Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush star in a scene from the 2014 movie The Giver, in which governing forces keep the population in line through “preciseness of speech.” CNS photo/courtesy The Weinstein Company

Sr. Helena Burns: Free speech and the Christian mandate

  • February 3, 2021

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Free speech and the Christian mandate

Sr. Helena Burns, FSP

How often have we heard (or declared ourselves): “I can say what I want! Last time I checked this was a free country!” Um, when was the last time you checked?

Oh, sure. We have freedom of expression guaranteed by the charter, but ask yourself this question: Have you ever halted recently (say, in the past few years when you wouldn’t have previously) before you said something in person or posted something online and thought: “This isn’t politically correct, I might get serious flak,” and you drastically rephrased it or simply didn’t say or post anything at all? And remember, if it’s Big Tech doing the reproving or censoring, we’re talking about a global reach eclipsing national jurisdictions.

Let’s be clear. Because we are children of God and followers of Jesus, we should always speak the truth, but always the truth in charity. It’s best not to be lazy, labelling or insulting in the way we talk about people or issues.

If we are accusatory, inflammatory or demonizing, we should be prepared for a reaction in kind, akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Avoiding uncharity in speech or digital expression does not mean we need to water anything down. In fact, if we elevate our speech and other modes of communication, we take the high road and appeal to people’s better angels with the power of persuasion. Should they wish to do an about-face and join us, they won’t have to crawl up from the mire we have bludgeoned them down into, but simply “see the light” and “agree” with a better way of seeing and doing things.

Civility and kindness aren’t weakness. The Bible says: “A gentle tongue can break a bone.” The great evangelizer St. Francis de Sales was fond of repeating: “You get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” St. Edith Stein also had a wise measuring stick: “Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. Do not accept anything as love if it lacks truth. One without the other becomes a destructive lie.”

In the film The Giver, the history-erasing, baby-eliminating, dystopian governing forces keep the population in line through something called “preciseness of speech” (think: Jordan Peterson’s “compelled speech”). If you can control people’s speech, you can control their thoughts. You can squelch, deform and silence truth.

We begin self-censoring in the privacy of our own home, the privacy of our own brain. Why? Perhaps at first we want to be nice, we don’t want to offend, but then — when we realize that even the most obvious of truths offend, and we witness the recriminations against those who speak these truths — we do so out of fear. Fear of what? Fear of very real repercussions: losing a social media account, losing a promotion, losing a job, losing a friend.
We are watching and feeling the screws of censorship and totalitarianism tighten around us as we try to “keep on rockin’ in the free world.”

But wait. What does that mean, “free world”? Are parts of the world not free? If so, where, why? Wherever there are dictatorships or ideologies such as Communism that believe 1) human beings are cogs in a machine; 2) everything, even basic human rights are “politics,” in order to dismiss equal participation in the conversation by all; 3) utopia on this Earth is possible through social control — then there will be oppression and revoking of freedoms of all kinds. Just ask Hong Kong.

In my case, as a presenter of John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” I know that I will be “caught up with” soon enough — when the powers that be figure out how offensive this “Gospel of the Body” and the science that backs it up really is. (As Jordan Peterson warned: “They’re coming for you next, biologists.”) So what am I doing in preparation for that fateful day? For starters, I have begun substituting Greek letters for similar-looking Roman alphabet letters online to make it harder for bots and algorithms to purge me.

We can’t be cowardly. We must keep on truckin’. We have a divine mandate by our baptism to witness to Jesus Christ and His “words of everlasting life.” “… They ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and released them. The apostles left … rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name.”

“Rejoicing?!” Well, “there is no other name by which we can be saved.”

So, for Christians, if limiting free speech means not being allowed to lovingly preach, teach and share the whole truth, the full Gospel? Then N/A. These restrictions are not applicable.

(Sr. Helena, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA.  Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

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