by Bob Wheeler

The Scream, 1893

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893


The attention of the world was arrested not too long ago by the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that published cartoons mocking Mohammed. More recently radical Islamists launched an attack on a “Draw Mohammed” cartoon contest hosted in Texas by Pamela Geller.

Liberal secularists like to see this as a free-speech issue. In a recent article at salon.com Jeffrey Tayler asserted that “The First Amendment protects both our right to practice the religion of our choosing (or no religion at all) as well as our right to speak freely, even offensively about it” (“The Left has Islam all wrong, http://www.salon.com/2015/05/10/the_left_has_islam_all_wrong_bill_maher_pamela_geller_and_the_reality_progressives_must_face/). He suggests that faith “should be subject to unfettered discussion, which may include satire, ridicule and even derision.” Hence Charlie Hebdo, and Pamela Geller, had a right to ridicule Islam, and Muslims were wrong to retaliate.

I would want to make it clear at the outset that I largely agree with Tayler’s assessment of Islam. Jihad is a concept taught in the Koran itself, and while it may be capable of a variety of interpretations and applications, in Mohammed’s own mind, at least, it most definitely included literal military conquest. The ultimate aim of Islam is to establish a theocracy, and to that end it can justify the use of force to achieve its objective. In that sense Islam is a genuine threat to democracy.

But does that give Western journalists the right to ridicule Islam? Pamela Geller and Jeffrey certainly think so, and on narrow legal grounds they may be right. The First Amendment does indeed guarantee the freedom of religion, speech and of the press. These rights, however, are not absolute. They do not give you the right to infringe on the rights of others. We do not have the right to publish material that is libelous, indecent, blasphemous, or injurious to public morals or private reputation.

But on broader moral grounds, however, it is hard to justify the actions of Charlie Hebdo or Ms. Geller. The basic moral requirement of divine law is to love your neighbor as yourself. This means, among other things, that we should not harm our neighbor in any way. But we can harm someone by what we say. We can hurt his feelings, destroy his reputation, and provoke him to anger. And so Jesus could say, “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5: 22; NKJV). “Raca” is probably an Aramaic word that means “blockhead” or “empty-head.” In the context what Jesus is emphasizing here is the underlying motive that lies behind the harsh words, the anger that is virtually indistinguishable in principle from the urge to kill. But the fact remains that words spoken in anger hurt other people. We are not at liberty to insult others at will.

Nor was this some revolutionary new principle that originated with Jesus. The Ninth Commandment reads, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” and the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament is full of maxims about the use of the tongue. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, / And those who love it will eat its fruit” (Prov. 18:21).

Moreover in the New Testament the apostle Paul could apply the basic principle to concrete situations in the early church: “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Eph. 4:29). He goes on to say, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice” (v. 31), and “foolish talking” and “coarse jesting” are not even to be “named among you,” but rather “giving of thanks” (5:3,4). In other words, Christians are not to engage in trash talk.

Our Creator expects us to use our tongues constructively. This does not mean that we are never to criticize or offend anyone, but what we say must be aimed at promoting the other person’s good. We must teach and correct, and occasionally even rebuke someone. But Christian love forbids us from engaging in ridicule and derision, as Tayler advocates in discussions about religion.

The difference between secularism and religion comes down to this: secularism regards nothing as sacred, nothing as inherently deserving of respect, because to a secularist’s way of thinking there is no divinely created order to reality. Everything essentially came into being by accident, and therefore nothing has any particular meaning or significance. Therefore the secularist feels free to ridicule and insult anything he wishes.

Christianity, on the other hand, posits the existence of a rational order to the universe. The cosmos was designed by an intelligent Supreme Being, and therefore everything in it has purpose and design, meaning and significance. The secularist thinks that we are descended from apes; the Bible teaches that we were created in the image of God. Therefore certain things are sacred, especially if they are connected in some way to God Himself. And God wants us to treat our fellow human beings, made in His image, with dignity and respect.

No, our freedom of speech is not absolute. Our Creator expects us to use our tongues and pens in a responsible, constructive way. Let us do unto others as we would have them do unto us.