Is It Politics?

Or is it injustice, something God’s people should be concerned about?

Predatory lending. If it’s not one injustice, it’s another. A community leader pleaded with me to write an op-ed opposing the Arizona Senate passing legislation that would open the floodgates of predatory loans. The Arizona Republic published my letter!

Free Speech or Hate Speech? In January I participated on an interfaith panel hosted at the Jewish Historical Center in downtown Phoenix. The theme: “Holy Words or Hate Bait?”

Here’s the text of my presentation at the Faith Forum:

When Free Speech Becomes Hate Speech

The First Amendment of our constitution declares: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Sheldon Nahmod has written an online article entitled “Free Speech and Hate Speech.”

Mr. Nahmod is Distinguished Professor, Chicago-Kent College of Law

A Graduate: University of Chicago, Harvard Law School, and Chicago Divinity School

Specialties: Constitutional Law, the First Amendment, and Religion.

In the intro to his article, Mr. Nahmod makes some important preliminary observations:

  1. The First Amendment protects us from the government; it does not apply to relations between private persons.
  2. The First Amendment, like all individual rights in the Constitution, is not absolute.
  3. And three, freedom of speech has costs.

Which brings us to perhaps the most controversial free speech issue: hate speech.

I’m a Constitutional Law neophyte. So I accessed the American Bar Association website, which says,

Hate speech is speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.

Should hate speech be discouraged? The answer is easy—of course! However, developing such policies runs the risk of limiting an individual’s ability to exercise free speech.

When a conflict arises about which is more important—protecting community interests or safeguarding the rights of the individual—a balance must be found that protects the civil rights of all without limiting the civil liberties of the speaker.

Again, freedom of speech has costs.

The ABA website continues:

In this country there is no right to speak fighting words—words without social value, directed to a specific individual, that would provoke a reasonable member of the group about whom the words are spoken. For example, a person cannot utter a racial or ethnic epithet to another if those words are likely to cause the listener to react violently.

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In fact, you can be cited for antagonizing another driver with your middle finger.

Mr. Nahmod asks,

What does the First Amendment, through interpretations by the Supreme Court, have to say about hate speech? The short answer is that the First Amendment prohibits government from regulating such speech altogether. This is a very different approach from that of countries in Western Europe that often prohibit such speech, including denials of the Holocaust.

… or in Saudi Arabia, where they are flogging a citizen for blogging.

But why should that be? … One answer is that the First Amendment creates a marketplace of ideas in which everyone can participate. Everyone can try to sell his or her ideas to the marketplace and the buyers in the marketplace eventually decide which ideas have value and which do not, which ideas are truthful and which are not. We are all sellers and buyers in this marketplace.

What kinds of ideas are out there in the marketplace of ideas? Political ideas, artistic ideas, scientific ideas, social ideas of all kinds, whether smart, crazy, far-out, brilliant, dangerous.

What is the government’s role in this marketplace of ideas? Basically, the government must stay neutral; it must keep its hands off of the marketplace.

[Yet] there are some communications that are not allowed in the marketplace of ideas. Obscene speech, for one, carefully defined by the Supreme Court, is excluded from the marketplace of ideas. Another kind of communication, child pornography, is also not allowed because its production involves child abuse…

So … if there are some exceptions under the First Amendment … why not also include hate speech as an exception? … Why should government not be allowed to prohibit it?

The Supreme Court’s answer … is that even hate speech contains political ideas, however horrible these ideas may be. When you regulate such speech, you are also regulating ideas.

The Supreme Court has also made clear that just because speech offends people, this is never a justification under the First Amendment for punishing it.

Which brings the discussion today back to us … community leaders … faith leaders!

We, you and I, face two massive cultural influences: politics and media, both conservative and liberal. These share a similar need: politicians need votes and the media needs ratings. And you know this, of course, that the way politicians get votes and the way media gets ratings is to be controversial and sensational. They have to get us stirred up, fired up, and sometimes just plain mad as hell.

So when Arizona passed SB1070, Larry King hosted a special report. His guests? Sherriff Joe and Al Sharpton.

Solutions? No.

Ratings? Yes.

And come election season, why are there scandalously negative and slanderously inaccurate political ads? Because they work!

In a study published in The Journal of Politics, Ken Goldstein and Paul Freedman summarize their findings: We find unambiguous evidence that exposure to negative campaign ads actually stimulates voter turnout.

Politics thrive on polarization and hostility.

So does Twitter.

Here’s what Jesus said about politics and Twitter. Sort of. In what is called the Sermon on the Mount, he says:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22 NIV)

Jesus is talking here about name calling … mudslinging … reacting to an offense with equal or greater invective and insult.

Sometimes, you’re so angry you just want to kill somebody.

And yet ironically … sadly … extremists in every religion use their holy books to justify their rage and violence. In the name of God.

In our hostile, polarized world, we – you and I – have to be a voice of sanity. A voice for civil discourse. A voice for a God of reconciliation, forgiveness, healing and peace.

A God-calling in this season of my life is to defrag the Christian community … to build bridges of friendship and partnerships among Christians and with those of other faith traditions. We have too much to lose if we don’t.

In the last week, I attended a Catholic mass at St. Mary’s, on Sunday my wife and I were at a Mormon service with our neighbors in Gilbert, and later in the morning I preached at a Church of God in San Tan Valley where I am an interim pastor.

And today, I’m here with you!

Here’s how the Apostle Paul writes about reconciliation to Christian believers in the ancient city of Ephesus:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace … to reconcile both of them to God through the cross by which he put to death their hostility (Ephesians 2:14-16 NIV).

Who are “the two”?

Jews and Gentiles

Blacks and whites

Men and women

Rich and poor

Catholics and Protestants

Democrats and Republicans

Is it possible?

I’m in disbelief that any deeply religious person could embrace hostility and worse, violence, as an important element of their faith.

Listen to something else Paul writes to a seriously divided Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth:

[The] love [of God] is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres…. [T]hese three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7,13 NIV)

And consider these other extraordinary appeals.

Also from Paul: Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Philippians 4:5 NIV)

In another place he writes: If anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted (Galatians 6:1 NASB).

And this: [Speak] the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15 NLT).

And I close with this from the Epistle of James:

[E]veryone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20 NASB).

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