7 Types of speech that are more important than free speech for a civil society (and 2 for our role in it as Christians)

We’re told free speech is dead. And that the Coopers fiasco killed it (or revealed it to be dead, but let’s not get technical when making hyperbolic and overreaching claims).

But I don’t buy it. What we’re seeing in the rise of boycotts, no platforming, protests, and online outrage are exercises of free speech. Effective ones. So loud they drown out other positions.

Civil discourse relies on more than just free speech. Free speech means, essentially, that I am able to cover my ears and yell ‘la, la, la’ when I don’t like what you are saying. My children often exercise free speech in our household, and that doesn’t make for a more civil domestic situation.

Image: If there’s one guy who knows the cost of ‘free speech’ it’s Cicero. Who was executed and whose tongue was nailed to the rostra in the Roman forum, because of a series of speeches he wrote against Mark Antony. This painting depicts his arrest.

When we overreach in response to speech we don’t like what we’re revealing is just how good we’ve had it for so long. Our ideas; our positions; as Christians, have been the default. And it turns out they’ve been costly for people who don’t share them. And it turns out that part of the age we live in is that ideas are contested now. There are no sacred cows anymore. There are no ‘defaults’… at the moment it feels like the loudest voices are the ones that are winning, and we’re in trouble because we’ve been the loudest, freest voice for so long (did you know, for example, that the Bible Society is Australia’s oldest institution), and people are tired not just of listening to us, but of the way we exercise our freedom to speak without exercising a bunch of other civic virtues.

Free speech won’t, and can’t, secure a civil society. It’s part of it. But I’d argue a civil society is not where everyone yells at the top of their voices and the loudest voice wins; it’s one where all voices are listened to, and as many as possible are accommodated into the way it operates. This is what I mean when I use the word ‘pluralism’ — not that every voice is treated as true, but that every voice is listened to, and where the convictions are coherent, robust, and freely form a community of people within our society, those voices should be accommodated. Because that’s just — if I expect my views, and my community, to be accommodated, then I should extend that to others.

Seven types of speech more important than free speech for a civil society

Here’s a bunch of types of speech, built on the bedrock of free speech, that we need for a civil society. I’d suggest that free speech isn’t actually dead. What’s dead is a common commitment to these concepts as virtues, and it’s a mistake to lump them in all together to claim ‘free speech is over’… Most of these ‘types’ are explained with reference to how you get there from the Bible (cause most of the people who read this will be Christian, probably), but I think they’re pretty basic virtues for a civil society apart from Christianity too; it’s not that we’ve got a monopoly on civility, we do, however, have no excuse to be uncivil because it just doesn’t mesh with who we are as people who follow Jesus.

1/ Slow speech

Were you shocked by how many people talking about the Coopers stuff hadn’t even watched the video that started it (from both sides). One of the pubs boycotting Coopers admitted that they hadn’t watched it, but they were still prepared to grab the metaphorical pitchfork and head towards the large burning beer bottle.

We love a good hot take. A call to arms. The idea that our words might make a difference. Social media and clicktivism feed this. We feel like we’ve done something by clicking a link, or a virtual petition. We especially love hot takes that come from people we trust; from our ‘camp’… that’s why fake news has become so powerful, it’s always aligned to an ideology, and people like to be fed stuff that tells us what we already think. Algorithm driven social media platforms like Facebook feed this because they calculate what to serve up to us based on a growing sense of what we’re interested in. They feed us according to our self-interest. And that becomes a bit of a shortcut. Talk isn’t just cheap online; it costs nothing once you’ve got an internet connection. Media has been ‘democratised’… you’re a publisher. And we don’t just love a good hot take, we love being the first to share it in our circles, we love the likes and the acclamation (like old media loves good circulation numbers)… We also have FOMO (the fear of missing out). If there’s a bandwagon and it’s rolling and turning into some sort of juggernaut, we don’t want to miss out. So we don’t really have time to read and digest things (even the stuff we agree with, let alone other opinions), we just share stuff that we think lines up with some fundamental convictions about the world.

Ironically, the verse from James (in the Bible) that was used in that video is a good circuit breaker for outrage (with additional principles for ‘civil society’ for Christians).

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. — James 1:19-20

Just a few verses later, James also says:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” — James 1:26-27

2/ Loving speech

It’s pretty self-evident that you can use free speech to be a total jerk. And a bunch of people doing that makes society uncivil, not civil. Some of the points that follow are expanding on the idea that our speech should be loving if we want it to be worthwhile. Indeed, many of them are expanding on this verse.

 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. — Ephesians 4:15

The literal sense of the Greek word translated  ‘speaking the truth’ is ‘truthing in love…’ — there’s more than just speech in view. It certainly includes speech, and where Paul goes next in his argument talks about the types of speech that lead to a civil community (at this point he’s looking at the church). He says:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. — Ephesians 4:29-32

It’s not good enough just to have free speech, if we want a civil society our speech also needs to be loving.

This is all well and good within a community where identity is shared, and reinforced, as we speak to one another. But it should also frame how we speak with people outside our communities. We’ve too often traded loving speech for malicious speech (and by we I mean everyone, not just Christians), and that is a vicious cycle. A cycle of vice. A reinforcing feedback loop.

3/ Understanding speech

The sort of speech a civil society requires involves understanding one another. This carries a few things with it… it involves listening to others, it involves interpreting with charity so that when you respond, you’re actually understanding what the other person is saying, thinking, desiring, and experiencing. This involves cultivating empathy, and listening hard to people who disagree with us. It involves speaking with clarity, when we do speak, so that we to are understood — even if when we are understood people disagree with us still.

It’s very possible that we will never be understood; that the people we are speaking to will not be committed to this idea. But that doesn’t mean we should stop pursuing this ideal.

I think Jesus models this over and over again, in every conversation. He understands the pharisees, and the traps they’re trying to catch him in, and the state of their hearts, and where the story is going. He also understands the people he heals, protects, calls, and saves. He understands the deep desires that the woman at the well has, and why she’s at the well by herself in the heat of the day, and what she’s looking for in her relationships with the men of the town. He understands why the prostitute who washes his feet with perfume, tears, and her hair, is doing what she is doing. He understands what is happening at his trial, and how Pilate wants an easy out, and he doesn’t give it to him.

But I’m not Jesus. Lots of his understanding comes from unspoken stuff and the ability to pierce the hearts and minds of others… I don’t have that. I think we can be a bit more like Paul, who observes the rhythms of a city, listens to its people, reads the philosophers and poets underpinning the society, and speaks in a way that shows he knows what is going down… he gets laughed at by most, but he has done the work of understanding Athens before he opens his mouth in Acts 17 (and in other moments like when he’s on trial).

4/ Space-giving speech

There’s been a whole lot of boycotting and no-platforming going on lately. Especially in universities. We’ve decided that one of the best ways to use free speech is to stop other people speaking as our own speech-act. And we’ve realised that it’s more efficient to simply close down opportunities for people to speak from platforms we control, than it is to shout over the top of them. To no platform someone is to make a statement about the value of what they say, as we perceive it. It’s an act of speech but not an act of understanding.

Churches have been doing this for years. We have a platform. It’s often called a pulpit. We also have buildings. Most churches I know have policies about who they’ll let into the pulpit, and most churches I know who own buildings have limitations on the sorts of people they’ll allow to hire the venue and the activities that happen there. This is free speech — and it’s fine for us when it’s stuff we control… so I’m not sure we are in a position to make loud angry noises when our access to spaces we don’t control is cut off.

People who have websites/blogs do this too. I have a comment policy. I limit spam (though that is a form of free speech), and once or twice I’ve blocked comments I thought were malicious or slanderous. We also, rightly, have censorship laws, defamation laws, and other ways that we limit free speech for the good of the general population.

If we’re committed to free speech, we need to be committed to carving out space (physical and virtual) to speak from. It might be that it has been a bad strategic move for so many churches to now meet in space they do not own. One of the benefits of a freeish public square (especially a public square not controlled by the state) has been that the need for ‘temples’ for various ideas has dropped. We don’t need space for every club or society if they can hire a room at the library, or book the town hall… one of the costs of a fragmenting society will be a return to those sorts of ‘temples’ for different associations (including churches). That will be a financial cost, but it will also come at the cost of space being public and porous. People will have to decide to go into a ‘temple’ — a non-public space — and the people who are part of those temples will have to decide to leave and to listen to other ideas. Temples will become bunkers (except for polytheists). Churches could become bunkers too.

And when you get ‘bunkers’ you get stuff like fake news, and echo chambers, and a lack of empathy and understanding for the other. You stop getting a ‘civil society’ and start getting a tribal one.

I think we need to go further though. If we’re committed to free speech, we need to be committed to giving space to people who don’t share ideas, definitely in common places like universities and public venues (and arguably within laws and legal structures and how we define words like marriage). This is where the pluralism stuff really kicks in. We need ways to be different and clear in our speaking so that we might be understood, but we also need space for other people to speak too.This is why I loved this idea from the ABC’s Religion and Ethics guru Scott Stephens:

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.”

And why I think we should stop spending so much time as Christians building web space (TGC, Thinking Of God, etc) and physical space (church buildings with exclusive use policies) that reinforce the bubble. And start being generous space givers to other ideas, confident that truth wins, and our truth is true. This doesn’t always work. The podcast from the US called The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea shows that when other people aren’t committed to the same sort of civil society they’ll do their best to shut you down. But you don’t fight incivility with more incivility. And you don’t go into public space as Christians expecting anything other than crucifixion.

5/ Ethical speech

For speech to contribute something valuable to civil society it has to have a more civil society as its end; not just the self-interest of the speaker. Back when people were figuring out the power of human speech to persuade, and what limits should be put on that power if unscrupulous speakers were running around manipulating people by being super-persuasive, there was lots of ink spilled by philosophers and orators like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian on how to control the power of free speech for the good of society. There were lots of speakers who were great with words and fancy arguments (logos), that stirred the emotions (pathos), and moved people through fine sounding arguments to hold positions that weren’t good for them (but usually beneficial for the orator or whoever was paying the orator). The pen — or word — really was mightier than the sword.

These philosophers valued integrity, character, and virtue — and the sense that ideal speech both comes out of an ideal, virtuous, person, and shapes an ideal, virtuous, society. They often also wrote books on politics, and ethics, and oratory was the path to their vision of the good, well-ordered, ethical society. This worked best if they embodied the picture of the good, well ordered, society, and that created a sort of obligation underpinning speech. Speech wasn’t just ‘free’ — it wasn’t enough just to use flashy words that excited people and evoked an emotional response (though that is part of oratory) the control was your ethics. You didn’t just need free speech and the free exchange of ideas to produce a civil society. You needed speech shaped by action that shaped actions. You needed ethos. Character. You speech needed to line up with your actions, or pull you towards certain future actions if you were talking about a wrong you had noticed in yourself or others.

We’ve always, as humans, hated hypocrisy. And a civil society is one where people’s actions and words line up. Where our words oblige us to a certain sort of action. Where we say ‘tolerance’ and mean it. The apostle John puts the relationship with words and actions like this (and, on the whole, in this letter is making the case that our actions, and the experience of God’s love in them reinforces our speaking about the Gospel so that we can believe).

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” — 1 John 3:16-18

6/ Costly speech

This ethical speech idea underpins the idea that speech should actually be costly. Talk should never be so cheap that it doesn’t also involve action. You are the medium for your message. If we are ‘worshippers’ you are actually the medium for the gods we worship (be it sex, or Jesus, or any other thing we love ultimately). We are the model ‘citizens’ of the civil society we hope to see our neighbours live in (whether or not they worship the same thing as us).

The catch is, for Christians, our God is a crucified God. The message we speak is one that says love looks like self-sacrifice, but also that this way of living, exclusively, is the path to the true God. And people aren’t always going to like that. And, just as they killed Jesus for saying that other gods and kings (and god-kings, like Caesar) were false and that belief in them is totally permissible, but foolish, people will probably want to crucify us, even if we get our approach to speaking totally right. Aiming for a civil society doesn’t guarantee one, cause the barbarian impulse is strong in all of us. We do want, as humans, to tear down other societies when they do threaten us, or when we feel like they do.

As Christians the cost of living out our message — incarnating it, even — is that we’ll probably end up like Jesus. Or, as this quote I love puts it:

Incarnation means that God enables divinity to embody humanity.  Christians, like Jesus, are God’s incarnations, God’s temples, tabernacling in human flesh (John 1:14; Phil. 2:3-8).  Christians, spiritually transformed into the image of God, carry out God’s ministry in God’s way. Frequently incarnationalists relate to seekers from other world religions personally and empathetically (as Jesus taught Nicodemus).  Sometimes, however, they declare God’s social concerns by shaking up the status quo and “cleaning out the temple.”  The end result of incarnation in a non-Christian world is always some form of crucifixion.” — Gailyn Van Rheenen, Engaging Trends in Missions, 2004

I expect to be crucified — whether that’s laughed at, excluded, or anything up to execution, the goal of loving, costly, ethical, understanding speech for me is not just that in doing so I’ll definitely persuade everyone (though hopefully it’ll persuade some). My goal is that something like what happened at the cross will happen. That the person, or people, responsible for my pain, will, in inflicting it, see something true about what I’m saying and wrong about what they’re doing. That they’ll have a centurion moment.

My optimism is simply that God works through weakness and crucifixion. Which is the same optimism Paul brought to Corinth, a city obsessed with uncostly, unethical speech. Corinth loved flashy, substanceless, oratory that made them feel good about themselves and never questioned the status quo. Paul brought the message of the cross. In word, deed, and posture. And then wrote stuff to the Corinthians about their expectations (and his), stuff like:

“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” — 2 Corinthians 2:15-16

And:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” — 2 Corinthians 4:7-11

His goal in doing this in Athens, where he was mocked (but some were saved), and in Corinth, where even people in the church thought he could’ve been a more impressive speaker, was that in ‘becoming all things to all people,’ even a slave, he might win some to the truth.

Society more generally would be better, I think, if people weren’t hypocrites but were committed to the idea that our words create obligation. It’d bring an end to clicktivism, and we might see Kony in chains, research for motoneuron disease fully funded, and a bunch of other substantial changes in the world around us.

 

7/ True speech

A civil society is built around a shared pursuit of truth. That’s why civil societies have libraries, universities, and education systems. These often become weaponised in ideological wars. But truth matters. Pursuing it matters. Listening for it is a good thing.

One of the biggest problems with the idea that free speech is what really matters is that it’s exactly the line used by perpetuators of fake news, or people who are spreading untruths who have that brought into question (think the anti-vax movement).

True speech is better than free speech, and more costly. It costs time, attention, energy, listening, wisdom, critical self-reflection, awareness of bias (and privilege), observations of structural, cultural, and individual power at work in our truth-seeking institutions, and a bunch of stuff most of us just can’t be bothered with.

People like Augustine, ages ago, recognised that all truth is God’s truth, and his vision of a civil society, built from his confidence that the Gospel is true, meant he really valued education. And his writing, and practice, on education has shaped much of the way the church has been, historically, involved in providing a liberal arts (wide) education to as many people as possible, not just a theological education. Maybe it’s time we rediscovered this  — first the value of knowing about things beyond just what will get us a job and beyond the things we think simply because of our prior convictions (theological or a-theological), and then the value of getting the sort of education that threatens us and gets us to read beyond our circles.

Two types of speech for Christians within our society

These are all more important for a truly civil society than just free speech, free speech is like a gun. You can give it to people, but unless you model how to use it, it’s dangerous.

1/ Prayerful speech

It’s not just opening our mouths and speaking to the world that should create in us a sense of obligation, and reflect our ethic (how we live). Prayer does this too, but ‘vertically’ not just horizontally. Christians who are worried about our place in the world need to keep reminding ourselves whose world it really is, and whose we really are. And we do that through prayer. Prayer reminds us that God is real, and as we pray that his kingdom might come (because his king has come and the kingdom is launched in the church), that shapes a particular way of living for us. Prayer is a vital part of how we’re going to go about creating a more civil society in the church. A society that models something different and compelling to the world around us.

If we think we’ve got it bad, Paul says:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. — 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

And he says something similar reflecting on his situation where the state has put him in prison for his faith…

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” — Ephesians 6:18-20

Without ceasing… continually. We’d be better users of speech in the public square if we were doing more of this I reckon… Also. If we want to speak meaningfully into the public square, it pays to keep Paul’s advice at the front of our minds too. The government he’s asking for prayer for is a hostile government… ours isn’t that yet, but it could be, and even if it is… this is the sort of speech he urges us towards.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people —  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. — 1 Timothy 2:1-4

2/ Gospel speech

Oh great, you’re thinking, here’s the Jesus bit. I’ve been banging this drum for a while, but the reason to do all nine types of ‘civil’ speech outlined here is that we are citizens of a very different kind of civil society; a society built by the good news of Jesus — a message we heard about God’s great love for us despite our unloveliness. A society that ‘truthing in loves’ that good news to the people around us; in word and deed. The Gospel is the thing that should be shaping our ethos and our logos and our pathos. The words we speak, the lives we live, and the things we feel (like how we deal with fear and the threat of a changing world) all display what we think the Gospel (the good news) is. We all become the medium for what we think is true about the world, God, and life in the world.

If we live and speak the Gospel coherently it encourages people who already believe the Gospel to keep on keeping on, even in the face of danger and adversity. This is part of why Paul’s life — and chains — are actually an encouragement, rather than a discouragement, to the church. We serve a crucified king, and God’s power is displayed in weakness and its critique of uncivil, barbarous, societies.

The Gospel is good news because the society it creates is not exclusive in the way all other ‘gospels’ are. Think about what the average Aussie thinks ‘the good life’ looks like, and then ask how accessible that vision is for the poor, the widowed, the oppressed, the refugee, the broken, the depressed, the fragile, the homeless, the uneducated, the addicted… the Gospel is actually good news for lots of people in our world, even if the elite in our society want to paint it as a terrible and oppressive thing. Their visions of the good life are terrible and depressing.We have the words of eternal life, that create a civil society that is life bringing and inclusive. Words that create love, forgiveness, and mercy for our neighbours, fellow Christians, and even our enemies; not words that create outrage, boycotts, hate speech and lynch mobs.

Things feel like they’re really bad… the sort of bad Paul talks about in 2 Timothy 3-4. And I’m just going to leave this here… because it has what Paul suggests is how we should respond to this sort of world; the sort of speech we should be exercising.

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth… 

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. — 2 Timothy 3:1-7, 10-4:5

ISIS, Martyrdom, #WeAreN, and why not ن

Two weeks ago. Sunday morning. Just before church. I checked Facebook on my phone. I read a story that punched me in the stomach.

Eight Christians had apparently been crucified in Iraq by ISIL. Martyred.  The story wasn’t this one – but it was pretty much like it.

Standing up to preach about our crucified king, Jesus, became realer for me in that moment than it had ever been before. Martyrdom has a special place in the hearts of Christians because it’s how it all started. Our martyrs don’t die in a bid to take other lives with them, our martyrs die to give life to others. Our martyrs lay down their lives to follow our martyred king. Jesus.

It turned out the story was a couple of months old and had taken this time to reach Facebook in Australia. The situation hasn’t improved in those intervening months. Between May and now. It has deteriorated.

ISIL has systematically removed those who oppose their rule – both Muslim and Christian – through violent persecution. To the point that Obama has launched a military intervention in the region. To prevent genocide. Obama’s speech, launching this action isn’t silent on the persecution of Christians (even if most western media covering the story seems to be avoiding it).

“…we’ve begun operations to help save Iraqi civilians stranded on the mountain. As ISIL has marched across Iraq, it has waged a ruthless campaign against innocent Iraqis. And these terrorists have been especially barbaric towards religious minorities, including Christian and Yezidis, a small and ancient religious sect. Countless Iraqis have been displaced. And chilling reports describe ISIL militants rounding up families, conducting mass executions, and enslaving Yezidi women.”

My Facebook feed is filled with profile pictures featuring the Arabic letter ن for ‘n’ – for nazara (Christian) – because ISIL marks out Christians for death by placing this letter on their homes. The hashtag #wearen has captured expressions of Christian solidarity for our family in Iraq (though it’s worth remembering the need for human solidarity for all those people being persecuted by ISIL)

we are n

Here are some good things to read about how changing your profile picture can be a helpful thing to do, and an expression of solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters by David Ould (and a follow up) and Dave Miers. I haven’t changed my profile picture. Still. Partly because I’m a contrarian and am worried about the tokenism of ‘awareness raising’ in the face of helpless situations. Partly for reasons I will explain below. I have found the exercise useful for keeping me praying about these events as the symbol dominates my news feed. There are good ways to give money directly to people affected by the situation – the Bible Society or the Barnabas Fund would be good places to start. It’s worth thinking of ways to support non-Christians targeted by ISIL as well. I’m praying that the Christians fleeing Iraq will have opportunities to love and care for their country people also fleeing this oppressive regime.

My Facebook feed is also filled with people praying for and expressing outrage over the persecution of Christians. Rightly so. The stories coming out of Iraq – particularly those from Canon Andrew White, an Anglican minister in Iraq, including this story that ISIL is beheading Christian children. That’s such an awful sentence to write. Writing it now pales in comparison when it comes to how White must feel sharing this news with the church globally.

My friends sharing these stories and changing their profile pictures are expressing a sense of hopelessness – this seems so present, in our interconnected and globalised world, and yet so far away. So very far away. Far from our experiences of life in a beautiful country like Australia, and from our ability to help bring change. There is so little we can do.

My friends are sharing these stories and changing their profile pictures because they want to raise awareness of what’s going on for fellow Christians.

My friends are sharing these stories and changing their profile pictures because they want people to be praying. Which must surely be the response to events such as these.

These are all good motives.

But the situation is not hopeless.

I’m not writing this to cheapen the awful reality for other people living through an experience so far removed from my own. I’m not writing this lightly. If this is not true, then Christianity is not true. Or. Perhaps. If Christianity is not true. This is not true.

There is hope for those suffering in these events.

Despite the awful atrocities being committed against Christians. Despite the horror of what humans can do to one another in the name of religion. Despite the carnage. There is hope. The hope doesn’t rest in Obama launching airstrikes. The hope rests with the one who went to martyrdom to pave the way for Christians everywhere. To secure a certain future.

The Apostle Peter, who was, as legend has it, crucified upside down, spoke of this hope. A living hope. In his letter to the persecuted church.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  – 1 Peter 1

There is hope.

Why not ن?

I love the link David Ould’s post makes to the Passover. That time in the book of Exodus, in a region not so far from where these events are happening, where the lives of people who put their faith in God were spared because their doors were marked with a symbol. Lamb’s blood.

I like it because it’s a great reminder that whatever happens to these Christians – even to the point of the awful stuff being reported – they are marked not by ISIL with their feeble Arabic letter. But by the blood of Jesus. This is the symbol for Christians. The blood spilled at the Cross. While the n is marking out those who are associated with Jesus – the Nazarene, and this is nice, and appropriately theologically accurate, I think there’s a better symbol. A symbol that marks the moment God wrote his name on those who turn to him, the symbol that marks that first martyrdom – a symbol designed by another evil empire. Rome. A symbol that represents real hope, and opens martyrdom up as a way of life for Christians. Even when we’re not literally being crucified. Peter fronts up to a bunch of Jewish rulers in Acts 4, shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus. And explains how the disciples are carrying on the work these rulers thought had died with Jesus. Just after they healed a crippled man. Peter says.

know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is

“‘the stone you builders rejected,
    which has become the cornerstone.’

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4

I don’t know if I’m suggesting that Christians everywhere start changing their profile pictures to a picture of the Cross. Though maybe I am. I’m not sure what the exit strategy is for those who have changed their profile pictures. How long do we maintain this solidarity? I think there’s been plenty of good stuff happening as a result of the use of ن. And I’ve suggested a few ways to take concrete action at the bottom of the post (also check out the Bible Society’s list of 5 things to do – some of these are the same). At the end of the day it’s a pretty minor quibble to suggest the cross is a better symbol of Christian hope than the Arabic letter designed to associate people with Jesus. But it’s the Cross that subverts evil and oppressive regimes who seek to stamp out Christians. It’s the cross that was the symbol that encouraged the earliest Christian martyrs to follow the way of Jesus. Even to death.

All of Tertullian’s Apology – a defence of Christianity to the Roman regime which was persecuting Christians in the hope of systematically wiping out the faith, is worth reading. Chapter 50 is particularly powerful stuff in the present context. Especially this bit. 

But go zealously on, good presidents, you will stand higher with the people if you sacrifice the Christians at their wish, kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers that we thus suffer; for but very lately, in condemning a Christian woman to the leno rather than to the leo you made confession that a taint on our purity is considered among us something more terrible than any punishment and any death.Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed. – Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 50.

The last words from Peter’s first letter are also particularly worth reading in this present crisis. Words to persecuted Christians. Words I am praying our brothers and sisters in Iraq are reflecting on, words that give them hope, and give us hope as we watch events that seem to be hopeless.

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. – 1 Peter 4

There is hope for the Christians being persecuted – even to the point of death. The symbol of that hope isn’t the letter the enemies of Christians put on their doors, it’s the way God opens a door for them. It’s the lamb’s blood of Exodus on a cosmic scale. The blood of Jesus.

There is hope, and martyrdom is an expression of that hope. It’s a testimony to what Jesus has done for us. Revelation, another book written to Christians suffering incredible persecution, links the symbol of the blood of the lamb – spilled at the cross – with martyrdom (not shrinking from death) – suggesting this way of life (and death) is part of the victory Jesus wins over those who persecute.

They triumphed over him
    by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
    as to shrink from death.” – Revelation 12:11

What can we do?

All of these ‘things you can do’ lists have a massive danger of being tokenistic things that are more for our own comfort and appeasement than for the comfort of others if we’re not prepared to shoulder the cost when the story falls out of your Facebook newsfeed. What does responding to the situation in Iraq look like next month? Next year? Whenever you change your profile picture back to a picture of your smiling face, or your cute kids, or whatever abstraction tickles your fancy? How are you going to keep going?

1. Pray.

If the hope people are dying for is real. If we really are children of God, like our brothers and sisters in Iraq. If we have confidence that what Jesus did at the Cross restores our relationship with the God who created all things by speaking, then we should realise that prayer is actually the best way we can respond to any situation. It’s real. Not a token gesture. I do like that Christians do awareness raising best out of everyone online – because the easiest and best response doesn’t cost us much more than the click of a button. It costs us speaking to God. What a privilege.

2. Give.

I mentioned the Bible Society or the Barnabas Fund as options earlier. Voice of the Martyrs is another option. If you have another specific campaign to suggest – leave a comment.

3. Write.

Wouldn’t it be great if Australia joined other countries like France in offering refuge to those experiencing these horrific atrocities? I know the global refugee situation is incredibly complex. But if what is going on is enough to provoke Obama to do something other than giving a speech, it must be a big deal. Can I suggest writing to Scott Morrison. A church going man. The Federal Immigration Minister. To suggest he might do whatever it takes to help protect our fellow humans (not just the Christian ones) who are suffering under ISIL, who are perhaps the closest thing to the physical manifestation of evil since the serpent slithered into the garden, or since Pilate washed his hands of the crucifixion of Jesus… There are other more recent examples of the kind of evil that systematically wipes out minorities, but to invoke them breaks the internet. You can write to Scott Morrison via the email address listed on this page. Here’s an example letter. But I’m sure you can come up with your own version.

4. Love those who have fled persecution already in our midst.

I don’t know about you, and your church (or city). But in my church, and my city, there are those who have fled similar regimes – be it fleeing persecution in Africa, the Middle East, or anywhere.

We’re often so quick to move onto new plights based on the news cycle (or current events, when the news cycle isn’t all that reliable). This love for our persecuted fellow Christians (and persecuted fellow humans) can’t just be token. It can’t be solved by the firing off of a prayer, the click of a button, the absolution of a one-off financial donation, or a passionate email to an MP.

This is an issue we need to be in for the long haul. In. Costly. Painful. Real. World. Ways. How are you going to do stuff in the real world?

It starts with doing stuff for those who have already escaped persecution. Those who are here in our country as a result of our migration program. And this isn’t just about caring for Christians. You can’t take Jesus seriously when he speaks about loving our enemies (not just our neighbours) – if you’re going to limit this sort of care to Christians. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care for Christians who have been persecuted. We absolutely should. But they share our hope. Or we share theirs. So maybe we should be looking outside the people who tick the same box as us on the census form? The best way to avoid tokenistic jingoism is to get your hands in the mix – to make others comfortable through your own discomfort (it’s very easy to write about martyrdom).  Trust me. I’ve spent the last hour or so doing it). This is a massive challenge when we respond to this sort of thing as Christians. It’s a challenge I feel.

I don’t want to change my profile picture until I’m sure I’m actually doing something to back up whatever is happening in the online space. Otherwise I feel like I’m in danger of being like the Pharisees who do a bunch of token religious stuff in public, so people will notice, but aren’t really doing much good in private. This isn’t a dig at those who have changed their pictures – I’m sure many of them are doing all sorts of stuff beyond just talking. But online stuff has a massive tendency towards the sort of thing Jesus nails in Matthew 23 when he smashes the Pharisees.

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long;  they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues;  they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others…

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” – Matthew 23:5-7, 23-24

I’m aware of the irony of writing this stuff on a blog. From my lounge room. Firmly entrenched in middle class Australia. But I need to stop being a slaves to the news cycle and figure out how this passion for the persecuted transforms my every day reality. Maybe you do to?

5. Don’t just do ‘token’ awareness raising. Don’t let the martyrdom of our brothers and sisters be in vain.

All responses outside of the events, as they happen, have a tendency to feel like they’re token gestures. That’s one of my problems with anything that smells like clicktivism or awareness raising. When there’s so little being said about what is happening to Christians we (Christians) tend to feel like we’re being mistreated, vicariously. As if column inches in the news give us validation as Christians. As if we’re martyrs because our voice isn’t getting a run because of some insidious secular, anti-Christian, agenda. I’m not questioning whether such an agenda exists. I’m sure it’s possible. There’s been an anti-Christian agenda since the Roman rulers and the Jewish rulers got together to crucify Jesus.

I’m not going to wring my hands because the Christian aspect of this genocide isn’t getting published by our western media. That seems to be missing the point. Members of our global family. Fellow children of God. Are being executed for their faith. This is an incredibly powerful testimony to the hope that they have. These brothers and sisters of ours have nothing like the freedom we have to tell people why they are giving up their lives.

I’m not going to change my profile picture to raise the plight of my fellow Christians around the world as though the situation (as mind-blowingly horrible as it is) is hopeless. Nor am I going to change my profile picture without constantly reminding people that the Christians executed by ISIL have an amazing hope.

This situation is not hopeless. Though we might feel like it is. This situation is not hopeless. It is created by hope.

The hope in the midst of these horrific acts of genocide is the hope that has driven Christians to martyrdom since very soon after the death of Jesus. The hope of resurrection. Living hope.

The hope Peter says we should always be out to share with others. This may seem like an empty, or token, gesture in the face of the systematic elimination of Christianity from a section of the Levant, but it is not. It is what is required for that elimination to fail.  The proclamation of the tangible, martyrdom-inspiring, living, and real hope that is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” – 1 Peter 3:15.