Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The right to speak: the responsibility to not offend

The Globe and Mail has been under fire in the past couple of days for its editorial explaining why it has refused to re-print the cartoons that apparently led to the massacre in Charlie Hebdo’s offices last week. Commenters both on the website and elsewhere have accused the Globe’s editors of being “cowardly” and knuckling under to bullies and terrorists. Some (and it’s interesting how many of these people hide behind pseudonyms on the internet) have stated, darkly, that they hope the Globe editors remember their own words if someone writes something offensive to Christians or Jews.

(Frankly, the Globe and Mail frequently prints articles and opinion pieces that Christians might find offensive, so perhaps this current controversy will give the editors pause to consider. But that’s not my point.)

First off, I don't think it’s cowardly to decline to re-print another publication’s material, after several of its employees got killed because of it: fanatics tend to be guilt-by-association types, and if the Globe had decided to re-publish those cartoons, anyone associated with the paper – even those who disagreed with that decision – might have become a target.

But almost lost in the name-calling was a very salient point: why bother offending someone for their beliefs? It’s been long established that caricaturing the Prophet Mohammed is offensive to Muslims, SO WHY DO IT?

Is this a freedom-of-speech issue? Yes, but only to a point. With freedom of speech comes responsibility: the responsibility to be truthful and the responsibility not to offend. That’s especially true when it comes to matters of one’s belief. I've had my beliefs attacked – some in subtle ways, that make me think that maybe I'm just hearing the other person wrong; some in not-so-subtle ways.

I've been asked, in an interview for a job in a radio newsroom, if my Christian beliefs would color my news judgment (I had been in and around broadcast journalism for over 35 years when I was asked that). I’ve heard someone close to me mutter “oh, shit” when I declared that I believe the Bible. And those are mild, compared to the offences other Christians suffer (being beheaded by fanatics, for example), but they still hurt. And we are not to inflict that same hurt on others.

Indeed, Christians legally have freedom of speech, but when we come to Christ, we willingly surrender that right. It’s like the old joke about the Model T Ford: “you can have any color you want, so long as it’s black”. As Christians, we can say whatever we want, so long as it’s from the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul tells us, twice, not to offend people. “Give none offence,” he says, “neither to the Jews, nor the Gentiles, nor the Church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32). Later, he says, “Giving no offence in anything, that the Ministry be not blamed.” (2 Corinthians 6:3)

Paul also reminds us, “That we henceforth be no more children … but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into Him in all things, which is the head – even Christ.” (Eph. 4:14-15 – emphasis added)

Or, as Jerry Savelle puts it, “If you can’t speak the Word of God, shut up!”

Does it really work to the general good to offend someone else? Or does it only serve to reinforce the comfort of hating someone else? And is this really a hill to die on for freedom of the press, when so many journalists in Latin America are murdered for reporting on drug cartels and corruption, and those deaths barely rate a sentence? And as the Guardian finely put it yesterday, why do the deaths of a dozen people at a magazine bring hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets, when the killing of thousands in Nigeria got little attention?

Truth tends to offend people, anyway, as Jesus, Paul, Peter, Stephen and a whole bunch of others can tell you first-hand. There’s no use in exacerbating it by getting personal and going out of your way to offend. This is why Jesus told us that, when we are called out for our faith in Him, not to worry about what we might say, but to wait for the Holy Spirit to do the talking through us and for us. That way, it doesn't turn into an argument over who’s right: it doesn’t get personal and people don’t get hurt.

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