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Hate Speech & Jesus

Let’s work backwards in history on this one.

You can turn on the news almost any day now and hear American lawmakers demanding that social media platforms censor “hate speech” even more than they already do.  If you didn’t know that the major social media platforms and Google curate what you see and don’t see, you haven’t been paying attention.  Sometimes this “hate speech” is legitimately hateful speech and sometimes it is political dissent and political opposition. 

In other parts of the Western world, people are regularly being arrested and imprisoned for offensive social media posts – something unthinkable in the West for most of the past three or four hundred years.  Orwell’s ThoughtPolice, Hitler’s Gestapo, and Stalin’s GPU would be proud.

A few years ago I regularly read and heard that people were claiming that “words are violence,” dangerously suggesting that someone’s hateful words or words you disagree with warrant the same sort of violent self-defense that a violent attack might.  Violence was encouraged towards people whom one might disagree with and violence frequently took place. 

Do people say hateful, hurtful, offensive, and despicable things?  Yes. 

Here is the deal though, if in no other place on Earth, in America, hateful, offensive, and inflamatory speech is legal and protected by the Constitution and court precedence. 

In the Supreme Court’s 1969 case Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Court determined that KKK leader Clarence Bradenburg was within his rights to give a racist speech, even one when he called for “revengeance” against blacks and Jews

Out of this case came the Brandenburg test for illegal speech – the only kind of “hate speech” that is actually against the law.  According to this test, the only speech that the government can rightfully suppress is speech that has (specific) intent, imminence, and likelihood of causing a crime.  If any of these three things is lacking, no matter how despicable the speech might be, it is protected speech. 

Very little of what we call “hate speech” today and what the 1969 Supreme Court called “inflammatory speech” is illegal based on our constitution. 

Maybe you think that is too permissive.  Why did the founders of our country put such strong protections on free speech in the first amendment to the Constitution?

The members of the constitutional convention as well as the state leaders who ratified the Constitution in their state congresses or assemblies looked to history, philosophy, and theology to create a government that would not carry on the abuses that have been nearly universal to all other governments that came before.  A critical part of that safeguard against the United States growing into an oppressive government was the Bill of Rights – a list of ten specific lines that the government was forbidden to cross.  The first section of this bill, the First Amendment says this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Looking back on history, the authors and supporters of this amendment would have seen a nearly endless sea of cautionary tales regarding governments using the violence of the state to oppress, imprison, and kill people who expressed political, theological, social, philosophical, or scientific views that the state or the political elite found to be offensive or inflammatory.

Theologically, freedom of speech is just as important for Christians today as it was in 1700s America.  Christians then and now are the most persecuted people on the planet – specifically because freedom of speech and religion are so rare in the world.  Additionally, Christianity in its first three hundred years grew exponentially like no other social movement before or since, not at the point of a sword or the barrel of a gun, but through speech, witness, and invitation.  All the while those brave and faithful people lived and shared their faith under the threat of government suppression.  Lastly, protecting the right to free speech is critical to Christians because it was for his speech, for his words, that the government and the ruling elite killed Jesus. 

Jesus was never accused of doing something wrong, he was accused of saying things that were offensive and inflammatory both to the ruling religious establishment and to the political establishment. 

Jesus was tortured and killed on charges of offensive speech. 

The law, history, and the Christian experience all tell us that the West walking away from our rich heritage of free speech to suppress offensive or inflammatory speech is something we should all be concerned about.

So what do we do about speech that we find reprehensible?  Are our tools to resist hellish ideologies and agendas limited to the violence of the state or nothing at all?  No, not even close. 

Here are three simple tools anyone can use to resist inflammatory, hateful, or ignorant speech:

  1. Ignore it – Imagine a group you disagree with holding a rally and no one shows up to oppose them, no one notices, and no one seems to care.  Very defeating!
  2. Debate them – Invite someone you disagree with into a real exchange of ideas either publicly or privately.  Learn to use rhetoric, logic, reason, and facts.  If you make the truth your goal and not the protection or advancement of your ego, I guarantee you’ll learn something and likely win your opponents respect as well. 
  3. Show love – Humanize those you disagree with and win them over with kindness.  You’ll be surprised how much this catches people off guard and disarms them when they were expecting you to be combative and adversarial and treat them like a target or a representative of an issue instead of a person. 

If you look into Jesus’ life, you’ll see that he used all three of these in one form or another. 

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