What is Hate Speech? The Definition Affects Us All
Should expressing your non-threatening view be prosecuted for “stirring up hatred” simply because others found it insulting? This is the controversy surrounding the Hate Crime Bill making its way through the Scottish Parliament. For instance, the author J K Rowling’s recent reasoned opinions on gender have been called “hate” by prominent politicians. Should she be in danger of up to 7 years in prison for expressing them? Some have noted how this legislation abolishes blasphemy at the same time as establishing new blasphemy laws. In fact, you only need to possess objectionable material with a view to passing it on. Criminal law must punish hate crime, but it already does. These proposals are about prohibiting certain views rather than protecting from actual harm. Many are concerned that biblical views may be prosecuted under such laws. Who defines hate speech? Such debates should prompt us to understand from Scripture what real hate speech is and how to avoid it. In fact, we need this for all our personal interactions.
We need to avoid any contempt for others in expressing our view. Too often anger and contempt are revealed as words boil over in social media debates. Leaving aside the matter of when hate speech is a crime, we need to consider how hate speech is a sin.
As the Lord Jesus Christ taught, the sixth commandment is not simply about committing murder, it also reaches to our thoughts and words (Matthew 5:22). The words of the commandment simply mention the highest degree of the sin, but all degrees are forbidden. Sinful and rash anger and contempt are also condemned.
As David Dickson points out, Christ expounds this commandment to forbid “rash anger and every evil motion against our neighbour’s person no less than it forbids murder”. Christ warns us that the least degree of this sin will be judged. As Dickson says, this should drive us to “the rich ransom of Christ’s blood and largeness of his grace” for refuge.
As the Larger Catechism points out therefore, the sixth commandment forbids all “sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passion…provoking words…quarrelling”. It also requires “charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behaviour”. It is possible to communicate the truth in this way. Love does not seek to work or speak evil against our neighbour (Romans 13:10; 1 Peter 3:9-11). This should characterise our relations within the church of God to a still higher degree (Colossians 3:12-13; 1 John 3:15; Ephesians 4:31).
We ought also to think about how we can sin by omission in our speech with destructive consequences to others. James Durham points out that sinful silence in not restraining people from sin (Ezekiel 3:18) or not reproving sin has this effect (Leviticus 19:6). When heresy and false teaching goes unchecked for instance, it destroys souls which is more serious still.
We can also reprove or restrain people in such a weak way that it has no effect. This is what happened with Eli and his sons, he did not reprove and restrain them with a holy severity (1 Samuel 2:22,25 and 1 Samuel 3:13).
One of the books that influenced the Larger Catechism was A Body of Divinity by James Ussher. The following updated extract is drawn from his treatment of the sixth commandment. He shows how the commandment requires us to speak to our neighbour kindly and use courteous and friendly speech towards them (Ephesians 4:32). In the Old Testament such friendly speech is often literally spoken of as “speaking to the heart” (Ruth 2:13).
1. Bitter and Angry Words are Hate Speech
Bitter and angry words or speech uttered in wrath or using evil or vile terms (Matthew 5:22) are condemned by this commandment.
2. Mocking Words are Hate Speech
Mocking in general is sinful (Psalm 22:7-8; John 19:3). Mockery of a disability (Leviticus 19:14) or especially mocking others for godly behaviour (2 Samuel 6:20) are condemned. Sometimes, however, God’s children may use mocking in a godly manner as Elijah did to the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:27).
3. Slanderous Words are Hate Speech
Speaking evil of someone, even although the matter is not in itself false is still wrong if it is not done with a right purpose or in a right manner and at the right time. False accusations are also condemned (Luke 23:2; Acts 24:5).
4. Abusive Words are Hate Speech
Brawling and angry shouting are sinful (Titus 3:9; Ephesians 4:31). Threatening, insulting and provocative speech is also condemned (1 Peter 3:9; 2 Samuel 16:5,7; 2 Kings 2:23-24;1 Corinthians 5:11 Psalm 57:4 Psalm 52:2 Psalm 64:3-4 Ps 140:3)
5. Harsh Words are Hate Speech
Spiteful, disdainful and harsh words are sinful, especially when they are uttered contemptuously (Proverbs 12:8; Proverbs 15:1).
5. Complaining Words are Hate Speech
When we complain about one another and grumble with malice (James 5:9).
According to Paul’s counsel we should see that edifying words rather than “corrupt communication” are found in our mouths (Ephesians 4:29. Our speech should be always seasoned with the saltiness of grace so that we know how to answer every one in the right way (Colossians 4:6). If meat is not sprinkled with salt, it will smell. It will be so with those who do not have their hearts seasoned with the word of truth.
If we are not careful the words proceeding from our mouths will be angry, wrathful, and loathsome speech against our brother. Scripture compares such words to juniper coals which burn most fiercely (Psalm 120:4) or to a sword or razor cutting most sharply (Proverbs 12:18; Psalm 52:2). James therefore says that the tongue is an unruly evil, set on fire by hell (James 3:6, 8). We ought therefore to govern our tongues by the Word of God and beware of vile speech.
The things summarised here are all too commonly heard in our culture. It is easy to become used to them and even to think that certain ways of speaking are justified if we are defending the truth. Righteous anger is a truly rare thing. None of us are free from the contagion of using words tainted or motivated by malice but we must flee from this as from every other sin. As we consider it carefully it should, as David Dickson says, drive us to “the rich ransom of Christ’s blood and largeness of his grace” for cleansing.
To explore these reflections further, you may find it helpful to read the article Keep Calm in an Age of Anger. Our culture is getting angrier, about a lot of things. It’s the dominant emotion in western societies on a daily basis. How much of this is righteous anger? And how can we resist sinful anger? We need to know. James Fergusson directs us to Scriptural teaching.
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