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Pencils, Processions, and the Cross

The large pencils carried in the protests and vigils after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, caught my eye. I think they reminded me of processional crosses—stark, upright, rising above the masses. Processional crosses aren’t really part of my worship practices, but I find them powerful. Some of the marchers in Paris seemed to carry their pencils with the same reverence that a crucifer would carry a cross into worship.

crucifer 2It got me to thinking, to what degree is freedom of speech a Christian concern? Would I carry a processional pencil just as I might carry a processional cross? Obviously, a pencil is not the cross. But as a follower of Jesus, how invested, how protective should I be of free speech? Is defending free speech a sacred duty? Is it my concern?

To clarify, I am not opining about:
• Whether or not the massacre was somehow, even slightly, “deserved.”
• Whether or not there should be some restrictions free speech, especially around hate speech and virulent anti-religious speech.
• Whether or not Christians should avail themselves of the freest of free speech. I think my mother answered that for me many years ago, when she would say, “Steve, we don’t use those words!”

What I’m wondering is, “To what degree is free speech a work of Christ’s Kingdom, a fruit from the tree called the Gospel, a priority for Christians?” And based on how we answer that, how concerned should I be in protecting free speech?

Of course, all things being equal, I enjoy free speech and avail myself of it. I like it, very much! Some might even ask if I am being hypocritical using free speech to wonder about my investment in it.pencil hebdo 4

Many Christians have made the case that wherever freedom is growing, whenever people are being respected, Christians are for it. “For freedom Christ has set you free!” In the same vein, more than a few astute Christians have located the very seed of human rights and dignity in the claim of the creation story in Genesis that all people are made in the image of God. No matter that the blossoms from this seed can have a secular scent. Free speech is but one facet of the immense discussion about whether or not western civilization, “Modernity,” or classical liberalism is one of the greatest legacies of Christianity, or whether it is instead the negation, the rejection of Christianity.

I’ve been trained to think and am still inclined to say that free speech is not really a fruit of Christianity or a special concern of Christians. Rationalism and individualism, humanism and self-determination are the soil from which it springs. Free speech is a product and a part of Western civilization, finally canonized in the United States Bill of Rights. When we speak up for free speech we are speaking as modern, western citizens. But can I, or better, should I, be able to divide and compartmentalize myself into “Christian Steve” and “Modern Steve”?

In the aftershocks of the Charlie Hebdo killings, I heard several people wonder when Islam will find its Martin Luther. In other words, when will Islam have a Reformation that allows it to make peace with modernity? As an admirer of Luther, I’m not altogether comfortable with this rendering of him—as the one who ushered Christians into the modern world—although I understand it has lots of currency. And it’s more than a bit patronizing to Muslims—“Just when will you be cool and cosmopolitan enough to let go of your weirdness and enter the 21st century?” I look less for charismatic individuals to do this job, and figure instead it will be the large screen TV and the smart phone that melt away religious peculiarities.

cruciferChristianity flourished for centuries before freedom of speech. In the past, we’ve even cut out tongues and used thumb screws to stymie free speech! Moreover, if we’re not fully invested in free speech, can we then defend and demand freedom of religion? Not to seem cavalierly blasé, but again, Christianity has, and is still flourishing in places where freedom of religion is not recognized. Do we prefer freedom of religion? Certainly. Is it of greatest concern, a non-negotiable for Christians? I don’t think so.

If I were a Parisian, would I have joined the throngs? I grieve the deaths and decry the violence. I too would march and sing and mourn. Carry a pencil with solemnity and honor? I think my feeling about that might be expressed by Luther’s supposed words to Zwingli at the close of the Marburg Colloquy, “Yours is a different spirit than ours.”

But I could be wrong.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Wonderful ruminations, Steve. I wonder if the distinctly Christian contribution to “free speech” is “humble listening”. Doesn’t that complete the exchange? If justice is the social application of love? (First Corinthians 13 and all that.) We protect the right to speak because we are committed to the obligation to listen.

  • Yes, I’d agree, Steve. As a historian, and as one who has pondered Christianity in places like China (I’ve been there, and I’ve taught courses on Chinese civilization), while freedom is good, freedom is not God.

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