Comments on Freedom and the Clash of Ideas

If any speech or expression is deemed unworthy of protection on the basis of its content, no speech or expression is safe.


“The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom.”  (Lady Bird Johnson)

I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, bring born at the very end of 1959. My young, impressionable mind recalls the assassination of JFK, Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember watching the riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Kent State protest and shooting, the footage of the Vietnam War and the Nixon impeachment on the nightly news.

The world seemed a chaotic place, no less than it does today, on this 4th day of July, 2020.

In the 1960’s, the dissident voice championed First Amendment rights that included the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. I remember that freedom cry as a child superimposed over news footage of a burning US flag. The patriot in my young heart was equally repulsed by the flag burning and impressed of the necessity of the freedom that allowed that flag to burn.

In law school, I learned the nuances of the jurisprudence that grows out of our US Constitution in which the First Amendment is enshrined. The clash of ideas is so sacred in our constitutional framework that it allows even the idea of abolishing that very framework to be heard.

In the 21st Century, many things have changed, while somethings have remained the same. Many of the dissident ideas from the 1960’s have become mainstream, and more “conservative” voices have become dissident. I am no longer repulsed by the burning of the flag (and, perhaps, the point of burning a flag is no longer poignant for the same reason).

The angst of the 1960’s of my youth has been replaced by the angst of the 21st Century of my middle age. The reasons for may angst are much different, yet very much the same at their core. I have grown and changed in my views, but the emotional strain of the human condition remains.

I fear, at times, that the framework that protected the freedom to burn US flags in the 1960’s might, itself, be destroyed in my lifetime, or the lifetime of my children, by the fire of ideas that are antithetical to that freedom.

The ideas in colleges and universities around the country that seem to predominate promotes the silencing of dissident voices. Speaker engagements are canceled as the loudest voices want not even a whisper to be heard in opposition. Dissident speakers that are allowed on campus are shouted down.

These social, philosophical and political theories are built on the foundation of the idea that certain voices should be silenced, while other voices should be magnified – a kind of totalitarianism of ideas. This worldview would destroy the marketplace of ideas along with the idea of capitalism from which the idea of a marketplace of ideas is derived.

I am repulsed by this worldview as I was once repulsed by the burning of a US flag. The repulsion stems not from the evils in society this worldview aims to address, as I find some common ground in those concerns. I am concerned that the proposed remedy involves weakening the most fundamental freedom that protects freedom itself – the freedom of ideas and the right to express them.

The idea of “hate speech”, as wholesome and reasonable as it sounds, is inimical to a framework of freedom that protects the clash of ideas. Nowhere is freedom more necessary to be protected, than at the intersection of ideas and the right to express them. One person’s hate speech is another person’s ideas.

If we allow the idea of hate speech into the fabric of First Amendment jurisprudence, we threaten its very foundation. What we characterize as “hate” today is subject to change with changing societal norms tomorrow. No speech is safe from the label of “hate”.

While such a worldview has some appeal, seeking to right real wrongs and has laudable goals, it does so with the threat of  abolition of freedom of speech. Yet, freedom, real freedom, protects these even those ideas that are antithetical to freedom and demands that they be heard.

As repulsed as I was in my naive youth to watch the US flag burn in the streets of America, I understood the importance of allowing that expression to be heard. That I am no longer repulsed by that expression is of no consequence. In fact, freedom of speech is nowhere more vital than the protection of speech that is offensive. Favored speech doesn’t need protection. 

If any speech or expression is deemed unworthy of protection on the basis of its content, no speech or expression is safe.

Continue reading “Comments on Freedom and the Clash of Ideas”

Justice Means Working in the Fields Among the Wheat and the Weeds

Jesus warned us that weeds would grow up with the wheat, but the fields are ripe for the harvest.


The recent turmoil that was triggered by the killing of George Floyd has put a focus on justice in our country. In a sense, justice is on trial. Racial justice is the primary focus, but justice generally is implicated.

Most people are focusing on racial justice right now, but I have seen people with signs at rallies with messages aimed at “police brutality” generally. The spark of emotional reaction has ignited the flames of passion in all people who believe that injustice exists in our systems of justice.

One good example of that more general focus on justice is the “autonomous zone” created by protestors in the City of Seattle, WA.  (Seattle protesters set up ‘autonomous zone’ after police evacuate precinct by Danielle Silva and Matteo Moschella for CBS News June 11, 2020) The police have abandoned the East Precinct in response, and the protestors have replaced the sign on the police station to read “Seattle People Department”.

Many Christians, especially evangelicals, who tend to be conservative, having traditional values and respect for authority, react negatively to such extreme radicalism, and for good reason. In doing so, though, we fail to see, ignore, or gloss over real justice issues that should be addressed.

Our God is just. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s character. (Ps. 89:14) Righteousness and justice should be priorities to us as they are to God.

We might think of justice in terms of punishment, but that is a very warped and inaccurate view of biblical justice. “Biblical references to the word ‘justice’ mean ‘to make right.’ Justice is, first and foremost, a relational term — people living in right relationship with God, one another, and the natural creation. From a scriptural point of view, justice means loving our neighbor as we love ourselves and is rooted in the character and nature of God. As God is just and loving, so we are called to do justice and live in love.” (What does social justice really mean? by Adam Taylor, World Vision February 20, 2012)

Many Christians get tripped up by the term, social justice, because of secular baggage associated with the term. Indeed, social justice has taken on connotations that might by antithetical to some biblical principles. Because justice is a primary characteristic of God, however, we can’t let competing visions of what justice looks like to get in our way of doing justice.

God desires for us to be salt and light in the world. That means getting involved. Jesus warned us that weeds would grow up with the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30), but the fields are ripe for the harvest. To be involved in the harvest, we need to venture out into the fields, weeds and all.

Continue reading “Justice Means Working in the Fields Among the Wheat and the Weeds”

Focusing on Following Jesus in a Chaotic World

God continues to work out His purpose in history.


There is so much angst in the world today. First the corona virus and now the explosion of racial tensions. The political and worldview polarization we we have experienced in recent years have been magnified as political machines ramp up for another presidential election. It even threatens to pull the church apart.

I have recently written about black lives matter and white privilege from a biblical perspective, in an attempt to redeem those phrases from a biblical point of view.  I realize that those terms are loaded. The Black Lives Matter organization has a specific message and worldview that runs contrary to biblical principles at various points, but I tried to find the kernels of truth in those phrases through a biblical lens.

We run a risk in the church of getting off the narrow path of following Jesus by aligning ourselves too closely with a particular political platform, secular philosophy or other way of viewing the world that is not gospel focused. We also run a risk of falling off the narrow path the other way, by  reacting in opposition to everything a particular political platform, philosophy or worldview stands, just because some of it (or even most of it) is contrary to “off”.

Truth is truth, and truth is objective. No one person or particular view is apt to be absolutely true, because we are flawed beings with limited perspective. The likelihood of one person, one church, one theology being absolutely true in every detail is not likely.

At the same time, truth is truth. It is objective, and people can see it. That means that even people who may not acknowledge the truth of the gospel may, nevertheless, accurately see some aspect of the truth.

It’s like science, the facts and evidence must be interpreted. We are all looking at the same facts and evidence, but we do not all interpret it the same way. Still, the facts and evidence are the same. We continually discover new facts and evidence that alters our interpretations of the facts and evidence we previously knew, and we sometimes discover that what we thought we knew is not accurate.

God, of course, never changes. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Our perspective, knowledge and understanding, however, is finite and limited, and that requires we adopt a posture of humility in our understanding.

God’s Word doesn’t change, but our perspective of it changes. Think of the radical change of perspective Jesus introduced to the descendants of Abraham! God became man, came to His own people, and they didn’t even recognize Him!

Continue reading “Focusing on Following Jesus in a Chaotic World”

The Inspiration Behind the Song Lean On Me


We have seen a lot of violence in the last few weeks, as the American world has been stirred to protest over the death of George Floyd. His death, following on the heels of the death of Ahmaud Arbery, are the two most recent examples of the extreme results of racial attitudes in the US. The roots of these attitudes go back centuries, of course.

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

We’ve seen many videos of police violence posted on social media. We’ve seen many videos of rioting and booting. I am even beginning to see some videos of black on white violence. These constant reminders and fixation on the violent side of humanity don’t help our national mindset as we continue to wrestle with the isolation and fear of the COVID-19 threat and economic recession.

If they make us uncomfortable, that’s probably good thing. If they stir up fear and anger, not so much. The violent videos remind me that violence is not the answer. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was clear on that (though he warned that violence would continue as long as racial injustice continued). Darkness cannot drive out the darkness.

Long term light and love is what we need – the light of understanding and the love of God who made us all in HIs image.

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Continue reading “The Inspiration Behind the Song Lean On Me”

From Where I Sit “Riots are the Language of the Unheard”

Voting is the lowest form of democracy; and not just prayer alone, we need action ….



These are not my words. I am only amplifying them here: ~

A reflection from Richard Townsell, Executive Director of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been quoted a lot this week. One quote that has gotten a lot of traction is from an interview with CBS News’ Mike Wallace in 1966 where he said: “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.” This is as true today as it was then. The young adults in my house and the young staff on our team are very angry and some have joined peaceful protests over the death of brother George Floyd. His death represents the latest in a long line of public lynchings at the hands of primarily white law enforcement officials. We wait in anticipation for what happens in this case because we have seen slaps on the wrist before after the heat dies down. As of my writing, the other officers have not been charged. The young people make me wonder if I am too old because I don’t want to join protests or marches. They probably think that us baby boomer types just don’t get it. Are we too comfortable, too scared or too accommodating with this system that we can’t bring ourselves to hit the streets? Or is it something else?

I lived through the riots of 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I was not quite four years old but I remember my mother and older brother talking about it in hushed tones. How afraid they were as they heard ambulances and fire trucks all night. The anger was palpable in North Lawndale. Last night was like that. Stores along Roosevelt Road, Ogden and Pulaski and others were looted and burned. Madison and Pulaski stores were also looted.

It has been over 50 years since that happened and the community has yet to recover. There have been some heroic efforts in our community and communities like it around the country to rebuild in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death. In 2011, LCDC and our partners the Westside Federation and Safeway Construction built the $17MM, 45-unit apartment building called the MLK Legacy Apartments, primarily because of Dr. King’s presence in North Lawndale in 1966. He came to protest slum housing.

After he was murdered, the building that he and his family lived in for those months in 1966 was torn down. There would be no memory that he ever lived here. Back in the 1990’s, our church wanted to build a park in his memory. I thought that we should build a building that he would have been proud to live in instead on the site. Despite this and other noble efforts, the amount of resources allocated to rebuild North Lawndale has not come close to matching the devastation since 1968. I won’t quote any statistics because they are so readily available (and because our community has been studied to death by academics the world over), but suffice to say that if COVID 19 has wrought devastation to America in every socioeconomic statistic available then imagine Black folks have experienced 70 years of COVID in North Lawndale from health disparities, unemployment, blatantly racist housing discrimination and redlining, mass incarceration, vacant lots, poorly funded and maintained schools and the list of problems goes on and on. Problems, not issues. I’ll get back to that later.

That being said, I am firmly against rioting and looting. The primary reason is that for the past 52 years since the riots of 1968, not much of scale has been accomplished. Additionally, a lot of the folks instigating and provoking the theft and vandalism are white paid provocateurs, anarchists and professional looters who are opportunistically taking advantage of black grief and rage to cause mayhem at our expense. Why are they driving from the suburbs to tear up our neighborhoods? Fortunately, young black activists with camera phones are catching them in the act and stopping them from gentrifying and hijacking our legitimate and peaceful protests.

So, what do we do? I will tell you what is not the answer from my experience in community development and organizing over the past almost two decades of work and then what we can do. Continue reading “From Where I Sit “Riots are the Language of the Unheard””