Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Nasty Like Jesus? Use of Tough Rhetoric in Christianity

Prissy people don’t like Jesus. Jesus Christ was always saying things like this:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’

(Luke 13: 31-33)

A “big hug” Christian, whose image of Christ has more in common with Barney the Purple Dinosaur than the King of Kings, wishes Jesus had not been so unkind to Herod. Big Hugh Christians cannot help the feeling that it was unloving of Jesus to call Herod a “fox” or perhaps, like a woman who called me during a talk radio show offended by my use of the term “wolf” to describe an evil person, it was cruel to foxes for the Christ to compare them to Herod!

Whenever a tough article appears on Scriptorium Daily, some well meaning soul will write to wonder how we could be so unloving. Now it is perfectly possible that we are being unloving, but using tough rhetoric cannot be the infallible sign of this sin, or the Lord Christ is unloving!

What use is tough rhetoric? In Christ’s ministry, it often served to grab the attention of the listener and move him or her into the deeper teaching. It also could be used to accurately describe wicked people like Herod in order to reveal to the wicked man and the people around him the true nature of the person being described.

A Christian cannot consistently believe that he or she cannot use “tough talk” because the Sacred Scriptures do so all the time.

It is this “labeling” of others as wicked (as Christ often did with the “pharisees”), that is the most difficult for those of us who are not the son of God to use well. If there is a danger of becoming nicer than God, there is a greater danger of becoming nasty, something Jesus Christ never was.

There are Christians who are in no danger of being Barney, because they have become bestial dinosaurs ripping everything around them with brutal and vicious words and insults. They think they are “being like Christ,” the apostles, or the prophets, but they really are self-indulgent cowards who have mastered Jeremiah’s insults without his profound teaching, poetry, and prose.

Generally lightly armed numerically, spiritually, and academically, they confuse robust rhetoric with argument. Name calling replaces arguments instead of acting as sign post to argument or deeper things.

Of the two errors, the second is more dangerous than the first. Abuse of the tough language appeals to our desire to be gods. It is the temptation of Eden where, without care, we know “good and evil” and pronounce upon it confidently. Second, too many social niceties in the face of evil may make a man culpable for evil in a secondary sense, misuse of tough language does harm directly.

Evil may triumph when a good man is silent, but evil is done for certain when a man speaks viciously.

There should be another important limit to our use of such talk. In modern times, a little goes a long ways. The style of speech used in Jesus’ time is less persuasive to a modern audience. It was acceptable and even expected to use hyperbole a great deal and set up “straw men” in attacking a position. Aristotle did it. Plato did it.

Audiences understood what was being done and were not deceived by its use. It worked, but it does not work now. A sort-of-academic style is now favored in polite company in discussing hard questions. We want the attacks to sound fair. Where an ancient might glory in some good hyperbole, we are suspicious of it, preferring instead to mask our rhetorical assaults (and they are still there!) in a different style.

We have to acknowledge that socially acceptable styles of speech change over time. Rhetoric must be moral, but it must also be “useful.” Rhetoric acts to persuade as part of an overall argument. Christians cannot morally lie in order to persuade, such rhetoric is immoral so always wrong. Some styles of speech, however, are not immoral but become ineffective in different cultures.

For example, the Victorians enjoyed paragraphs of exquisite complexity loaded with adjectives and what to most twenty-first century Americans seems like an overload of emotional hype. There is nothing wrong (morally) with such rhetoric, but it is fairly ineffective to a modern audience. This is not to suggest that our approved styles of speech making are “better” or an “improvement,” but merely that our styles work best for us because they are our styles.

In my experience, Americans don’t respond well to name calling. We are an ironic age, if anything, but even irony can be overdone. A little Colbert goes a long way.

An effective Christian communicator would use certain rhetorical styles sparingly because they don’t work very often with the audience he or she is addressing. Christians who over use such talk often defend their courage when they should be questioning their cultural competence. Courageous ineffectual speech is no virtue and aping the style of Jesus while missing the point of that style is foolish.

Jesus may have used tough language, but he was never nasty. A nasty communicator leaves only the memory of his barbs, but a great teacher like Jesus leaves the lesson. The after taste of his great teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount, is not bitter, but blessed.

The two extremes, Barney and the beast, are not easy to avoid in any time, but perhaps are particularly difficult in an era where communication is so easy. Tough talk makes for good radio, or a fascinating blog, but does not wear well over time. If every evil or disagreement is labeled apostasy, or fascism, or communism, then nothing is left to say when real evil happens.

And since real evil does happen too much syrup is false and sickens an adult.

How can we avoid the extremes?

Modesty about our own virtue and knowledge, theological or otherwise, is a first test. Certainty is a rare gift for great men. The rest of us are almost surely deluding ourselves when we lose all sense of self-irony. The web site with only one tone: prophetic must be held to the Biblical standard for prophets: perfection.

The rest of us would do well (God help me!) to thunder less and suggest more.

Generally, tough rhetoric is best when it is applied to people in power or to self. Of course, since He was perfect, self-deprecating humor would have been difficult for Jesus, but He frequently attacked injustice and powerful people at great personal risk.

Given that we are not the Son of God, pointing out faults by revealing our own sin and God’s grace to us is almost always appropriate and well received. Putting down those who are weaker is distasteful and often self-indulgent. Attacking those, like the mob or the powerful, that have an ability to harm self is generally safer.

A little tough rhetoric is good, but frequent use of it is a danger sign in our cultural context. In my experience, the guru or sect leader with something to hide frequently resorts to calling his opponents names. In a church, it is the pastor who is “against” more often than he is “for.” Beware the leader who cannot even break for Christmas in his jeremiads . . . most people who think they are Jeremiah are just hateful.

Finally, the Golden Rule is always helpful. If we were wrong, then how would we wish to be treated? Most people are not Hitler, Stalin, or Bin Laden. With most of us moderate language is more helpful and redemptive than extreme rhetoric. That is just the way our culture has wired us.

Great evil does exist and sometimes we will be called to comment on it. In the cases of great evil, such as the bombing of the World Trade Center or the actions of the Klan, plain talk is demanded. The Klan is evil. Terrorism is wicked. Even at that, we cannot hate the sinner, but only his sin as Christians.

So we are left, as usual, walking a narrow, but plain way.

Tough language?

Yes, a bit.


At times.

A bit of mockery of the Devil and his works?

Of course.

But all this in moderation, just as in all things.

We are not, after all, the Son of God in whose hand lies final judgment. I must try to write as I pray and my deepest prayer should be: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This cry for mercy for self should be matched by a longing for mercy for all sinners in this broken world.

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