Faithlink Discussion: Free Speech

by Jacob Juncker

I just watched a fascinating documentary called “Fall from Grace” (view the trailer here) which chronicles the beliefs of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC).  The movie was, I think, fair in depicting Phelps, the WBC, and those who protest against them.  What I found most intriguing was that Phelps “had a religious experience” at a Methodist Church gathering.  He was raised a Methodist, but eventually parted ways because he felt he was not being taught what the Bible teaches.  The irony in the movie, that most people will not pick up on, is that the Professor who gives an appraisal of Phelps’ use of the Bible was from St. Paul’s seminary (a United Methodist related School of Theology).  As a Methodist pastor and geek, I found this kinda funny (I hope it was intentional).

One of the most powerful parts in the documentary is at the end.  The hymn “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love” plays in the background while video clips of all those who have commented during the film (including Fred Phelps, members of his family and dissenters of WBC) is shown.  It’s a poignant reminder that Christians all around the world are bound together whether we like it or not.  I don’t agree with Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.  I find their message to be contrary to the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ.  But, for many, “we’re all the same.”

Think about this: a small flame can set a whole forest on fire. 6 The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell. 7 People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. 8 No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!

James 5b-10, Common English Bible

Free speech is not only a right, but a tremendous responsibility.  The person who said “sticks and stones may break my bones and words will never hurt me” must not have known the full power of words.  Words have the power to both create and destroy (c.f. John 1:3, Proverbs 11:11, 12:18, 13:3).  Words can build people up or tear them down.  Words set the tenor of our lives.  There is great power in words.  Like a rudder on a ship (James 3:4), our tongues, our words, direct every aspect of our lives.  Therefore, regardless of our right to free speech, we have a responsibility to watch our words so that we do not pour out “deadly poison.”

With freedom comes great responsibility.  What would it be like if we, as Christians, were more intentional about using words that build people up?  What would it be like if we, as Christians, used our words to bless people and not curse them?  What if we took the responsibility found in our freedom seriously?  Maybe, just maybe, people would be able to differentiate between the hate speech of Fred Phelps and the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Maybe, just maybe, the whole world would come to know that we are Christians by our Love.