You may have seen this article in the news, it’s about a school chaplain who has been sacked following a talk in which he told pupils that they should not be forced to accept LGBT ideology. I want you to notice a couple of things here.
- That he did not question the right of LGBTQ people to practice their lives as they saw fit and that he argued that an important Christian value was the tolerance of others.
- That he was speaking in a private school that officially subscribes to evangelical values and is under the governance of the Church of England. AS he explains, the Church of England position remains that marriage is between one man and one woman.
- That his talk was encouraging people to listen to arguments and to think for themselves
One response to his talk was that a teacher reported him to Prevent which was set up to respond to radicalisation and terrorism, specifically in response to the rise of Islamist terror. The irony here is two-fold. First of all, that his talk was specifically against the very forms of indoctrination and compulsion that might lead to radicalisation. Secondly, that I suspect that there are a whole host of things that it would be acceptable to say in schools which would be more closely aligned to the issue of terrorism, for example I doubt anyone would have turned a blind eye if he had expressed support for the cause and the values associated with Sinn Fein IRA. There, we see the problem with subjective definitions of radicalism and indoctrination.
Fortunately, Prevent were wise enough not to get drawn into the matter, although one can’t help that things should have gone further. The misuse of the process was vexatious and itself a form of bullying. The teacher responsible should have at least been spoken to about this.
However, I want to focus primarily here on how we as believers should respond to issues like this and like examples of street preachers being arrested. Often, the first argument raised is that this is about free speech and the right to cause offence. To some extent it is about free speech. A country where the government and police become authoritarian in seeking to manage what people say and indeed think is a deeply unhealthy one. Freedom of Speech is a good thing in constitutional and legal terms.
However, morally, I would argue that we don’t have carte-blanche freedom to say what we like. We don’t have a right to cause offence. You see, when we as Christians talka bout rights and freedoms, we can make the mistake of accepting a secular world view that those rights are the things which are “self-evident” and so exist autonomously. However, they do not. The rights and privileges we have, along with the responsibilities we are called to come from God and His Word. And Scripture doesn’t give us freedom to say what we like. We are warned to guard our tongues.
No, the crucial issue here is truth. What really matters is not whether anyone took offence or felt a certain way but whether what he said did have value and was worthy of listening to. As a Christian I want to say that yes it had value, yes it was true and yes it was something that needed listening to. This is the case first of all because he rightly pointed to what God’s Word says about sex and marriage. But also, yes because he was encouraging people to listen and to think. He was speaking out against compulsion and manipulation. He was encouraging honesty and integrity in how people speak and think. Such things would have been both vitally important for his hearers if they were going to benefit and progress in their education. He was showing them what critical thinking is actually about. Such things are crucial to a society that is genuinely open and tolerant.
So, yes, we want to talk about freedom of speech but we also need to take the analysis and argument deeper. We are not simply defending the right to speak freely but also the responsibility to speak truthfully.