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What Is Free Speech?

A Guest Post from Elder Craig Mattson

· Jesus,Speech,Witness

I understand that one of the questions on the U.S. Naturalization Exam asks for the rights protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Religion. Speech. Press. Petition. Assembly. Each of those rights, of course, raises all sorts of complex legal and moral issues. Take, for instance, the right to free speech. What is free speech? The answer seems obvious. Free speech is saying whatever you wish to say without fear of recrimination. But lately, free speech in the United States has started to sound, well, unfree.

Andrew Sullivan, writing recently in The New York Magazine, attributes the troubles of our communication to the phenomenon of tribalism, which, he explains, entails two brutally simple rules: (1) never criticize what anyone from your group says or does and (2) never concede the strength in anyone else’s argument. The consequences of tribalism are pretty dire. Because we’re afraid to listen critically to ourselves, because we’re afraid to listen generously to others, our speech gradually goes unfree.

Last week’s sermon from the first chapters of Exodus have me thinking about what truly free speech sounds like. The Living God commissions Moses to speak to Pharoah, the ruler of ancient Egypt. Because this commission is, to put it mildly, risky, Moses is enormously reluctant.  But eventually, he goes and speaks frankly, fearlessly to the king of Egypt. “Let my people go.” 

In the tradition of public speaking instruction in which I do my work at Trinity College, there is a technical term for this kind of communication: parrhesia, or fearless speech. It’s a Greek word, because the Greeks were the first to name it, although the practice is obviously at least as old as Moses. In fact, the term for fearless speech happens to be the very word that Jesus Christ, the second Moses, uses to describe his own witness near the end of his life: “I have always spoken openly to the world,” he tells his interrogators in John 18—and the word he uses is parrhesia. He later explains to Governor Pontius Pilate, that such fearless speech had always defined his mission: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

The thing that impresses me about God’s speech in a self-confessed stutterer like Moses or in the witness of an incriminated rabbi like Jesus is not so much the fearlessness, but the humility of the communication. Yahweh God deliberately utters speech from a place of disempowerment. God’s speech in Jesus is shrewd and risk-taking, yes; but it is also strikingly humble, willing to be disadvantaged to the point of silence, the point of death. This communication is parrhesia because it is free to die. We might even say that Jesus, as the speech of God, talks himself to the death of the cross.

I am struck by the contrast between this self-giving witness and the self-protective blaring of our time across the cable networks and the relentless waves of talk radio. But are there ever times when our everyday speech, yours and mine, lacks the generosity, the frankness, the fullness, and the freedom of God’s speech?  Sure.  Any time we are indifferent to the faults in our own selves, or in our own group, and unwilling to acknowledge the wisdom in other people’s positions. Recognizing both those realities is itself a gift of God’s free speech to us in Christ. 

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