second, we see, through the attack on the U.S., a reminder that what Christians believe and stand for is an offense to some people. Even though no one has suggested that the film that supposedly launched these attacks on U.S. embassies is a product of the U.S. government, the government represents America, and the actions of Americans are reflected on the government. Similarly, Christians will sometimes suffer persecution simply because of what they believe, whether they have taken any offensive actions toward another or not. And, as with the situation described here, Christians must always remember that the actions of anyone claiming the name of Christ will reflect on all others claiming the name of Christ–all the more reason for Christians to demonstrate Christ’s love in all interactions with others.