Eucharist Sermon - 12 September 2021

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
Isaiah 50:4–9a; James 3:1–12; Mark 8:27–end
The Revd Canon Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology
'On Christian Speech'

On Tuesday morning I was in London giving evidence to a parliamentary committee on a bill currently making its way through Parliament. This is the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which, as the title indicates, aims to bolster the freedom of academics and students to speak their minds, decide the content of their teaching, and pursue the research of their choice without fear of punishment. I am a strong supporter of the bill.

I mention that simply to say that speech has been on my mind a lot recently, and that, happily, the readings appointed for this morning don’t require my train of thought to change direction, since speech is a theme common to the first two of them.

Let’s take our reading from the prophet Isaiah first. There we heard:

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.

Note: the one called to teach is first called to learn, the one called to speak is first called to listen. At the moment, it seems to me and perhaps to you, too, we have lots of people who are eager to play prophet without taking much care to learn, who are inclined to shout rather than listen. In contrast, the Christian prophet is one whose ears remain open to instruction and correction.

That’s one implication for Christian speech of our first reading. A second lies in its opening verse, which runs thus: 

The Lord God has opened my ear,
 and I was not rebellious,
 I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
  and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
 from insult and spitting.

What this brings to mind is the fact that the fate of the prophet in the Bible is typically to be called by God to speak truths that other people find provocative and offensive, so offensive that the prophet gets beaten up. In Jesus’ case, of course, the prophet wasn’t just beaten, but crucified. Typically, according to the Bible, the words that God would have spoken are not popular and speaking them is not much fun. That’s why another prophet, Jeremiah, rebelled against his calling by God, saying:

O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived;
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, ‘I will not mention him
or speak any more in his name’,
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot.

The true prophet speaks only because he must. An over-eager prophet probably isn’t a true one. That’s the second implication for Christian speech.

The third is that, given that the Word of God tends to be unpopular and offensive, Christians more than many others have reason to support liberal laws about speech, laws that allow unpopular things to be said, without having the messenger abused. Liberal laws about speech are important because they allow important truths to be spoken, which would otherwise be silenced.

Nevertheless—and here is the fourth point—there is a downside to the upside; namely, that the legal freedom to speak can be abused, not at all to speak necessary hard truths, but to insult and humiliate and provoke—just for the sheer malicious fun of it. Our reading from the Epistle of James is acutely aware of the destructive power of speech. As it says:

If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.

So in addition to liberal laws, we need citizens who are capable of using their legal freedom to speak well rather than badly, because the malicious abuse of that freedom can lead to conflict and even bloodshed.

Take this example. Six years ago, you may remember, two armed men burst into the Paris headquarters of the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. They called for the editor-in-chief, Stéphane Charbonnier, to identify himself. When he did so, they shot him. Then they spent a leisurely ten minutes emptying their guns into other members of staff. By the time they’d finished, eleven were dead and eleven others wounded. The mass murderers were French citizens of Algerian parentage. They claimed to be members of the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda.

Why did they do it? Charlie Hebdo is militantly anti-religious in the French tradition of secularism. In 2006 it republished the inflammatory Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad, one of which inserted a bomb under his turban. Six years later it published more cartoons of the prophet, some depicting him nude. Certain Muslims, especially members of alienated militant groups, view any depiction of the prophet as blasphemous and deserving the death penalty. Accordingly, two days after the mass-shooting, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility, justifying it as “revenge for the honour” of Muhammad.

In the face of such an outrageous atrocity, millions of people in Paris, in France, and around the world poured onto the streets to demonstrate their support for Charlie. And rightly so. No one deserves to be slaughtered merely for offending someone else, not even when the offence is intended as an insult.

Nonetheless, I am inclined to think that the Charlie journalists abused their legal freedom in publishing the cartoons. They didn’t use it to voice an important truth and to try and persuade. They used it to hold up to ridicule what every Muslim holds most sacred. They intended to offend, just because the law allowed them to. But even if we have a legal right to spit on other people’s sacred cows just for the sheer, malicious fun of it, we have no moral permission. Speech that the law permits, Christian charity may forbid.

In sum, what our first two readings tell us about Christian speech is this.

First, the one who is called to speak the Word of God—the truth, not least about justice—is one who is first called to listen. The Christian prophet always remains open to learning and to correction.

Second, since the Word of God is typically unpopular and felt to be offensive, being a true speaker of that Word typically attracts grief and is not an attractive role. Eager prophets, therefore, are probably not true ones.

Third, laws that protect the prophetic messenger from aggressive repression are very important, and Christians of all people should support them.

Nonetheless, fourth, while laws conferring a right to free speech are very important, so is using that right well rather than badly. Abusing the right, not to tell necessary and important truths, but instead to spit on other people’s sacred cows for the malicious fun of it, stokes enmity and conflict and, in extremis, provokes bloodshed. Therefore, in addition to laws, we also need virtues. We need citizens trained in the Christian virtues of self-restraint and charity towards others.