While driving on Saturday morning November 12 to the city of Meppel—as I was scheduled to preach there—I heard an interesting discussion on Radio 1 with a certain Ms Tamar de Waal. On her website she refers to herself as a political philosopher. The theme of the exchange between the interviewer and Ms. de Waal was the turmoil around ‘black Peter’ (a black servant accompanying St. Nicolas; some find it objectionable to have a black person in the role of a servant; others feel it is no more than a tradition that is an innocent part of the annual feast for the children). Ms. de Waal broadened the subject to deal with the right of free speech and freely expressing one’s opinion versus the importance of forming one’s opinion in a responsible way.
Free speech is an important human right. We must, however, realize that there may be a tension between different human rights. The case that is currently in the Dutch courts about some statements made by Geert Wilders, the leader of a Dutch populistic party, is a very telling example of this. Were his statements a permissible expression of his political views, or did he, through what he said, offend a segment of the Dutch population and was he possibly guilty of discriminatory behavior? Should Mr. Wilders’ right to express his opinion not have been shaped by the fundamental right of others not to be discriminated against and not to be offended?
Ms de Waal emphasized that people who claim to have the right to freely express their opinion, should also make sure that they are not just making any kind of wild assertion or are simply giving in to some vague sense of uneasiness. We all have, she said, the moral duty to form our opinions in a responsible manner—by carefully listening to other people with different opinions and then carefully considering the force of these opinions. She pointed to the Greek philosophers. Representatives of different philosophical ‘schools’ met each other on the market place, where they entered into a discussion with the aim of modifying their own opinion when needed.
We notice all around us that people find it difficult or even impossible to seriously listen to others and to weigh the various standpoints in a process of forming an informed opinion. We see this in the political area—often in an offensive and gross manner, as during the recent US elections. I fear we will see a lot of this also in the Netherlands, in March when the Dutch go to the voting booth. Unfortunately, we also see this in many faith communities, including the Adventist Church.
The Adventist community has a specific problem with regard to the free expression of opinion. Many church members do not have access to the official denominational media where they can express their opinion, and do not get the opportunity to say what they think, and talk about the conclusions they have reached, in church sponsored events and meetings (including the weekly Bible study period on Saturday morning). To a certain extent this is justifiable. A church wants to emphasize a particular message and is not just a club for debaters. But it would be a good thing if representatives of the various schools of thought within the church would have more space and opportunity to explain what they think and believe.
A responsible way of forming one’s opinion remains an absolute priority—for the corporate church as well as for individual church members. As believers we must, of course, make every effort to first of all listen to God’s Word without preconceived ideas. But we must also consider the views and interpretations of others around us. This is often very problematic. The so-called ‘right’ wing of the church hardly pays attention to anything the ‘left’ brings to the table—and vice versa. The ‘conservative’ segment of the church simply assumes that the ‘liberals’ hardly believe anything, while the ‘liberals’ or ‘progressives’ look with pity down upon the more conservative segment in the church, as people who refuse to think for themselves and remain stuck in all kinds of nineteenth-century ideas.
Lately, much is said and written about the need to restore unity in the church. Who will deny that this is crucial? But unity, in which we truly see and respect others as our ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, can only come about when we stop shouting at each other, make an effort to seriously listen to each other, and form a well-considered opinion before we decide to express it.