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Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech: in recent weeks the very idea has been challenged – in violent ways, in political ways, in religious ways.

free-speechFreedom of speech – without limits? The reaction to the Paris attack showed the strength of feeling around that concept. But from within the Muslim world things look very different. The limit to freedom of speech is quite straightforward; anything can be said about anything except about the Prophet.

At one level we would say that Jesus is every bit as sacred to us as Mohammed is to Muslims (who believe in Jesus as well, by the way, but that’s another story) but we have developed a quite different perspective.

Over the last sixty years attitudes have changed. Film portrayals of Jesus are, if not commonplace, certainly not unknown, and raise little concern anymore. But then Christianity in the West has, as they say, “been on a journey” as it gave rise to, and then had to accept the consequences of, the kinds of intellectual, political and religious freedoms of which “freedom of speech” is one.

Islam in the West – and increasingly that means pretty much everywhere – has not been on such a journey. But never mind Islam the issue is whether anything in today’s world is sacred – and thus should not be the subject of criticism and satire.

In fact, more than a few things are regarded as sacred. The Holocaust, racism, sexism, homophobia – some things are held sacred in our society though what these things are changes over time. The notion of an unchanging, untouchable sacred – that’s not so clear.

Jesus provides an example of what happens when someone goes up against the sacred of his day. He spoke out against the Temple, Pharisees, notions of who did, and who did not, belong in Israel society. And he acted as he spoke, as he spent time with outcasts such as lepers and Samaritans, broke rules that shored up the sacred aspects of his faith, and attacked the very fabric of the Temple, that was the heart of all that was sacred.

Such that the authorities moved against him and had him put to death. How ironic if the faith that follows Jesus should hold him up as the most sacred of all in our day, who died for having undermined all that was sacred in his.

Who knows if, in time, Islam will accommodate to a world in which anything that’s sacred is fair game, though freedom of speech has constantly to have something sacred in its sights. Those cartoonists attacked all that was sacred around them, for without such “sacred” things, satire would have nothing to aim at.

At Easter, Christianity proposes a different way of regarding what is sacred. Jesus who died, rose again from the dead leaving behind no empty tomb, no shrine or place of pilgrimage and – because he is alive for evermore – no sacred memory. Unlike Mohammed for Muslims, Jesus for Christians is not a figure in history whose words, actions and appearance must be protected at all costs.

He is alive by His Spirit so that what is sacred for Christians is all to do with the work of Christ now – and is not a religion at all, for all that in the world it displays all the trappings of one – special buildings, rituals – and a book.

Which leads to Baptists – no sacred buildings (the word “sanctuary” for all that it is convenient shorthand is alien to a Baptist way of thinking); no “sacred” priests and – this is the difficult bit – no sacred book… the Sciptures are not “holy” for Baptists, not in the way they are for many others in the Christian church – and not in the way that, say, the Koran is for Muslims.

What is sacred for us, then? Each month at communion we speak about the Body of Christ – not as Anglicans and Catholics may, in relation to the actual bread, but in relation to the assembled people who take communion. That’s all that’s holy for Baptists – you and me, insofar as we identify with Christ, have His Spirit and do His will.

Hard though it is to say, the proper target of attack for anyone who wants to give offence to the Christian is… the Christian. If we do not love, if we are hypocritical, if we do not display Christ-likeness in our words and actions, then we deserve all we get, but if we are like Christ – if we love one another and the world around – then we may not deserve, but we should certainly expect to receive, all the opprobrium, satire, offence that the world might heap on our shoulders – “of whom the world was not worthy”, as it says in Hebrews.

Or, as Paul puts it, “if we live, it is for the Lord that we live, and if we die, it is for the Lord that we die. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord”. Easter faith, indeed.

Michael Docker