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Meeting the Extremist Challenge by Obeying the Unenforceable

When the boundaries between helpful and harmful speech are unenforceable, what can we do, in church or state, to reinforce and protect those recognized boundaries?
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Over the last week and a half, we the people have been engaged in some sincere soul searching over whom and what to hold responsible for the horrifying massacre in Tucson. In the days since the shootings, many politicians, advocacy groups, and media figures have pointed to our heated political discourse, issuing pleas to "tone down the rhetoric." Within faith communities this discussion has been compounded by the terrible words and actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, which has been protesting at the funerals of the victims.

It's very likely, as we have witnessed before, that soon our country will move on from this conversation without a soul-satisfying resolution. Before we move past this moment, we must embrace the opportunity to find a deeper understanding of ourselves in it. We must ask ourselves important questions like, "How do we balance our freedoms and rights with what we know to be healthy and good?" and "How do we apply 'turning down the rhetoric' in our own lives?"

Neither state nor church can -- nor should -- set rules to limit speech. By their very nature such institutional rules would jeopardize our freedom. However, as decent human beings, we know there are boundaries between speech that is helpful and speech that is harmful. Stripped of the ability to set rules, the question for both church and state becomes: "How can we reinforce and protect those boundaries when rules are not an option?"

What is required in both institutions -- and necessary for us to remember in the face of the violence just experienced in Tucson -- is the concept of "obedience to the unenforceable."

In the Christian tradition, one way to understand the whole of the Bible is through this concept. The Bible documents the gradual recognition that the relationship between God and God's people can only rest upon obedience to the unenforceable. The opening books of Scripture depict how God establishes rules so that human obedience is the way in which we connect with God. Over and over again people fail to obey the rules and jeopardize that relationship with God. The great prophets of the Old Testament articulate the shift away from enforcement of rules to a covenant of love as the form of relationship God desires. God's coming in Jesus, the Prince of Peace, completes this movement. Jesus invites us to love and serve Him. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew offers a way of life that is unenforceable but compelling in its call to obedience, unenforceable obedience.

So, when the boundaries between helpful and harmful speech are unenforceable, what can we do, in church or state, to reinforce and protect those recognized boundaries? How do we inspire obedience to the unenforceable?

One way is to take responsibility for our own selves and commit ourselves to honor freedom of speech as the fragile privilege that it is. We can take special care to be respectful in all we say and do. We can learn from the courage of people in places that do not have the history of freedom we so take for granted like the Christians practicing their faith in Baghdad or the people of Tunisia speaking up for free elections.

President Barack Obama has been a model of obedience to the unenforceable in political speech since he emerged on the political scene at the 2004 National Democratic Convention. He consistently refuses to engage in incendiary language and constantly invites everyone to participate in the civil discourse upon which good government depends. He called us all to this same restraint again last week in Tucson.

We can also shun those who exploit freedom of speech through incendiary and hateful rhetoric. This is a difficult discipline, especially when our immediate emotional instinct is to react, to push back, and to forcibly patrol that border between help and harm. That kind of "eye for an eye" instinct only serves to feed the problem. It brings further attention to the perpetrators of extremist speech and gives them the opportunity to proclaim their freedom to say it and shield themselves from consequence.

Westboro Baptist, led by Fred Phelps, thrives on using incendiary and hateful speech. They show no obedience to the unenforceable lines between help and harm and insist upon using their right to freely practice their religion by picketing outside of funerals, most recently of those shot to death in Tucson. They also protest at the funerals of our brave men and women who die in battle.

Westboro Baptist relies upon negative publicity to gain more attention and truly abuse the unenforceable boundaries of the freedom of expression in the church. They count on outraged reaction to give them another chance to speak up.

The model I look to and rely on for the serious discipline of shunning extremists is the response that Trinity High School in Washington, Pennsylvania, gave when Westboro Baptist came to picket there last fall. When officials learned of the planned protest, they dismissed school early so no one was there. Then, students, parents and community leaders organized a Diversity Fair at a church hall in town to highlight the opportunities in their community for meeting all kinds of people. It was a great example of responding to hate with love while also taking a stand by shunning those that use hateful language.

The rampage in Tucson shattered our peace. In our self-searching afterward -- for a moment -- we see more clearly than usual the unenforceable rules of decency and civility our communities live by. The challenge for us all is to hold on to that clarity through this tragedy and beyond, to be, day in and day out, utterly committed to obeying the unenforceable.

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