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My free speech is more important than yours. That seems to be the message sweeping the nation as protests become the default form of voicing one’s political objections and dissenting points of view are seen more as dangerous than different. Such was the case in the recent episode at the University of California, Berkley, where a scheduled speech by Milo Yiannopoulos—an editor for the right-wing group Breitbart News—had to be canceled after a protest grew violent and spilled across the campus and neighboring areas. Fires, vandalism, and physical attacks quickly escalated the situation, prompting officials to call off the event. Many of those who instigated the chaos left feeling victorious after silencing the self-proclaimed Internet troll, either unaware of or indifferent to the inherent hypocrisy of using their free speech to curtail that of another.
Fortunately, as is often the case, when the pendulum swings to such extremes, it makes the middle ground all the more clear. UC Berkley freshman Shivam Patel put it well when he told CNN, “It’s a sad irony in the fact that the Free Speech Movement was founded here and tonight, someone’s free speech got shut down. It might have been hateful speech, but it’s still his right to speak.” He would go on to say that the violent nature of the protest “allows people on the right to say, ‘Look at all these liberal Berkley snowflakes. They’re intolerant of speech.’ I don’t think it’s productive at all. It does nothing to help this country.”
Patel is correct, and therein lies the problem facing our increasingly polarized nation. Far too often, we simply don’t know how to deal with dissenting views, and that’s true of people across the political spectrum. When we can’t separate people’s beliefs from their character—an admittedly fine line in some cases—it becomes difficult to engage in the kind of dialogue that can lead to genuine resolution. Even if no one changes viewpoints, simply giving people room to speak is still the best way to find some middle ground.
It’s also one of the best ways to protest. As Proverbs 17:28 teaches, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” Often times, the fastest way to prove someone a fool is to simply let them speak.
For Christians, who are tasked with sharing God’s truth to a world that often deems it folly (1 Corinthians 1:18), the best approach to take when people disagree with Scripture and argue against its teachings is rarely to grow defensive and never to attack their character, even if that’s how they have treated us. If we allow ourselves to get sucked into a fruitless argument in which we speak in a way that honors neither the other person nor the God we’re trying to defend, then we’ve already lost no matter what the ultimate outcome may be.
That’s not to say that all theological discussion and attempts to defend the faith are fruitless, but we must always be mindful of the manner in which we engage in such debates. When Paul, for example, debated the gospel with the pagans in the Areopagus, he was constantly respectful of their beliefs even while attempting to show how they fell short of God’s ultimate truth (Acts 17:22–34).
In the same way, we too must remember that we can never separate the content of our words from the manner in which we deliver them, and, if the two don’t match up, people are far less likely to pay any attention to what we say. The gospel message is too important for us to allow that to happen just because we might feel personally challenged or offended.
The lost are not our enemies, even if they may treat us as such. Rather, they are simply fallen people acting like fallen people because they have not yet met our savior. That’s cause for pity and prayer, not protest and provocation.
God’s word makes no allowances for us to love others any less than our Lord does. So remember that and act accordingly the next time you’re tempted to use the gospel to hurt rather than to heal. And ask yourself, if God treated us the way we treat others, would that be a good thing? If the answer is no, then the only ones we need to be angry with are ourselves.