May 28, 2024 A Religious and Political Commentary

The church and hate speech

Two weeks ago, at a meeting of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders grilled Russell Vought, President Trump’s deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget nominee, on his theology. Vought, who had written in defense of Wheaton College, stated that Muslims “do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” Sanders, shouting and red-faced, declared this “indefensible,” “hateful,” and “Islamophobic.”

Vought’s is standard Evangelical Christian theology. Muslims would say something similar (in reverse) about Christians. How did Evangelical theology become hate speech?

On a cold October night in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, two men lured a young college student named Matthew Shepard from a bar with a promise of a ride home.  Instead, they took him to a field where they robbed him, beat him severely, and tied him to a fence.  He would be found 18 hours later and would never come out of a coma.  He died six days later.

It was senseless and awful. But its significance is that this case brought to the forefront of American jurisprudence what is called “hate crime” legislation.  One of the prosecution’s theories was that Mr. Shepard was singled out for violence because he was gay.

The idea behind hate crimes is that a crime is more heinous and the punishment more severe when the crime is motivated by enmity or animus against a protected class. In October 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Murder is a hateful act – no matter what the motivation behind that action.  Murder IS a hate crime. But it is quite a challenge, if not impossible, for one non-omniscient human to read another’s mind.  Once this ground was broken, once certain classes became protected, it was only a matter of time before the principle was carried over into motives behind someone’s speech.  As slippery slopes will do, “hate crimes” soon became “hate speech.”

But we didn’t invent it.  Jesus was accused of hate speech. Jesus – the same guy who said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” “No greater love hath a man than to lay his life down for his friends,” and “pray for those who persecute you.”

When Jesus was tried before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, Jesus wasn’t condemned for turning over tables in the temple and chasing merchants with whips. Instead, “Finally, two who came forward stated, “This man said, ‘I can demolish God’s sanctuary and rebuild it in three days.’”

The charges against Jesus were related to what he said.  John’s Gospel clarifies he was talking mysteriously about his resurrection and not a terroristic attack.

But Jesus’ words – intentionally misinterpreted, mind you – were a debate ender.  Hate speech.

2002, Alberta, Canada, a pastor wrote a letter to a local paper on the issue of sexual orientation. Two weeks later a gay teen was beaten, and the pastor was charged with violating human rights law by allegedly inciting the violence.

2014, Houston, Texas, a city ordinance was ratified letting city bathrooms be used by either gender.  When pastors in the city joined together to speak out on the issue, the mayor issued subpoenas suing these pastors for all sermons, speeches, and correspondence – including text messages – related to their opposition to the city ordinance.  After a huge outcry, the subpoena was rescinded…but ground was broken.

Last week in England, Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in the UK was drummed out of office for his beliefs. Though he publicly supported the legal right to abortion and same-sex marriage, he privately felt these to be sinful. At his resignation, he stated,

“To be a political leader — especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 — and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.”

“Hate Speech” is here. Is the Evangelical’s only safe response to remain silent? The Apostle Paul said “Speak the truth in love.”  We must speak, and we must do so in love.

Love. Love is an action verb.  Words are important, but talk can be cheap.  The greatest sermons ever preached have been wordless. The Apostle John says:

 If anyone has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need but shuts off his compassion from him—how can God’s love reside in him? Little children, we must not love in word or speech, but in deed and truth.”

I still remember one of the most courageous speeches I’ve ever heard – it was February 2012 at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. The speaker was Mother Teresa. She took a righteous, bold stance against abortion.  She bravely told a pro-abortion crowd:

“I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself.”

Never, to my knowledge, was this labeled hate speech.  After all, it was Mother Teresa…the woman who had given her life to the poor and outcast.  There wasn’t an ounce of hate in her…just love.  And this love was proven by her life.  If we can live our lives as sacrificially as she, we’ll do exactly what John is telling us.  It won’t be our words, but our deeds and the integrity of our lives that will draw attention to a loving God. And it will be abundantly clear that the motivation of word and deed is not hate, but love.

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