My local library continues to serve me well. A few weeks ago, perusing the endcaps, I came upon Suzanne Nossel’s new book “Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All.” Nossel is the CEO of PEN America, an organization devoted to the defense of free expression. As a writer and the new editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, where our mission includes encouraging an open exchange of ideas, I eagerly checked out Nossel’s book, and I highly recommend it.
I’ve been troubled by the dissolution of civil dialogue in our country. I’m hungry for us to come to a place where conservatives and liberals can, at the very least, talk to each other again. In fact, I believe we must be able to talk, to reason with each other, to come to understand each other and where each side is coming from in order to solve the complex societal issues we face today. I also feel called by Christ to an ethic of love. Too many of our conversations today are devoid of love and are more centered on dominating the other or the other’s side — too focused on winning the argument or proving we are right rather than listening and growing in understanding and relationship.
Nossel’s excellent book deftly explores current issues such as “cancel culture,” “calling out” or “calling in,” public shaming, public protests, controversial speakers invited to college campuses and when to forgive speech-related transgressions. She works through all these issues carefully and compassionately while also clearly and convincingly arguing that free speech is the foundation for all our other freedoms, a catalyst for progress and our best path towards uncovering the truth.
Back in September, the lectionary led us through the book of James that has a lot to say about the power of the tongue. James is full of warnings, emphasizing the mistakes we make in speech, the evil we can spew with a tongue that is hard to tame and full of deadly poison. James acknowledges that blessings can come from our mouth as well as curses, but that acknowledgment is brief.
As a woman who didn’t really begin to find her voice until my late 20s, who struggled to overcome painful shyness and social anxiety, I want to make a case for the blessing of words. Women who serve as clergy or church leaders are still confronted by the patriarchal message, “Women should be silent in the church,” from surprising places and people. I’ll never forget the male visitor to the church I served in North Carolina who glared at me in the pulpit throughout the entire service. Disregarding the social and cultural location of the text, he accosted me with 1 Timothy 2 afterwards at the door. Patriarchy doesn’t make finding the blessing of your female voice easy. It doesn’t honor the unique gifts women’s words and women’s intentions offer the world.
Yes, lots of people need to check their tongues. But many fear speaking for the reasons James cites and for our current cultural context where the fear of being “canceled” or publicly “called out” makes it harder to express our thoughts and ideas. Conscientious citizens are well aware of the mistakes we often make in speech and the pain words can cause. We are also aware of the way our words can easily be misconstrued then shared and reshared in this new digital age. There are so many reasons not to speak. And yet, silence is its own sin. Deliberately chosen words are often required of us when we recognize injustice and oppression. In the face of evil or oppression or any kind of wrongdoing, we must find our words. We must find our way towards saying, “No.”
Yes, we will make mistakes when we speak. We should own those mistakes and apologize for them. But we shouldn’t let our fear keep us from intentionally and deliberately choosing words that bless and words that serve a more just society. As Christians, we must also intentionally and deliberately choose a path of speech that is grounded in an ethic of love, a path of speech that can serve us well by helping us solve complex social problems and live into God’s truth.