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Three reflections on political correctness and cultural conversation

I recently saw an internet meme with an image of a 2-foot-tall book with several thousand pages. On it was the caption, “Things People Find Offensive: 2016 Edition.” I would have found the image funny had it not been for the fact that its message was painfully true.

Okay. Truth be told, I still found it funny.  However, many people aren’t laughing—and understandably so—as one wrong public statement or tweet can land you quarantined in the politically incorrect hall of shame. And once there, you’d probably be shamed some more while undergoing a public crash course on what you should’ve said if you had any common sense. More than likely, you’d eventually be “farewelled” from relevance, and maybe even fired from your job.

That’s tough stuff. I get it. So what is political correctness, exactly?

Settling on a singular, succinct definition has been a difficult task. For the average evangelical frustrated by the current state of affairs, to be politically correct probably means something like the following: adherence to language, policies or measures which are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society—particularly, marginalized and minority groups.

Simple enough? Absolutely not!

It is undeniable that, for a whole host of reasons, our current cultural conversation is in a state of crisis. From university campuses to political campaigns to the public square, we find ourselves seemingly incapable of amicable exchange. To be sure, the situation is a bit more complex than a mere call for civility. Many a monograph and popular-level article have been written in an attempt to trace the historical development of what is now our PC society. While some choose to highlight the genealogy of an economic Marxism gone cultural, others focus their analysis on the state of affairs on college campuses—one piece in particular having diagnosed the problem as a coddling of collegiate minds. I think perspectives such as these offer interesting insights that need to be seriously considered as we contend for a more sensibly sensitive society.

However, I think that evangelical Christians would do well to be mindful of a few things as we seek to engage.

There are two extremes to be avoided, not one

I often hear Christians decry political correctness in favor of a climate where they can “say whatever they feel/want.” Every time I hear that phrase—or a derivative of it—two thoughts come to mind: first, a question, “what exactly is it that you want to say?” and, second, I’m reminded that the goal of a distinctly Christian dialect has never been unbridled speech.

The biblical witness is clear. “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart,” warns James, “this person’s religion is worthless” (Ja. 1:26). Likewise the apostle Paul instructs, “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).

While censored speech is certainly problematic, unsanctified speech is just as poisonous; our outrage should be against both. Far from saying whatever we feel, Christians are called to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders,” and to “let [our] speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6).

Clarity and thoughtfulness are helpful

While I suggested previously that civility alone would not remedy the problem, it certainly helps. Arguably, one of the things that our PC culture has forced evangelicals to do is to reflect a level of clarity in our public square commentary that, prior to this moment, we felt little pressure to do.  Previously, we could not only count on interlocutors to be charitable in their listening, but we could assume their familiarity with, and even partiality to, our rhetoric and reasoning. Indeed, times have changed. And, ironically, many of our efforts to avoid giving offense and being misunderstood—albeit painstaking and frustrating at time—have resulted in fresh and helpful articulations of some of our most deeply held convictions and their resultant sociopolitical implications.

Yet, I believe that there is more that we can do. As we rightly critique political correctness, we have to be careful to not subsume too much under its heading. Sometimes I fear that what many evangelicals label as the outlandish demands of the PC culture are often challenges to simply be a little more thoughtful, culturally aware, and historically informed. For instance, it is possible to discuss the immigration issue in such a way where concern for the rule of law can be expressed and the decency and dignity of our image-bearing neighbors can be affirmed. Similarly, to seldom acknowledge racial offenses is as equally problematic as seeing them everywhere. As one former presidential candidate recently noted, there is a difference between giving into political correctness and simply seeking to be correct.

I think a Pauline principle can be instructive here as we think about how our Great Commission task dovetails with a call to be winsome with our words.  “I have become all things to all people,” Paul says, “that by all means I might save some.” This is the point, after all. Why should we lean into a run amok PC culture rather than retreat? It is ultimately a question of what our predominant evangelical posture will be. Will we simply be mad, or will we be on mission?

Challenges remain, but they, too, are gospel opportunities

With all that has been said it yet needs to be made clear that serious challenges are on the horizon. Evangelicals who hold to a biblical sexual ethic, for example, will continue to face increasing criticism, ostracization and threats to religious liberty. When the culture embraces and affirms that which the scriptures clearly condemn, we must obey God rather than men. And we must realize that such conviction will come with a cost—a cost that we have hopefully already counted.

And yet, how we steward can bring disrepute to what we steward.  Yes, right is right, but there is such a thing as being wrong-right. Now more than ever, Christians need to evidence an understanding of that. Elsewhere, Dr. Russell Moore has expressed that the sexual revolution will inevitably yield its own refugees. The Lord’s church must be ready—with both its gospel-fidelity and Christ-like character bearing witness—to receive these individuals with words of grace and truth. Our only offense should be the offense of the gospel.

Ultimately, a run amok political correctness can be neither satisfied nor sustained. While being deeply sensitive to injustices, racial and otherwise, I must admit that I find it troubling how an uncritical culture of offendedness is being fashioned. It seems that the status of “offended” is legitimized simply by virtue of it being claimed. And the offender is mandated to do penance to the degree dictated without question or qualification. These kinds of transactions set awful precedents for public square interaction.

Nevertheless, it is important that we, as evangelicals, realize our dual role in such a chaotic PC culture—advocate and herald. Advocate because we have come to know the one who is just, and therefore we deplore injustice wherever it may be found. Herald because the one who is just is also justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. And, speaking of offense, we’ve all offended him.

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