Paper delivered at the Elmbridge Multi-Faith Forum, 29th September 2015
I have been asked to talk about this very interesting question, and to set out a Christian perspective on it.
I’m not going to talk in a completely unguided way, if you like, setting out all aspects of freedom of expression, because it seems to me that the context of this meeting is limited to religious belief, the various different religious beliefs, and further that we are examining this question in the light of circumstances where it could be said that freedom of expression has been taken beyond the limits where it begins to offend religious beliefs, and specifically, religious beliefs about blasphemy.
I’m not going to talk in detail about the Human Rights Act and the various legislation restricting free speech, because there’s nothing specifically religious in it. Instead I want to concentrate on what Christianity has to say about freedom of expression.
The real focus in the discussion topic is what we think about blasphemy, or rather, people of one religion saying something publicly which would be blasphemous in another religion – say, the journalists of Charlie Hebdo publishing cartoons showing the Prophet Mohammed. 
As I understand things, simply showing a picture of the prophet is a form of blasphemy in Islam. Certainly the sort of derogatory cartoons which Charlie Hebdo specialises in – to be fair, against all religions, not just Islam – must be an example of the sort of thing we have in mind here.
There’s no doubt that Moslem people are offended. There’s also no doubt that in certain Moslem countries, the sort of freedom of expression enjoyed by Charlie Hebdo would be a criminal offence. So what is the Christian perspective?
First of all, of course, it’s trite to say that the third Commandment in the Ten Commandments given to Moses, recorded in Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, is ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain’: in other words, a prohibition against blasphemy. In that Jesus Christ said that he had come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17), but to fulfil them, this is as much part of Christian belief as it is in the Jewish religion.
But apart from that, I don’t think Jesus said very much about freedom of speech. Of course, He was in general in favour of upholding the secular law – ‘render unto Caesar’ (Mark 12:17) – but otherwise, neither in Judaism nor in Christianity does there appear to be anything corresponding with Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.
Whereas the Human Rights Act upholds a right of freedom of expression, subject to certain limitations, in Judaism and Christianity there is no positive right to freedom of speech, but rather only a prohibition on blasphemy.
I think there is perhaps a slightly difficult area which is relevant to mention in an inter-faith context, which arises where people to some extent ‘appropriate’ God to themselves. They talk about ‘my’ God and ‘your’ God and so on, rather than a God who is a universal creator and sustainer of life.
There is a difficult passage in St John’s gospel (John 14:6) – ‘No-one comes to the Father except through me’ – where on the face of it, Jesus is saying that Christianity is in effect the only authentic religion. From that, there could be an argument that, for example, to lampoon Mohammed is not blasphemous, because Christians might not necessarily believe that Mohammed had any special status or divinity about him.
There are a couple of interesting passages which bear on this, where Jesus is talking about whether or not Christians have to uphold Jewish rules on eating certain foods. To this day, we all know about the Jewish prohibition on eating pork, for example. But Jesus gives Christians permission not to feel obliged to uphold the Jewish customs. 
St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, deals with a refinement of this, where the question arises whether or not it is permitted to eat food which has been cooked as part of a sacrifice to a pagan god. This raises exactly the sort of issues which I expect we will debate tonight. 
In theory, if you eat meat which has been part of a sacrifice to a god that you don’t believe in, the fact that the food has come from the altar shouldn’t bother you at all. But of course, the act of your eating it might well give offence to the people who do believe in the god whose altar bore the sacrifice.
There is a glorious line in Romans 14: ‘One man will have faith enough to eat all kinds of food, while a weaker man eats only vegetables.’ (NEB). Is this St Paul making a slighting reference to vegetarians?
No. The point he is making is that Christians should not belittle, look down on, people whose beliefs lead them to behave slightly differently from themselves. So St Paul certainly teaches that Christians should have respect for people of other faiths; that Jesus’ teaching of love requires us not to offend other people if we can help it.
I suppose that the Christian position comes down ultimately to Jesus’ two main commandments, to love God and to love one’s neighbour. The greatest commandment, in Judaism and in Christianity, and I think also in Islam, is to love God: and that obviously entails not blaspheming.
But also, the second great commandment that Jesus gave, was to love our neighbour as ourself. Therefore, even if the god that somebody else believes in is not the God we believe in, our care for our neighbour, our love for our neighbour, should entail that we try to avoid doing anything which might be construed as blasphemous in that other person’s system of belief.
I am somewhat exercised that this train of reasoning has brought me to at least the beginnings of a feeling that Charlie Hebdo was perhaps going further than true Christian belief would allow us to go, and that they were going outside the scope of Jesus’ teaching.
This is some way away from what Voltaire is supposed to have said, namely, ‘I disapprove of what you say: but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ If Voltaire did write that, I have to conclude, sadly, that he didn’t get his inspiration from the Bible.