One of the somewhat paradoxical things about the Christian faith is that in its ‘fundamental’ or ‘radical’ sense – and I use those terms literally, to mean ‘basic’ or ‘foundational’ – it allows for disagreement. The spirit of the gospel of Christ is that Christians accept that not everybody is going to accept the good news. This, over time, formed the foundation for democracy and free speech in the world.
It is sadly ironic, then, that sometimes, believers can gain notoriety for suppressing free speech. An example of this occurred this week when Tyndale University College & Seminary, the school at which I have been both student and teacher, announced that a friend of the institution was hosting an invitation-only breakfast event to raise the profile of the school. What was newsworthy about this? The speaker was to be George W. Bush, the forty-third President of the United States. News reports uncovered that a number of students and alumni, and even some faculty, had raised a petition to have the event cancelled, because they disagreed with what Bush stood for as U.S. President and didn’t want him associated with Tyndale.
Sadly, the event was cancelled. No official word has connected the cancellation to the brouhaha that came about when the speaker was announced, but many people have surmised that the school was responding to the outcry.
Either way, I think that’s unfortunate. Whether or not any or all of the faculty, students and alumni agree with Bush’s policies or the way he expresses his faith, it flies in the face of the freedom of expression for which the church stands to cancel an event because of such a protest. A saying that is often attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire (but was actually penned by someone else who was summarizing his beliefs) resonates with basic Christianity: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The Christian faith, at its core, is about defending rights, because people – all people – matter to God…even those with whom we may disagree.
Free speech is all too easily suppressed in our world today. Often, it’s about secular society suppressing Christian free speech. It’s particularly sad when Christians go about seeking to suppress free speech.
None of God’s representatives in the Bible, from the prophets to the apostles to Jesus himself, sought to arm-twist anyone into the kingdom. We have no record of any of them disrespecting those who chose to believe differently. Sadly, the record of the church has not been stellar in this regard throughout church history, but the goal of faithful disciples of Jesus should be to be tolerant, in the original sense of the term: to allow people the freedom to be wrong.
There are differences of opinion and interpretation as to what Scripture says about such things as war and social policy. The gospel indicates to us, however, that we should be loving toward even those with whom we disagree. The church must model this for society.
Disputes happen in local churches everywhere, but thankfully, they don’t usually make the news. My prayer is that we who are disciples of Jesus will strive, daily, to allow for freedom of expression, even when that expression doesn’t concur with our understanding of truth. After all, Jesus said, “You have heard that the law says, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5.43-45a, NLT).