What do Westboro Baptist Church, a liberal columnist at Slate arguing for polygamy, and abortionist Kermit Gosnell have in common?
They are all specific examples within a broader class, and they are all almost completely obscured by rhetoric’s tug of war. Both sides stake a claim to these kinds examples, contorting it to fit their argument du jour. It is no wonder that Nietzsche was driven to conclude that all truth is a power struggle when it seems like any fact can support completely opposite conclusions. But Nietzsche was wrong because there is real truth and getting to it requires more than mere logical plausibility. In this dark and complex world, we who would witness to the truth are reminded of Jesus’ warning that He was sending us sheep in amidst the wolves. It is remarkable then that the Lord told us that in this campaign we must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Being wise as serpents means not being naive, but judging accurately. Notice that Jesus did not say be “crafty” or “sly” as a snake. Many translations render the word φρόνιμοι (phronimoi) as “shrewd,” but I think shrewdness now has a negative connotation, something like cunning bordering on dishonesty. The word is elsewhere translated “prudent” and is rooted in the concept of regulating our outward behavior in accordance with our inward perspective. The HELPS word study sums up the sense of the word as “how we size things up.” Jesus is saying that we need to evaluate things carefully—He is not saying that we are to be tricksters or sophists.
Innocent as doves may be the easier half of that coin. One bad apple ruins the bunch according to an old aphorism. But we, as Christians and the heirs of centuries of common law right, do not practice guilt by association. Every time there is a horrific crime or act of terrorism, many people rush to proclaim that the action is not indicative of the broader movement and condemn those who make hasty conclusions. It is entirely appropriate that this is our default position—we should assume that the example is an aberration, a mad exception that does not reflect anything beyond the wickedness of the perpetrator. The word for innocent (ἀκέραιοι) can also mean harmless, and we know that being reckless with the details can be incredibly harmful.
Still, we must be discerning. Not all examples are aberrations. Instead of recklessly holding up the incident as evidence for our own prejudices, we must ask, as objectively as possible, what the specific example really means. And there are some situations in which we should draw broader conclusions.
An actor or group may be especially representative of a larger movement. Sometimes someone is a spokesperson for others, someone either specifically authorized to speak on their behalf or with authority over the group. So when a liberal columnist on Slate argues quite seriously for legalizing polygamy, many supporters of traditional marriage will want to cite to that article as an authoritative confession of marriage reformers’ true goals. But Jillian Keenan is not the official spokeswoman of the marriage equality movement. Most reformers vehemently deny that polygamy is desirable or inevitable based on their position—indeed, many find the suggestion offensive. Whether recognition of polygamous marriage inexorably follows from recognizing same sex marriages is beside the point. You can argue that it is conceptually incoherent to include homosexual relationships and exclude poly-amorous ones; what you cannot say is that everyone on Facebook with red equal signs is really gunning for polygamy.
An interesting twist on this one is when people claim that an authoritative spokesperson really isn’t so. A recent example is the repeated claims that Catholic bishops do not speak for Catholics. It is certainly true that many Catholic parishioners disagree with the hierarchy, at least in practice. But Catholic doctrine isn’t formed by referendum, so it is something of a red herring to say that a lot of lay Catholics are willing to violate authoritative teachings.
Alternatively, one person might be a token of a broader phenomenon. When Kevin DeYoung at The Gospel Coalition says that the call of the gospel is for everyone, he is not acting as a spokesman for TGC. But he is fairly representative of reformed-ish evangelicals, and so it is reasonable to take his views as also representative. We can point to him in support of claims about that group. But when Westboro Baptist tweets “Westboro Baptist Church to picket funerals of those dead by Boston Bombs! GOD SENT THE BOMBS IN FURY OVER [gay slur] MARRIAGE! #PraiseGod,” are they a token of American evangelicalism? No one argues that. In fact, the mad ravings of Westboro Baptist have almost no role in discussions of American Christianity, #PraiseGod.
Recently, author and activist Masha Gessen said on radio that gay marriage would change the institution of marriage so as to destroy it. The first instinct of marriage traditionalists is to say that she is giving the game away for all the reformers. I think this is also implied when, for example, Ed Whelan called the polygamy article “candid.” It is true that Gessen “admitted” something, and it is accurate to call Keenan’s article candid. But the suggestion is that they are being uniquely forthcoming when their compadres are being coy or dishonest. There might be evidence of this—indeed, Gessen seems to think “fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we are going to do.”
Robert George, a prominent academic at Princeton and Harvard Law School, demonstrates wise and innocent “sizing up” in addressing to Gessen’s claims. In his short piece, he credits her intellectual acumen, contextualizes her place within the movement (“anything but a fringe figure”), and highlights the astonishing nature of her claim by pondering the reaction if a Catholic politician had said the exact same thing. He identifies other prominent advocates who share her view, establishing that this is not a one-off oddity but another iteration of a real phenomenon. And he points out the silence of almost all others. George also weaves together some of the threads I have discussed, essentially saying, “This person is not an outlier and her statements resonate with what I have long argued is a conceptual component of arguments for gay marriage. So maybe we should pay attention.”
George’s evidence may be inaccurate (he doesn’t link or cite in the short blog post, so I can’t easily verify). But the point is that he does not take to the pages of First Things to baldly claim that Gessen’s statements prove the worst about the Prop 8 plaintiffs or other gay marriage advocates. The comments on his thread are rife with “she isn’t a spokesperson for the movement!” type objections. That was not George’s claim, and he carefully put her and her words in their proper context. Again, there may be factual problems that render his conclusions inaccurate. The important thing is that we must always ask and answer, as George does, what does this statement or action by a single person really mean?
In light of the ridiculous coverage of the Boston Marathon attacks (3 dead, no 12!, no really 3; it was a Saudi student; let’s hope it was a white man), it is worth noting that oftentimes prudence and innocence means just shutting up and saying nothing. We should not let abuses of logic foreclose to us prudent analysis, nor should hasty judgment deter us from proper judgment. But neither should we forget James’s admonition: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”
The twin goals Jesus sets for us—wisdom and innocence—are synergistic, not in tension. Wise thinking and prudent action will facilitate our innocence in public discourse. The trick is to pull it off.