Voices: Freedom of speech: Great power, great responsibility

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My husband and I recently enjoyed a date night at Benihana. Our chef was a sweet young man from another country. We asked him to tell us a little about himself and how he came to be in North Texas.

We heard about how the dangerous political climate of his country prompted him to start the long process of securing a visa, how he Googled the cheapest state to live in, and how once his papers were in order, he simply bought a ticket to fly here.

Then I asked a question I love to ask people who are new to our country: “When you arrived, what was the one thing that surprised you most about the United States?”

Seeing the power of free speech

Typically, I get answers about food—a lot about okra and drive-through restaurants—but also large houses, personal privacy and gun laws. This young man didn’t hesitate with his answer.

He said: “The freedom of the speech. I did not think it was real, but it is. I can say here I hate my president. I hate my country’s president! I could not say that over there without being in a lot of trouble. But he cannot hurt me here. No one can hurt me here just for saying something I think. I did not think that could be.”

When we finished hearing this young man’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would respond if our roles were reversed.

If I were the one oppressed my whole life—not able to express my thoughts and ideas—and suddenly found myself with the freedom to say whatever I wanted, what would I say first? What would be the all-consuming issue I would speak out on? I wouldn’t want to waste that freedom or that first moment.

And then it occurred to me. Why am I not doing this already?

Grappling with the luxury of freedom

I felt so ashamed of myself because the all-consuming issue my mind and heart immediately went to—what it always goes to—is religious persecution. It weighs heavily on my spirit all day every day, and yet, it is the issue I feel most uninformed about.

I have been cowardly in educating myself on the very thing that most pricks my heart for the work of Christ. My excuses are horrifyingly inadequate: What if I figure it out wrong? What if I miscommunicate? What if I offend someone? What if it’s dangerous? What if I make no difference at all?

I was embarrassed to admit to myself that—of all the people sitting around our teppanyaki table—I was the most uninformed about this man’s country of origin and its issues. Everyone’s heads nodded in compassionate understanding as they made comments of affirmation and mentioned names of foreign politicians I never had bothered to know about.

The Lord laid the plight of oppressed peoples and the persecuted church on my heart, and I was content to bury my head in the sand, satiate my conscience with “thoughts and prayers,” and never actually do or even say anything. What a waste of freedom, of blessing, of calling.

Ouch. That’s a loaded bag of conviction for someone who has dedicated her life to vocational ministry.

Free speech and Christian responsibility

The Lord does not give blessings with no strings attached, not really. He does freely give his blessings, but we are not free from the responsibility that accompanies them. God challenged his people throughout history and Scripture to be a blessing to others in his name.

Psalm 78 says, “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power and the wonders he has done.”

Psalm 96 commands us to “declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.”

Isaiah 1:17 and Proverbs 31:8-9 likewise leave little room for misinterpretation: We are to speak up for those who cannot.

God’s challenge is still before us.

There are but a precious few of us around the world who have been entrusted with “the freedom of the speech” for these days. For God’s sake—and for his people’s sake—let us make full use of our freedom.

What do you need to say?

Rachel Jones is the minister to children at First Baptist Church in Plano. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

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