I may be a heretic. Like me, you probably are dismayed at the increasingly shameful and vicious language often used in social media and other public discourse. Like our climate, it seems to get worse every year. However, while much of what we think is “uncivil” can only be condemned, a sweeping condemnation goes too far. There is a time and place for “incivility.” We might like to think of him as “Sweet Jesus,” but at times he acted uncivilly by the standards of the day.
On Thursday, the New York Times had an article quoting some Trump supporters promising a “revolution” if Hillary wins. One went so far as predict they would do “whatever needs to be done to get her out of office.” It is likely that some of our Christian brothers and sisters feel the same. On Wednesday, the Diane Rehm Show had a program on civility and public discourse. Most of the show’s panelists condemned “incivility.” One defined it as violating some vague standard of “politeness,” whatever that means. Another was more precise by defining it “as claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else in the process.” That is a more useful definition.
However, Jesus acted “uncivilly” at times under either definition. For example, in Matthew 23:27, he spewed venom on scribes and Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” Whew! He wasn’t being Sweet Jesus, and those are only some of the insults he threw out that day.
In addition, he periodically described people in other disparaging ways: dog, pig, snake, fox (in those days, it connoted a “weasel”), fool and brood of vipers. Moreover, one day he cleansed the Temple of merchants and money changers, overturning tables and driving them away with a whip. Sounds uncivil to me! It offended more than a few that day (they wanted to kill him!) and would have gone viral today: “#sonofmangoesberserk!”
In addition to these words and actions of Jesus, Paul was no shrinking violet. He called the Galatians “foolish” and later added that he wished those wanting circumcision would go the whole way and castrate themselves! (Gal. 3:1, 5:12) He also lambasted Cretans, “Even one of their own prophets has said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true.” (Titus 1:12-13a)
True, both he and Paul say and do a lot of other things that urge peaceful and harmonious discourse. Here are a few teachings:
- 5:7-9, “Blessed are the merciful. . . Blessed are the pure in heart. . . Blessed are the peacemakers. . .”
- 5:22, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
- 5:44, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
- 3: 8, “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.”
- 3:21, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”
- James 1:9, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
Just as we do, Jesus lived in a time of political, cultural and religious and unrest. At times, he spoke and acted in ways that violated “civil” norms of his day. There are times that Christians may be called to do the same in our times. What are some consideration for us to have in deciding our path? More on that next week.