The Place to Begin

Jim Daly, Russ Moore, and Sam Rodriguez have a jointly authored piece, and I’ve clipped a bit of it below, about how we speak of and to one another. I say this is the place to begin, but does it do justice to the biblical rhetoric where we find Jesus willing to refer to some people as dogs and swine, or to his brother, James, who is vigilant about the tongue but not afraid to call some folks adulterers for their moral failures?

What’s your wisdom on this piece? A place to begin or a place to stay?

By Jim DalyRussell D. Moore and Samuel Rodriguez, Special to CNN

(CNN) – We’ve all heard it, since we were schoolkids knocking about on the playground: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” A saying with good intent, to be sure, designed to steel young minds, and hearts, against the inevitable bruises that come with sharing childhood and adolescence with other children and adolescents.

But did any of us ever believe it was true? Even today – now that we’re older, hopefully wiser, having experienced the heartaches of everyday life more fully than we may have as kids – is it a statement we can stand behind?

We don’t think so.

Just about every day, a quick scan of the news headlines or a couple of keystrokes for a Google search serve up stories proving this old adage false. The evidence can come from picket signs, talk-show sound bites or something as short and simple as a 140-character tweet.

Clashes in Arizona over immigration policy. Public arguments over homosexuality in California. Christians and atheists lobbing verbal firebombs at each other in Washington, D.C. Sometimes, those at the center of the name-calling are famous. Most of the time, they aren’t. Well-known or not, their actions prove a singular truth: Names do hurt – and not just those on the receiving end of them.

To borrow the point of another, more accurate old aphorism: What we say about others reveals more about ourselves than the people we’re talking about. This is especially true for Christians, who encounter any number of verses in the Bible that point to how “sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness,” as the English Standard Version translation of Proverbs 16:21 puts it.

Jesus, as tended to be his way, was a bit more direct: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken,” he said in Matthew 12:36, adding: “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

So, no, it is not news to any of us that we live in an electrocharged public square.

But it should be convicting to all Christians when we find ourselves contributing to this maelstrom. Derogatory terms for other human beings – regardless of how widely their views differ from ours or, more importantly, from the truths of Scripture – should never pass our lips. To call it rhetorical pornography, for the debasement it engenders, is not an overstatement.


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  • Joe Canner

    One of the most tragic exceptions to “sticks and stones” is the verbal bullying of young (often GLBT) people that results in mental anguish and suicide. I’m surprised that wasn’t mentioned in the article. Perhaps they are focusing on the “public square,” but what happens in the public square usually trickles down to private discourse (or perhaps the arrow goes the other way).

    As to your question, Scot: most of Jesus’ harsh language was aimed at the religious elite and he was the only one qualified to judge them. I’ll let others explain the few isolated incidents where Jesus and others used harsh language in other contexts, but in the meantime it seems the preponderance of evidence points to Christians using gentle language. I, for one, do not feel comfortable trying to follow the example of Jesus or James when it comes to the appropriateness of harsh language.

  • scotmcknight

    Not true, though often said: Yes, Jesus used harsh language of the hypocritical elites. But what of hogs and swine in Matt 7, or of the dogs under the table in Matt 15, or treat someone as a tax collector and sinners? … those are potent labels.

    Preponderance, that I totally agree with it.

    The issue for me is not even how we speak today. Many of us operate with the suggestions in this article as a matter of course. The issue is how to square this with the rhetoric of Jesus and James, not to mention Paul and Revelation?

  • RJS

    Well, I struggle with this in part, not because of the public square, but because of the way we deal with disagreement in the church. (Not to disregard the problem of the public square which is also important.)

    Was Ken Ham right to attack Pete Enns at homeschool conferences? After all Ham did it because he thinks the very gospel and the future of the church are at stake.

    Should I be in attack mode, belittling and ridiculing those who disagree with me?

    Is this the take home message from those passages quoting Jesus or from the writing of James?

  • Kyle

    Language can be tricky here, what with heavy Subject-object identities. “You are wrong” and “You are a jerk” are often taken by the offended (or intended by the offender) to mean a through-and-through as well as unchanging quality. This is why insults can appear to encroach upon ground level human worth. But those exact same formulations can be issued as helpful ways of delineating, addressing, and eventually correcting a viewpoint, behavior, or belief of another. Jesus’ kingdom-speak (which precipitates new creation) cannot be separated from condemnation — ie judgement is tethered to renewal. To modify a phrase of yours, Scot, the harsh (but necessary) word is not the final word. Conversely, how much of our language, both “good” and “bad,” is ultimately partitative?

  • Joe Canner

    Scot, I’ve never seen Matt 7:6 as a model for the words we use when we interact with specific people, but rather a metaphor or a proverb for generally what to say and to whom. Am I missing something?

    As to the more general point, I think Matt 18 and Galatians 6 should be our guiding texts for how to confront sin within the Church. I think we are on shaky ground if we try to justify using harsh words with other Christians in public or with non-Christians in general.

  • Adam

    Shouldn’t everything be shouted at the other person in German? 🙂

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Well, when I saw Scot post this, I knew what direction the wind was going to blow. I mean, who of us have no been at the end of someone else’s rant, someone else’s curses, someone else’s abusive speech. Therefore, everyone play nice and no, your not Jesus or the disciples or the prophets, or Iraneaus, or Luther, and the list just goes on ad nauseum.

    Forget about prophetic denunciations (your no prophet like Amos), forget about satire and biting humor to exaggerate by Jesus (your not worthy to tie his shoes), forget about Proverbs and the wisdom tradition that makes fun of sloth and our misbehavior (maybe we will get the point some other way?), forget about Elijah railing against idolatry (we’re not that bad nor is idolatry today).

    If were honest, we need to ask hard questions like by what standard are we using when we say we are to imitate this part of Christ’s demeanor and refuse to imitate another part of it? Let’s at least be honest to admit we are selecting what we like or dislike, what makes us feel comfortable versus what makes us uncomfortable. And I know the abuses of all this are legion but I still have to ask, “Are we throwing our the baby even if the bathwater is very dirty?” I know there are abuses and extremes but can Christians ever use satire, irony, or even strong words to shake people out of their complacency?

    The truth is Jesus is described as a lion and a lamb in the book of Revelation. My problem is I am often a lion when I should be a lamb and a lamb when I should be a lion. I don’t know about you but all I know is it’s much easier for me to do the gentle discourse thing than to do the bold confrontational thing that Jesus and other Christians have done throughout the ages.
    This topic haunts me even if it doesn’t you!

  • DanS

    Somebody needs to tell Tony Jones and Frank Schaeffer.

    Today’s post from Tony, “Misogynists Urged to Up Their Game” referring to Piper. Yesterday after pro-gay activists vandalized Mark Driscoll’s church, “Driscoll may be a bigot, but Angry Queers are stupid, stupid people.” The day after Chuck Colson’s death, “Colson was for emergent what John Piper’s tweet was for Rob Bell’s book.” Comment followed from Franky Schaeffer’s post on Colson, which eulogized: “Evangelical Christianity lost one of its most beloved and bigoted homophobic and misogynistic voices with the death of Charles W. “Chuck” Colson,

    “Misogynist”, “bigot”, “homophobic” hurled at those he disagrees with, all within the last week. “What we say about others reveals more about ourselves than the people we’re talking about” indeed.

  • Tim Seitz-Brown

    We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray them, or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light. (Martin Luther, 8th commandment explanation from the Small Catechism)

    So we ask:
    Is it true?
    Is it kind?
    Is it necessary?
    Does it heal?
    Does it bring life?
    Does it build up?
    Is it loving?
    Is it Christ like?

    I am becoming more cautious with accusatory, blaming, scapegoating words. As I read the scriptures, there is an “accuser” and when he goes too far he becomes evil and murderous.


  • Tom F.

    The problem seems to center around in-group/out-group issues.

    I don’t particularly want it to be this way, but it seems to split pretty evenly along these lines. Jesus says that if you call a brother (in-group) a fool, than you are in danger of judgment. But for those who are “out”, like the Pharisees, Jesus uses harsher language (snakes, brood of vipers). Yes, Jesus is revolutionary about who is in and out. But at least on first glance, it seems that if you are “out”, than it is appropriate to use exclusionary language. Would love to hear a bigger understanding of this from someone.

    The comments from James only further illustrate this point. James is warning people who are becoming too friendly with the world. The language (“adulterers”) is forecasting that if they continue with their association with the out-group “the world”, than they will no longer have in-group status (they will become enemies of God).

    Again, I don’t particularly want it to be this way. In other places, Jesus emphasizes love for enemy, and he notes that even pagans love those who are their friends. I sometimes am frustrated with this harsh biblical language. I want to say back to scripture, “Well, even pagans can speak with nice language to their in-group.”

    Sigh. Would love to hear other, better ways of thinking about this.

  • The thread is a perfect illustration of our issue: there is a very serious tension, and I see serious because it is so often found, in Scripture that we are not to judge (condemn, denounce, etc) but we have to be discerning so that we can say things are wrong.

    I’ll be honest: this problem haunted me the whole time I wrote the commentary on James. The whole time because James is totally against judgmentalism (4:11-12) and sees the tongue as a world of poison, but can flat-out rail against people in 4:1-4 or so and then very clearly in 4:13-17 and esp in 5:1-6. That’s the tension that I wonder is fully present in the CNN article.

    Again, having affirmed the ambiguity of this tension I agree with the direction of the CNN article. Loving others means speaking to them in ways that are loving. I am as irritated as the commenters in this thread about vituperative rhetoric, labeling, careless accusation, etc..

    So, here’s how I would attempt to put this together:

    There’s a time to denounce.
    There’s a time to discuss.
    Rarely the formerly, always the latter.

  • DRT

    I feel this is cultural. Words in my parent’s house are not the same as words in my in-laws house. If we said that someone was a sinner or whatever in my parents house then the gates of hell would be opening. The inlaws, it is something he say before breakfast just to get warmed up.

    Culture is everything in this.

  • Tim Seitz-Brown

    Yes, there is a time to denounce. Personal and sytemic sin run rampant. How can it be that billions starve while others live in gluttony? How can we complain about insults and slights while struggle with slave wages, funding our comfort?

    Yet, if I rant, rage, ridicule, and rip “perpetrators” with vicious attacks (even if “right”), then the “bad guys” might tune me out without a hearing. So judgment is offered for the sake of healing repentance. Rather than accusations (recall that Satan is an Accuser), it is better to clearly state observations without evaluation, followed by stating needs, hopes, requests. I do not see the value in demonizing others, say, even a Kony. His actions are indeed despicable. And he has been hurt. He is transmitting hurt. He is passing on the pain. Instead, Jesus invites us to transform pain, shaping it towards healing.

    I see that, even in harshness, Jesus is seeking healing for us. Thus, in a few notes above, I suggested discernment questions. When I listen to FOX or MSNBC, I might here truth spoken, but without grace/compassion. It is about beating the Other instead of growing and learning together. There is no sense of silence. No humble discernment. No prayer for the good of an enemy. Only dishing out dirt in order to destroy.

    I will read through the Gospels again, looking at the rhetoric of Jesus. I will pray more over this.

    I confess. I lament the words that seek to destroy. I am ready to fast from a place of lament. And now… I practice silence………

  • Tom F.

    Good thoughts, Scot. Thanks for going a bit more in depth.

  • Scot, when I was studying w/ Craig Blomberg, I realized that James ties the poison of the tongue in 3:8 with the rust of wealth hoarded rather than paid out fairly to workers in 5:2-3. (same underlying Greek word) The key is discerning which is the point at which the venomous snake is causing evil to fester. I researched this w/ a relative (Dr. Anthony Tu, Prof. Emeritus at CSU), an internationally known microbiologist of natural toxins, and he confirmed that the Palestinian viper bite contains one of the venoms that causes tissue degeneration and decay – akin to rust decaying metal. Craig later found a similar citation from a German theologian which was referenced in his commentary.

    Knowing that we may be called to speak truth into uncomfortable situations & to hostile people, when I’ve worked w/ people struggling w/ conflict (including moi), I’ve strongly recommended prayer until they can spiritually sense that they’re speaking from love “in Christ” rather than out of anger, self-interest, hurt, retribution, etc. Some of Jesus’ words do appear harsh when we read them out of our POV; yet, that we don’t know his tones or even how his body posture reflected to whom he was directing his remarks. Seeing how his brother James dealt w/ this balance, I think he saw truth as the surgical knife to cut to the heart of evil (1:14-15 paralleling 4:13-17 which leads them into the sinfulness described in 5:1-6). I see James’ epistle as a series of cycles being birthed – from thoughts, to words to deeds – and he has to name what characterizes a righteous cycle (e.g., in 2:12-13, or 3:13, 17-18), and what characterizes an unrighteous cycle (e.g., beginning 3:5, 4:1, 4:13…)

    We always have to keep the goal in focus – is our tongue/are our words aimed to bring God’s grace & truth into darkness (5:19-20), or are they to serve our own ends. It seems we can only discern by the fruit in someone’s life, which ends are being served (3:17-18, 5:7-11).

  • DRT

    I thought this write up on Slactivist was good.

    I particularly liked this part:

    That’s a very polite statement, very refined, very civil. It avoids even a hint of “derogatory terms for other human beings” or of “rhetorical pornography.”
    That’s how the CBMW works. In eminently polite, refined and civil terms, the group argues that all women have a “role and function” that is intrinsically subordinate to men.
    And if anyone responds that such a view is simple bigotry and misogynist hogwash, they will cluck their tongues and shake their heads sadly at such an unbecoming violation of the rules of “civility.”
    What they don’t understand, and what all three authors of that CNN op-ed don’t seem to understand, is that no slur, epithet or derogatory term could ever be as uncivil as the defense of legal discrimination.

    Form has overtaken substance in many areas. Acting nice is good enough for some, but not for me. I would rather you acted harsh but were nice. That’s what culture is like where I come from.

  • Tom F.

    To DRT and others in the same vein, its very different to use harsh and condemning language with a practice (discrimination) than against the people who practice it. Clearly without being able to use negative language about practices, all discernment and judgment would end. Prophetic calls to justice become impossible. That is not civility.

    But, I think this is clearly different than attacking the persons involved directly. I can understand that discrimination is serious enough that it ought to be attacked with harsh language. I can see how it may be necessary to protest this injustice by leaving fellowship with Christians whose discrimination reaches levels that are oppressive. I think there is a way to communicate all of that in love, and to be authentic about it and not suppressing anger or bitterness. But all of this is very different than attacking them personally.

    I just don’t understand what is added by the personal, character attacks that can’t be accomplished through criticism of other’s actions and prophetic demonstration against those actions. If discrimination is awful, say so, and often. But attacking someone’s character or person doesn’t seem to be helpful, and seems like relational violence.

    Whatever. I can hear other Christians I have known in my head saying that this “civility” is all because of being a liberal, mushy, spineless sort of Christian. DRT, go ahead and go tell the CBMW that they are misogynists. I knew a lot of CBMW sort of folks, and I can assure you that many of them would relish the chance to exchange epithets. Go knock yourselves out.

  • DRT

    Tom F.

    I knew a lot of CBMW sort of folks, and I can assure you that many of them would relish the chance to exchange epithets. Go knock yourselves out.

    Unfortunately I have not figured out if it is my pig-headedness or my desire and thirst for righteousness that causes me to continue to knock myself out. I learn by doing an unfortunately I have not done enough to learn this lesson. I see it as a problem that has not been solved…and that is irresistible….

  • DRT

    Goodness. The blockquote formatting is a bit bold….