“I’m not arguing. I’m just telling you the sort of chap I was, see? I’m asking for nothing but my rights… I’m only a poor man. But I got to have my rights same as you, see?” – The Big Ghost, The Great Divorce
Something to consider when it comes to speech, written or spoken, is that while we live in a ostensibly free environment, we may have our right but are not always required to use it. It would seem that if you feel your freedom of speech is under threat that perhaps you should just get louder and become harder to shut up. And I am not advocating for just rolling over and giving up, but I would like to take some time to consider discernment in our free speech.
The Lay of the Land
There is debate happening over speech in the western world. It would seem that there has been a rather quick flip on the roles. Some aspects I will grant others I will not. For example. I do think that the left played a very long game media wise and played the game well. It is a lot easier to shut down the, “religious right” or “moral majority” when you have plenty of footage of them from the nineteen nineties grandstanding, protesting, boycotting, and pontificating and then simply attach that footage to whatever conservative ideas you currently wish to discredit. So I would say that the shift that has left many conservatives reeling did not happen overnight but was slowly prepared for over time. It has been quick in that the relatively sudden rise of internet businesses and their power to censor is stunning. But most interesting to me is how it is the conservative playbook that is being used against them. Boycotts, calling out offenders and trying to have them fired, shaming people, banning books, protests; all things I can remember from by Southern Baptist boyhood.
The tables have turned and some of the vehemence probably stems from a feeling that one was shut out of the main discourse. Perhaps the rise of Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter and their draconian approaches is indeed the revenge of the nerds. My concern is that history that is not learned from is doomed to be repeated. Every generation rebells against the previous one. And there is a real possibility that by infuriating a marginalized group we will just be right back to where we were, for good or for ill.
One more note on where we are. This clash is religious. All men were made to worship and the only question is what will they worship? Hate speech is just a new name for blasphemy. Blasphemy laws are always just a twinkle in some legislators eye. The fight here is not a clash of ideas but of God against the Baal’s of our age. It might therefore be wiser to fight like Elijah on Mt. Carmel. Let God win the day first, then deal with the prophets. I fear with all of our shouting matches online and occasionally in person we are trying to kill the prophets and leave the idol alone.
But let me broaden this out a bit. My larger concern is not the switch in power dynamics, rather it is what that has done to the state of our conversation. Wherever you land on the spectrum the temptation on condescend, over assert, mock, or rhetorically crush opponents is great. And I do not deny that there is a time and a place for flaming hot verbosity. The problem is that all of us think we are operating on the same level as Luther and that our particular cause is just as important, if not more so.
Some Thoughts on Stewarding our Words Well
Discernment is one of those things Christians are aware of but I have found really have no clue what it actually it. At it’s base discernment is living well. It is the constant pursuit of the moral and general Will of God applied judiciously to all of life, it culminates in wisdom. It takes time, Scripture bound to the heart, prayer, and no little thought. Discernment while capable of a snap decision does not live for them. Discernment is patient, it is charitable, it is a life of worship.
To be discerning with our words begins with self control. If I had to choose a fruit of the spirit that runs against the grain of western society, self control would be in hot competition with patience. But nothing makes for a fool more than a babbler according to Proverbs.
“The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” – Prov. 15:2
“A fool’s lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating. A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul.” – Prov. 18:6-7
“Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.” – Prov. 19:1 (The Amplified Version adds self-confident to fool)
Keeping Your Mouth Shut
A fool does not know how to hold their tongue. They are like Kanye West at an awards show. Wisdom dictates knowing when to shut up, but it starts with simply keeping your mouth shut.
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” – Prov. 10:19
“A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly.” – Prov. 12:23
“Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” – Prov. 17:28
You are For them
I enjoy sitting with pastors, I love hosting them and providing a respite from their labors. But inevitably a theological issue comes up that I really, really, want to set them straight on. But what I have learned is that A. in most cases I am not close enough to them relationally to be heard yet B. They have fifty people who think they are that close and have often vented their spleen C. If I am going to be in the position to be heard and hopefully bring them around they need to experience so they can know that I am for them. I don’t want to push them in a certain direction because I am a doctrine fusser (though I absolutely am) but because I want them and their churches to thrive. In short wisdom plays the long game. I am discerning in my words because when I use them I want them to resonate in a positive way. As a result I will sit silently and charitably for a long time.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1
Knowing if or when You Need to be Heard
Turning our attention to this digital age of ours I would posit that perhaps the world will keep on spinning without our constant shouting into the void; often in 280 characters or less. On a pragmatic level it ought to be considered by every person if they have not already stirred up enough relational strife with their actual words to their immediate relational group.
“As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife” – Proverbs 26:21
If perhaps you are already considered quarrelsome by those who love you then going global might not be the best thing for you. But more that that I suspect that our other sin of envy drives us to be extreme. The drive to influence, stir up, or even just to be noticed begins small and innocuous enough but often is the driver to bigger and greater self centeredness and selfishness.
“Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
What if instead God were taken at His word and humility was the driving investment. Not every article, blogpost, or tweet needs your complete take on it. And just between the two of us I have yet to see a kind comment comment that produced a storm of words from other tweets. Just because you disagree or are offended does not mean you need to speak out. Quarrelsomeness online is the same sin it was in person during the reign of Solomon.
Overestimating your Own Importance
And as we approach the root we come to pride. The feeling that you need to be heard or that you can set someone straight is usually more about you than the issue. Wether you care to own it or not you are Joe Schmo and you are probably not going to speak with the authority you think you possess. And that is because you are a prideful person in a world of prideful people.
To illustrate, I was reading on Samuel James’ excellent blog Letter and Liturgy the other week. I like James because even when I have a nit to pick I still enjoy his prose or had to consider a position that I personally would nuance differently. And such was the case with the post I was reading. I scrolled down to the comments section to consider if I might be interested in the discussion. And there I found a post… nearly 700 words long taking severe issue with the same sentence I did as well. And it made me realize what a fools errand it is to vent your spleen in a comments section. It is not as if James is going to be reduced to a puddle of regret, and even I who agreed with the point was turned off by the pontification. The comment was pure ego. And it was petty. That is the problem with pride, it puffs up the individual but makes them small and pathetic in the eyes of others.
At the end of the day you do have rights. Humility calls for those rights to be laid down and you will ultimately be granted greater freedoms. I have heard more and more sermons of pastors pleading with their congregations to turn off their social media, to show charity to the brethren. They are not wrong, but what I see are a church of ghosts, demanding their rights, they would rather have those than the fellowship offered them.
“So that’s the trick, is it? I thought there’d be some damned nonsense. It’s all a clique, all a bloody clique. Tell them I’m not coming, see? I’d rather be damned than go along with you. I came here to get my rights see? Not to go sniffing along on charity tied to your apron-strings. If they’re too fine to have me without you, I’ll go home. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll go home. I didn’t come here to be treated like a dog. That’s what I’ll do. Damn and blast the whole pack of you…’ In the end, still grumbling, but whimpering also a little as it picked its way over the sharp grasses, it made off.” – C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce