March 2015- The Finnish Orthodox Church
“Guard the door of my lips”
The right to social critique has not always stood at the core of society’s values. For example, in ancient Greece, there was no freedom of speech, and one reason the philosopher Socrates paid for his speech with his life.
The present respect for freedom of speech is connected to the formation of the Christian understanding of the human person, and to the birth of modern human rights. A cornerstone of Christianity is the right each of us has to think and form an opinion about the reality around us. Without a Christian understanding of the human person, we would not possess the human rights which we in western democracies take as self-evident.
Absolute freedom of speech faces two challengers: the power of the state, and society. Many states limit freedom of speech, if the experience such freedom as a threat to their control. In a pluralistic society, relationships to freedom of speech are complicated, because not everyone has the same taboos or holds the same things sacred. In addition, the ability to self-censure is individual. The British author George Orwell aptly summed up the the choice attached to freedom: “Freedom is the right to say to people what they don’t want to hear.”
Modern western freedom of speech is not a monolithic value; many other ideologies are tied to it as well. Our present concept of the freedom of speech has inherited much from the English philosopher John Locke and the French philosopher René Descartes, among others. They were the strongest advocates for both freedom of speech and western individualism. Less often mentioned is the fact that both Locke and Descartes were not very familiar with, nor appreciated, the ancient cultures and faiths of the east. To them, Orthodoxy or Islam represented only backwardness. In addition, many Swedish rulers possessed such a “western” feeling of superiority, the echoes of which we have heard at times in the Lutheran attitude towards eastern cultures, and towards Islam as well.
The government’s and society’s concepts of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech have for centuries been culturally-bound. For example, in France, emancipation from the moral monopoly of the Catholic church still marks freedom of speech. In the United States, in turn, freedom of speech is held more as the right of believers against the control of the state. Finland in turn has been the kind of uniformly Lutheran culture in which freedom of speech is employed rather more in critical evaluation of the culture of others, than of their own.
From a Christian point of view, freedom of speech is closely connected to freedom of conscience. One cannot exist without the other.
The Achilles’ heel of freedom of speech is its use in stigmatizing those who think differently from one, or who are of a different culture than one’s own. At this point, freedom of speech can be sharply in conflict with Christian values: freedom of speech is not the right to do injustice another.
Democracy or freedom of speech are sensitive values. The can also develop, imperceptibly, from truth to tyranny. The marks of this development can be seen. The spread of fundamentalism or radical Islam cannot be challenged unless we ourselves are prepared to scrutinize our own values.
In a tradition going back to the early middle ages, the Orthodox church of the east is preparing for Easter with a 40-day fast. The starting point of the tradition of the Great and Holy Fast – repentance, fasting, and justice – is shown in the in Orthodox church in the intercessory psalm 141, in which we entreat, “Lord, put a guard over my lips, guard the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3).
I earnestly wish us all to consider our attitudes and speech when it comes to social media as well. At evening prayer each Sunday we hear the psalm’s words regarding the person “who does not wander in the way of the wicked, nor walk in the way of sinners, nor sits in the company of blasphemers” (Ps. 1:1). The church helps us unburden the evil within ourselves, but it mustn’t ever be channeled towards other people!
Accompanied by self-examination, let us set out on the way to the amendment of life the Great Fast teaches. The most well-known Lenten prayer in the Orthodox churches was written by the fourth-century monk Ephrem the Syrian. He counsels us to self-examination through avoiding vain speech and by concentrating on patience and by increasing a spirit of love. This is the freedom of speech we Christians must practice!
May the Great and Holy Fast now beginning teach us to bestow good things all around us.
With blessings on your spiritual labors this Great Lent,
Archbishop of Karelia and All Finland