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Two public lectures on ‘Muhammad SAW in the Bible’ by Shaykh Afeefuddin Al-Jailani scheduled in Kuching, have been withdrawn after protests. One was to be held at the Kuching Islamic Information Centre tomorrow and the other at the Islamic Centre at Unimas on Thursday.

This follows complaints by Association of Churches in Sarawak, state PKR, and angry reactions from Christians there. Speaking at a media conference this afternoon, Baru Bian said the burning question was who the organisers were.

The Ba’Kelalan assemblyperson was shocked that they would have the temerity to plan lectures centred on the Bible without inviting the participation of those who possess the greatest understanding and knowledge of the Bible, i.e. Christian scholars and leaders. (Joseph Tawie, “Talks on Muhammad withdrawn after protests,” Malaysiakini, January 13, 2015)

I read the above news report with mixed feelings. I support what my Sarawak brothers and sisters did. We have heard such lectures before in Peninsular Malaysia. Islamic interpretations of Christianity would be given and there would be no opportunity for any dialogue where alternative views may be presented. Perhaps a day will come when there will be true freedom of speech for all Malaysians. Muslims can give their views on Christianity and vice versa. Today, non-Muslims giving their views on Islam, especially the brand of Islam supported by the present government, would probably be charged with sedition. So perhaps for now, we have to call the government of the day to play fair and discourage any public teaching that would further divide the nation.

But why mixed feelings? Because Christians should be champions of free speech. In a recent article in Relevant Magazine, Jesse Carey reminds us why:

. . . free speech is vital to a Christian worldview. As Christians, the freedom to exchange ideas, the ability to criticize those in power for the sake of justice and the liberty to have honest dialogue—even with our Creator—is woven throughout Scripture. (“Discretion, Free Speech and ‘Charlie Hebdo’”)

It is unlikely that the apostle Paul would be allowed to say what he said on Mars Hill (Acts 17:16–34) today in nations that did not allow some degree of freedom of speech. In essence, Paul complimented the Athenians on their spirituality but goes on to tell them that they were ignorant of the true God (Acts 17:22–23). Imagine a Muslim preacher commending Christians for being people of the book, but going on to tell them they were ignorant of the fact that there is a further and more complete revelation, the Quran as revealed to the prophet Muhammad. A call to shut down such Islamic preaching attacks the freedom that allows the successors of Paul to preach the Gospel.

Still, supporting freedom of speech does not mean I support every expression of that freedom. Hence my hesitation to say “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) in support of the 12 people brutally murdered by radical Islamists in the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. I am for free speech. I am horrified by the killings. We must all take a stand against such violence whether it happens in Paris or in Nigeria. But I am also disturbed by the brand of journalism that Charlie Hebdo practices. As Jesse Carey reminds us:

They regularly made shocking jokes (warning: the images are graphic) for the sake of making shocking jokes. One cartoon showed Muhammad graphically posing naked for a camera. One showed a very unflattering image of Mary in the act of giving birth to Jesus. They would publish cartoons with stereotypes of Middle Eastern caricatures. This excellent piece in The Daily Beast likens their work to the behavior of Internet trolls, pointing to the example of a recent cover image that showed the kidnapped girls Boko Haram turned into sex slaves pregnant and complaining about welfare checks.

Charlie Hebdo didn’t just publish things in poor taste. They were deliberately offensive. (“Discretion, Free Speech and ‘Charlie Hebdo’”)

The Christian is called “to speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:11). In Ephesians, Paul also calls us to “ . . . speak truthfully to your neighbour” (4:25) and told us “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of (our) mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (4:29). This is teaching for the church but it would be sound advice for society at large as well. How should we exercise freedom of speech? In love, in truth, and for the sake of building others up. And so we will defend freedom of speech while encouraging the practice of freedom of speech in ways that are constructive.

I understand that there will be some degree of subjectivity. For example, what is seen as offensive to some may be seen as needed political satire by others. And we recognise the important role political satire has played especially when the oppressed and the powerless had no other way of getting their point across. Even Jesus wasn’t adverse to strong language:

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:33 NIV)

Perhaps the church should show rather than tell. Let the people of God show how we can use freedom of speech in constructive ways. Unfortunately, I often see Christians sarcastic and using the language of hate especially in the political arena. We end up no different from the world. How do we creatively speak the truth in love when we want to get our point across? And I am even more concerned by the fact that often the church does not speak up at all or is very selective about the issues it raises in the public square.

The Bible recognises the power of speech. It has “the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21a NIV). May the Lord give us the wisdom to wield it properly so that we will know when to be silent, when to speak up, and how we ought to speak.

*image by spekulator/freeimages.com