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Free Speech, Big Fish, and Calls from God - An ON Scripture Feature

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10, A Reflection By Karyn L. Wiseman

The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in January was an act of absolute evil. The fact that people sitting down for a simple editorial meeting at their work site could be killed due to hate is disturbing beyond words. It is a tragedy for all involved – for those killed, for the family and friends of those killed inside of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, for the officer killed on the street outside, and for those involved in the hostage situations as the perpetrators were tracked down. It is also a tragedy for Muslims, Christians, Jews and others who often find themselves being impacted by radical fringe elements who often do not represent the basic tenants of their faith or beliefs.

It can be so hard to watch these violent terrorist events unfold around the world. And we often try to explain them way too quickly. In this instance, some immediately blamed all Muslims for the attacks. Others immediately chastised the editorial decisions of Charlie Hebdo and the cartoons this satirical magazine has published of the Prophet Mohammed. Still others protest that this is a “simple” free speech situation. They say that the cartoons posted by Charlie Hebdo were satire but harmless and that the attackers were trying to silence them.

But free speech is an interesting and complicated thing. The question is often about the limits of free speech. 

One of my favorite movies of all time is called, The American President. In it, President Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas), makes a statement about free speech and American democracy. He says,

America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man [sic] whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”

While this event happened in France, American and democratic issues related to free speech have permeated the debate in the media and in the wider community. 

Sometimes what we say is important, powerful, and impactful. Sometimes what we say is controversial, satirical, and insulting to many. So what then are the limits of free speech?

In a recent Huffington Post survey, 63% of Americans shared that they support protecting free speech over defending religions from being satirized. Speaking freely is of great import in democracies – and around the world. Sadly, journalists and others suffer for their words on a regular basis. Many have been jailed, tortured, and even killed for speaking the truth they feel called to speak. But we are called to speak anyway.

In the Old Testament text this week, Jonah was called by God to speak prophetically in a dangerous place. Jonah’s story is quite familiar to many. He was called by God to deliver a message of redemption to the people of the Assyrian city of Nineveh, but he refused God’s command. The rest of the story tells us about his journey fleeing this call, a Big Fish swallowing him up, and his subsequent encounters with the community after seeing the light to answer his call while in the belly of the fish. Well, that’s the story I heard growing up. It really was not until an Old Testament seminary course that I learned the “real story.” 

This particular text, Jonah 3: 1-5, 10, is the second call of Jonah by God to deliver a word to the people. The first time he refused, fled, and got swallowed by a fish. Now he is back on dry land after his water adventure. In this text, he answers the call and agrees to go where he is being sent without debate or intervention by a big fish. Despite the risk in speaking truth to an unruly and unfaithful bunch, God sends Jonah to speak anyway.

In verse 2, Jonah is promised that he will receive the words from God that he needs to speak. But he is being asked to speak to his nation’s enemies. Why would God send him to save them? Why would God want to deliver them from sinfulness? Why them? Why him?

He was not part of their community but he spoke because God called him to. He was finally answering a long-standing tradition of God asking persons to speak prophetically in moments of need. But it was risky. He was not Assyrian. He was not from Nineveh. But he spoke anyway because God called him to speak.

I am not Charlie Hebdo. Even though there is a hashtag going around social media sites – “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), I know that I am not Charlie. I do not think that I would ever intentionally make fun of a faith tradition or belief system, except maybe my own. But, dangit, I will defend their right to do so. President Shepherd in The American President said it so well. As a believer in free speech and democracy, I have to acknowledge the person whose words make my blood boil if I really do believe in their right to say it. But I don’t have to agree with them.

The Ninevites probably did not want to hear anything from a foreigner. They probably did not want someone from outside of their community to come in and call them on their lives. They did not want their actions called into question. According to ancient studies, the Assyrians were brutal and violent. Despite this, God sends them a word of redemption and grace through Jonah. That is how God chooses to counter their torturous behavior. That is how God chooses to respond. God chooses to respond with grace and mercy. And that is hard.

How do we respond to this act of violence and other violent acts around us? With grace and mercy? So far many certainly have responded with mercy and grace. But others are responding with vile assumptions and hateful rhetoric toward Muslims and about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and their creators. 

Facts about free speech around the world.

We don’t have to agree with their posts or their beliefs. They do, however, have the right to have them. None, though, have the right to attack others for those beliefs with violence or hatred.

I think this is a unique opportunity. We have a chance to do better. We have a chance to call others on their hateful speech and behavior, but figuring out what is evil and what is hate speech is a distinction that I am not qualified to determine. 

But showing mercy, I can do that. Maybe, just maybe, that’s just what we all need right about now.

Bible Study Questions

Is it ever ok to satirize religious leaders? Is that free speech or hate speech? What are the “lines in the sand” for you on the subject?

In the passage, Jonah is given a second chance from God to answer the call and go to Nineveh. Have you experienced a “do-over” from God? What did you do with that second chance? What does it mean when we don’t get that second chance?

When have you experienced grace and mercy? What did it feel like to receive that when you least expect it? How can you express that for others in your everyday lives?

For Further Reading

Why the Charlie Hebdo attack goes far beyond religion and free speech

Even Americans Who Don't Favor Mocking Religion Support The Right To Do It

Nigel Warburton. Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2009).

The American President

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