Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Right to Costly Speech

Douglas Wilson is hard at work making the case for the right to free speech from a Christian foundation, and I give him full credit for grappling with the abstract with all the enthusiasm of Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

But in explaining his position, Doug is making an undefended assumption — or at very least one he does not attempt to defend in this particular post — which may sound perfectly reasonable to many Christians: that biblical law ought to serve as a foundation or framework for modern society.

Postmillennial Posting

That assumption comes out of Doug’s postmillennial view of prophetic scripture, which takes some of the final words of Christ to his followers to mean we have an obligation not only to take the gospel to individuals, but also to use the principles of the word of God (which in practice means the Law of Moses) to transform the cultures of entire nations and bring them into submission to Christ.

I’m not putting words in Doug’s mouth. In fact, I’m nicking them directly from his post:
“What does it mean for us who say that we want biblical law to serve as a foundation or framework for modern society?”
There you go. And he goes on to tell us. That’s a rather large mission, and one for which I feel remarkably unqualified. Sharing the gospel is one thing; strategically and intentionally transforming entire nations is quite another.

My own understanding of the commission of Matthew 28:18-20 is that the Lord intended his followers to make disciples from all nations, which is to say that he didn’t want Jewish prejudices or questions of convenience and preference to govern where the gospel was taken, but intended that the message of salvation be extended to all. In every nation of the world, some would hear and obey it and some would hear and would not; and the ones who obeyed it and submitted to Christ were to be baptized and taught to observe everything Jesus had commanded them. That understanding is based not on a technical examination of the Greek, which can be read either way, but on reading for myself what Paul and other apostles did throughout the book of Acts, which was precisely what I just described. If in doing so they believed the work of spreading the gospel and making disciples was only the first baby-step in the process of nation transformation, they certainly neglected to inform us of this elsewhere in the New Testament.

Gradual Transformation vs. the Rod of Iron

The idea of bringing the nations themselves to heel — rewriting their legal documentation, eradicating their bureaucratic corruption, and entirely transforming centuries of ingrained social practices to bring them into line with Christian principles — is intriguing, I’ll admit. It has certainly been tried. Indeed, the Christian’s function-by-design as salt and light in the world almost demands a measure of naturally-transformative social influence, something which has demonstrably occurred over the centuries. Immanuel Can points this out in his Thursday post this week, and Doug Wilson would surely find it encouraging.

Nevertheless, it is my conviction that meaningful, lasting social, cultural, legal and bureaucratic transformation on a worldwide scale await not the working-through of the gospel into the societies and systems of the nations of world, but rather the coming of Christ himself to rule these nations with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel, something that would be quite unnecessary in the event that the nations had already been transformed through the agency of the gospel. As much as Christians have accomplished in the West over the centuries by applying the principles of scripture to a lost world, the vast majority of our planet still remains to be similarly transformed. Moreover, it is increasingly difficult to make the argument that our Western world is moving in the direction of greater submission to the gospel. In fact, the opposite is very much the case.

Rights on the Scrap Heap

All to say that when it comes to the question of biblical law serving as a foundation or framework for modern society, that seems to me a very nice, eminently desirable and altogether fantastical notion, while Doug Wilson views it as a mission he (and we) have received directly from Christ himself. That difference in our understanding of scripture is not trivial; rather, it is foundational to the way we each think, pray, write and deal with the world around us.

From where I am coming on the postmillennial interpretation of Matthew 28:18-20 (that it’s all wet, to put it politely), a post like Doug’s on the “right” to free speech loses me at the door. After all, if your foundational assumption is in error, then everything you try to build upon that foundation may be extremely well-intended, and may involve centuries of hard labor, but it is all ... well, to put it delicately, destined for the scrap heap. To speak meaningfully of rights and freedoms involves being able to speak of methods of enforcing them, otherwise such “rights” are nothing more than gas.

And how exactly does one enforce the right to free speech in our present day, when the law is interpreted by cowards and ideologues, when your vote is stolen by a corrupt bureaucracy, and when the Big Tech barons have more power than any nation on earth? Good luck with that. The concept of a general entitlement to free speech remains an airy notion, a conceit rather than a right.

The Apostles and Free Speech

No, there is no such thing as free speech. Certainly the apostles didn’t have it. What they had was costly speech. They walked out into the public square with a message almost nobody in positions of authority wanted to hear and inflicted it on them in spite of all their efforts to silence it. As a result, they were delivered over to courts, flogged in the synagogues, dragged before governors and kings, and even stoned like Stephen by their own neighbors and kin. To the extent that Paul, Peter and the others had “rights” under Roman law to which they could appeal, sometimes those rights were respected and other times — by far the vast majority of the time — they were not.

Free speech? In the end, most of the apostles were executed because of what they had to say. Their speech was exceedingly expensive.

With all respect to Doug Wilson, the issue for the Christian with free speech is not how to rationalize it and demonstrate how logical and necessary it is for all. Even if that is true, the fact is that we live in a world that does not stop to ask which lovely package of constitutional “rights” we are invoking today before happily steamrolling right over them.

A Price to be Paid

So, regardless of the philosophical superstructure that has historically been erected to support the concept, let’s suppose we have no practical right to free speech. Should that shut Christians up? I leave it to you to decide, but we have the very powerful example of the entire New Testament to encourage us to open our mouths and say whatever the Lord commands us to say to the world regardless of the personal cost.

We certainly have a very defensible right to costly speech. It starts with these words, from the very same passage Doug Wilson uses as the basis for his argument in defense of free speech: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus promised us we have every bit of authority — every right in the world — to speak for him; indeed, we are not politely invited but obligated to do these things: Go. Baptize. Teach. It is “We must obey God rather than men”, not “We prefer to.”

He just didn’t say we will always get to do it consequence-free. After all, the Lord’s own speech wasn’t without its consequences, was it?

For us too there may be a price to be paid. The question is whether we are prepared to pay it.

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