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Free Speech

Insights Blog, Church of the Resurrection

James 3:4-12: 4 Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. 5 In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.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!11 Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives? Can a grapevine produce figs? Of course not, and fresh water doesn’t flow from a saltwater spring either.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental value in America. Yet often, when I hear people invoke freedom of speech, what they really mean is spontaneous speech. Spontaneous speech, saying whatever we want, whenever we want, is not “free.” In fact, it is very much “bound.” Spontaneous speech is usually imprisoned speech. It bursts out from impulses that we don’t even know we have and that hold us captive. Spontaneous speech can be compulsive, emerging from deep drives that govern us – envy, resentment, fear, anxiety -- sometimes unknowingly. Spontaneous speech is simply the surface noise of these inner bondages, not free at all: “A small flame that can set a whole forest on fire.” (v. 5)

In contrast, truly free speech is intentional speech, words said on purpose and with care. Only with great inner freedom can we tame the tongue, shedding inner drives and blind reactivity. Desert Christians in the 4th century offer ancient wisdom about spiritual disciplines that cultivate such freedom. Ultimately, only God’s grace can burn away our crusty layers of self-righteousness, prejudice and easy judgmentalism, freeing us for truly free speech.

The biblical view of humans is that we are each created by God in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Therefore, cursing another person is also cursing the image of God. In holy freedom, we bless God and learn to see the image of God in each brother and sister. What a powerful witness Christians could make in the public square with such truly free speech! ­

Dr. Amy Oden

Dr. Amy Oden is Visiting Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality at Saint Paul School of Theology at OCU. Teaching is her calling, and she looks forward to every day with students. Her latest book (Right Here, Right Now: The Practice of Christian Mindfulness, Abingdon Press, 2017) traces ancient mindfulness practice for Christians today.

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