“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.” Abraham Lincoln, writing those words to Henry Pierce, articulated the basic fact that democracy cannot successfully function, let alone thrive and flourish, without freedom of expression.
Democracy is more than a system of elections. Rather, our democratic republic supplies a perspective from which the sovereignty of each person is celebrated, and most powerfully expressed through reasoned and respectful encounters in the public sphere. Attempting to curtail participation in those circles of conversation can only create an atmosphere of fear, of suspicion, and ultimately, of deadening silence.
The opponents of democracy have always sought to justify censorship. Newspapers have been banned or placed under restrictive control. Individuals with political, social, or cultural views that challenge the norms of those in power have faced restrictions, exile, even death.
All people of goodwill are called to reassert the right to freedom of expression. It is particularly important for Christians to recognise just how necessary this freedom is, both within our spiritual journey but also in the life of our communities and our society as a whole.
To the Christian, such freedom can be put to no greater purpose than speaking the truth in love. We are mandated to do just that (Ephesians 4:15) and to do so boldly (Ephesians 6:20), fearless in the face of those powers which would restrict, restrain, or in any way diminish the transmission of information and ideas, spoken in truth, through any media and across all borders.
Any law or policy that suppresses a person’s right to speak truth is working against a command which underpins the relentless and relational love at the heart of the Christian mystery. Certainly, freedom of speech does not guarantee that truth is told. However, it does permit it to be said. It creates the space in which truth can lay down its roots, from which it can be tended and sustained.
Having that freedom is a double edged sword, a problem which is central to what it means to live as authentic Christians. We are not born into our Christianity; we may perhaps be born into communities (or entire countries) which ostensibly promote the ideals of a Christian culture, but as every Christian knows, living the Christian life is a daily “yes”.
It is a struggle towards the effortless and freely expressed Fiat (“let your will be done”) which takes place within us, from moment to moment. It is the prayer to let God’s will be done, especially when our will grabs most frustratingly for the reigns to assert its own control. It is the release of Self control to gain self-control; to be held in the hand of the One who simultaneously respects us, in the profundity of our fragmented selves, and peacefully guides us towards wholeness.
Whenever I hear Christians decry those spaces within society that provide the needed freedom from imposed ideology, spaces which encourage a fruitful and layered multiplicity of views, I wonder whether they quite understand what they are denigrating. It is this emptying of space that is the most powerfully fertile, waiting to be filled and made fruitful.
Freedom of expression is necessary. It is not something to be feared. It is not something which demands a response from violence, in control or censorship. Freedom is the foundation from which all our striving towards the beautiful, the true, and the good can be built.
Freedom of expression is not only part of our heritage of universal human rights, wrought so fiercely in the suffering and oppression endured by countless individuals. Our right to freedom of expression also describes an essential part of that humanity which exists collaboratively, between you and me.
Ultimately, our right to freedom of expression exists between us and the source of life, to which we tend, not because it offers the static and sterile surety of unyielding control but because it is, in itself, the source, the expression, and the fulfilment of all our freedom.