If you have grown up in church at all, you’ve likely heard a lesson or sermon on chapter 3 in the book of James. (My pastor just preached a GREAT one from which the idea for this blog came). It’s about the dangers of the tongue and all the problems that can be caused when we let our tongues run wild. The tongue is contrasted to the rudder of a ship which though small can steer the much larger vessel, and a bridle which is able to control a powerful horse. The tongue, says James, is a little fire and yet is able to set a whole forest ablaze! The point is that despite being such a small part of the human body, the tongue—or more specifically the words we say—can have a profound impact on the world around us, and far too often that impact is for the worst. Anyone who has ever “stuck his foot in his mouth,” or worse, has so-called “foot in mouth disease” understands all the problems that can come from letting our tongue run wild. The tongue, or more specifically our words and speech, can be very dangerous.
This week in America, we have been tragically re-acquainted with the dangers of “speech.” (I don’t think I need to rehash the tragedy that took place a few days ago in Libya). While there seems to be much debate about whether the attack was planned or not, what spurred that attack, as well as other protest in the Middle East is much more certain. Just as James says, speech can have very bad consequences.
America is a country that values freedom of speech; it’s the first Amendment of our Constitution. Free speech is an extremely important part of the fabric of America, yet even it has limits. It’s illegal to scream “fire” in a crowded theater, if I shout “bomb” in an airport I’m going to be spending a lot of time talking to Homeland Security, and if I make a legitimate threat against the life of the President the Secret Service is going to be all over my as*. What we see then is that speech, true to James, can be dangerous, out of control, and meant for harm. Oh, and it’s also illegal. This describes exactly the “speech” of this controversial video.
What I find troubling is that many have run roughshod with the misguided idea that by condemning this video, the leadership of this country is somehow condemning American values. (Put aside for a moment the fact that the initial criticism was not of “free speech,” but rather the misuse of such speech to offend believers of all religions) President Obama responded wisely that a key Presidential characteristic was sometimes “holding your tongue” (my paraphrase). Obama’s bit about thinking “through the ramifications (of your comments) before you make 'em" sounds a lot like the biblical wisdom of James, wouldn’t you say?
What’s ironic is that nearly all the criticism of the administration and it’s supposed “lack of appreciation” for First Amendment rights and American values comes from the right—the same folks who claim to be unabashedly Christian and the “true” followers of the Bible. Funny, they don’t talk about other American values of respect for other religions or the biblical teaching of being careful about what one says.
The question ultimately comes down to, which standard of speech do you most value? America’s or God’s?
So then, I condemn speech such as this video not as an American, but as a Christian.