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KOEDYKER: Being careful about how we use our freedom of speech

• Jun 27, 2018 at 4:00 PM

In our country, the United States of America, one of the grand freedoms we cherish is the freedom of speech. What this basically means is that we are free to express ourselves. We are free to give our opinion without fear of punishment. I can say what I think and you are free to do the same. I can write the words of this newspaper column and you, the reader, are free to agree or disagree. And many of you have done that!

Most newspapers, as is true of the Tribune, have “Letters to the Editor” where readers can speak their mind. And the readers of the Tribune often do that. You may agree or disagree, but nevertheless, I think we all would agree that we would defend your right to do so.

However, it seems to me that recently we have been deluged by some extremely negative and disrespectful diatribes. A lot of this has been fueled by the availability of social media. Facebook and Twitter and the like have served as ready vehicles for people to trash those with whom they disagree. And I do mean trash! The talk is in the gutter or the toilet, whichever you prefer. It’s bad.

I know President Trump is no angel, but some of the words I have read recently which people use to describe him are downright awful. What it says to me is that people have a great deal of anger and hatred in their hearts.

A friend of mine described ours as “a culture of outrage.” It’s not enough for people to think something, they are out to try to convince others to agree with them. It’s like people who put terrible comments about certain public figures are trying to say, “I’m outraged and you should be, too!”

I must also say that a lot of what I am hearing borders on the ridiculous. It seems so childish to carry on with the “name calling.” When I was in elementary school, if we called our classmates a bad name, we were reprimanded for it. Maybe we had to stay in for recess or “write lines” on the blackboard. But there seems to be little repercussion nowadays.

I know my wife, who taught first and second grade for 20 years, would never tolerate such “bad mouthing” of others. She was the same way with our own children: If they talked in a disparaging way about someone else, they were reprimanded for it. Such language is not permitted in our house!

I recall walking into my aunt’s kitchen and seeing a little plaque she had hanging on the wall which said, “Speak well of others.” It was a great reminder when sitting around the kitchen table and talking — if you can’t say something nice about a person, don’t say anything!

What we are really talking about here is respect. Have we lost respect for people we disagree with?

In the Bible, a word which is closely related to respect is love. According to Jesus, there are two great commandments that the Bible lays out which we should follow, and both of them have to do with love — love for God and love for our neighbor. (Mark 12:29-30) Obviously, no one does this perfectly. Nevertheless, God holds it out as our greatest goal in life.

An unbridled tongue can lead to no good. It brings all kinds of troubles such as broken friendships, grudges, hatred, anger and deep hurt. The Bible even refers to disparaging words as arrows and sword thrusts. (Jeremiah 9:8, Psalm 64:3, Proverbs 12:18) But, as Proverbs 21:23 states, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”

On the other hand, the wisdom of the Bible speaks of those who are wise as “pondering how to answer” before speaking. (Proverbs 15:28) In other words, think before you speak. Don’t be so quick to criticize. James continues with that theme when he says, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.” (James 1:19)

This is not always an easy thing to do. We often react before we have a chance to think. The truth is, we need help controlling our tongues. I admit I do. That is why the psalm writer prays these words: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.” (Psalm 141:3)

When we take that kind of approach, “a gentle tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4), and “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11)

Paul the apostle sums it up with these words: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)

Those are great words to live by. How different things could be if we would heed them and build people up instead of tearing them down.

The Rev. John Koedyker is the pastor of congregational care at First Reformed Church of Grand Haven.

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