Saying the Unsayable

Do you have freedom of speech? Do you have freedom of the press? Of course you do. In the United States you can say, write or print anything you want. No one from the government is going to show up at your door and drag you off to jail. No secret police will show up in the dead of night and make you disappear.

But there are still consequences to what you write or say. It has been and always will be that way. So, you have to decide: is what I say true? Is what I say kind? What sort of reaction do I think I’ll get? Is it worth the potential fallout? Am I willing to lose friends? Am I willing to lose my job? Am I willing to be an outcast? Because there are things you can say or write that will alter your life on a personal level for good or ill forever.

Just talk to the people who have gotten in trouble for an old tweet or Facebook posting.

Or public figures who said or did or wrote something twenty years ago that no one thought twice about, but today they have to try to apologize for it and will lose everything anyhow.

Of course, we can debate whether it is right that people should be cancelled or get in trouble for their words. But it has always been this way. The right of free speech and freedom of the press is just about absolute for an American citizen, and well it should be. But that right only protects you from the government. It doesn’t protect you from your neighbors. Our friends, our colleagues, the twitter trolls, the pundits, and Karens of the world are not so limited—and never have been. If you start cheering for USC when you’re a student at UCLA, you should not be surprised at the pushback. Because freedom of expression goes both ways. You can say or write anything you want. But so can the people around you. And they will. Oh, they will.

Welcome to the real world. Say anything you want. Someone is going to answer you and you won’t necessarily like it. That’s what freedom means.

You can tell someone to shut up. And they don’t have to listen to you. They might start yelling. You can write anything you want, but no one has to publish it, and no one has to read it, and no one has to accept it. And people don’t have to be respectful.

Jesus, of course, operated in a world that lacked the basic human rights that we take for granted as Americans. In the world Jesus walked in, you could be arrested for your words. And so it was doubly dangerous for Jesus to say and do what he was doing. It wasn’t just social opprobrium that he had to worry about.

Notice that his family thought he was nuts and came to get him and take him away in Mark 3:20-21:

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

Jesus was willing to get in trouble with his family and lose their support; he was willing to let them think he was crazy. Jesus was willing to lose followers. We saw that in John 6:66 when some stopped following because of what he said about drinking his blood:

“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

Jesus was willing to suffer the consequences from the religious authorities and the Roman government. He was willing to accept the repercussions even from his family, his friends, and his most ardent admirers. He made the choice that what he had to say, the reason he had come to Earth in the first place, mattered more than anything else.

Many Christians were then willing to suffer at the hands of the religious authorities and the Roman government. Spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ was of greater importance than personal safety or approval. They were willing to suffer the consequences for their words. There are Christians today who suffer the same extreme outcomes for their faith.

We Americans live in a place where we do not fear such deadly effects. The ramifications of our free speaking and writing, the penalties we might suffer for our words, are less dire, though still potentially painful.

Every time we use our words, we must make a decision about whether their costs are worth the price.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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