By / Jul 13

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib writes that America, in one of the most tumultuous years in its history, is suffering from a “goodwill deficit.” This is, he says, “a growing tendency to see those with whom you disagree as not merely wrong, but evil. There is a diminishing willingness to believe that the person on the other side of the debate—any debate—is well intentioned.”

You’ve probably experienced this as you scroll your social media timeline or even in conversations (probably text or Zoom these days) with friends. There is a temptation for us to think that the “other side” is not just crazy, but dangerous. And every day there is ample evidence to suggest that perhaps this thesis is right. Daily, our news intake is curated in such a way that we get fresh reminders of the extremes from either the left or the right. 

I happen to be conservative, so my bent leads me to view liberals with suspicion and my own “side” as perfectly reasonable. It’s harder to see the darker impulses when it is wrapped in political philosophy I tend to affirm. But this kind of bias—this wanting to believe the best about my team and believe the worst about the other team—doesn’t just affect our politics. It seems to be affecting the way we see others who disagree with us theologically, or perhaps those who belong to other tribes. 

What’s more, our sources of information and the communications platforms we use often incentivize this kind of zero-sum outlook. Social media companies prize attention and engagement, which requires conflict. Media organizations need sensationalism and clickbait in order to get eyeballs and advertising and subscriptions. And the way to get ahead, to build an audience, is to be provocative. 

A Christian way to speak

But should Christians engage this way? Scripture gives us quite a bit of guidance on the way we should conduct ourselves, the way we use words, and how we treat those with whom we disagree. On the one hand, public polemics and courageous speech is encouraged, almost required, of a follower of Jesus. Paul urges Timothy, over and over again, to stand fast, stand up, to courageously defend the truth. Peter, writing to the first-century church, exhorts them to stand fast in the face of opposition. And in the Upper Room, Jesus warned his disciples that to follow him would lead to persecution and death. 

There should be a distinctly Christian way of standing up for what we believe.

And yet the disciple of Jesus is called to a certain kind of otherworldly gentleness. In every single list of qualifications for Christian leadership, Paul lists gentleness. Sometimes he even warns against brawling and being quarrelsome (2 Tim. 2:24). Peter urged God’s people to clothe their polemics in gentleness and kindness (1 Pet. 3:15). Neither of these men were known for their cowardice; both died martyrs’ deaths. 

So we should speak the truth in love. There should be a distinctly Christian way of standing up for what we believe. But what does that look like in a digital age, when the means of publishing our opinions are so quick and easy, with a few taps of the thumb? Some advocate leaving social media platforms all together, and perhaps that’s wise for some. But the Internet is here to stay. We are not going back to 1950. 

So, how can we can apply Scripture to the way we engage online? 

1. Be slow to speak: First, we should follow James 1:19 and be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Before we retweet or post that story that confirms our worst ideas about those with whom we disagree, we might get the whole story, wait a day, or not say anything at all. Regardless of what anyone says, we are not required to speak on every topic all the time on every platform. 

2. Be measured: Second, we might consider how we want to speak and ask ourselves how our words might be misunderstood. 

3. Be accountable: Third, we might ask a friend or two before we post. I have found it helpful to have a text thread of close friends where I can try out my hottest takes. Thankfully most of that never sees the public. Community and accountability are helpful. 

4. Be reasonable: Perhaps, most importantly, we should consider Philippians 4 which urges us to “let [our] graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” Some translations render this, “let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” The idea of being reasonable seems so out of fashion. Love, however, requires us to strive to be reasonable. 

Writing to a warring congregation of Corinthians, Paul says that love “believes all things.” Love requires the benefit of the doubt. It demands that we not see the worst in that person we disagree with. This is not a natural impulse for sinners. It’s a supernatural impulse and something God has to do in us. But it’s sorely needed in our world. 

Sadly there is very little of this even in the church. When controversies arise or when someone misspeaks, there seems to be a digital mob waiting to proclaim their own self-righteousness and heap public scorn. It seems we get up every day ready to cancel someone, to remind the world of how much better and more righteous we are then them. Before we know it, with a few keystrokes, we’ve joined a digital mob. 

There is a better way. The way of love. This doesn’t mean we never engage in meaningful public debates. This doesn’t mean we don’t write public polemics. This doesn’t mean we don’t hold the powerful accountable. But we should resist the urge to cancel, to hurt, and to crush. The people on the other side of our screens are not avatars, but human beings. They are not the sum total of their one bad tweet. They have families who might one day Google their names. 

There is a lot we cannot control about our troubled world and the polarization that grips the nation. But what we can do is show a bit of love and reasonableness when we engage online. We can pause before we post. And we might consider that we are not always as right as we think we are.  

Check out Daniel’s new book, A Way with Words: Using Our Online Conversations for Good.

By / Jul 1

We live in an age where “speaking your mind” is considered a virtue and a hailed as a sign of good leadership. But is this trait something the Bible comends? Should Christians be known for “speaking their mind?”

There are several truths about our speech we should consider from Scripture:

  1. The Bible commends honest speech. Proverbs 6:17 names a “lying tongue” as one of the things God hates. The prophet Zechariah instructed God’s people: “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another. Paul commands the new covenant people of Ephesus, “Let everyone of you speak truth to his neighbor.” (Ephesians 4:25). Lying is a sin, the product of a fallen nature. Lying is the work of the enemy (John 8:44). So truthful speech is the sign of a redeemed heart.
  2. The Bible commends truthful speech for rebuke. Faithful, the Proverbs says, are the wounds of a friend (Proverbs 27:6). Flattery is the tool, not of someone looking to deepen a relationship but to leverage proximity for personal gain (Proverbs 29:5). God used the courage of the prophet Nathan to confront David over his sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:17). Jesus in Matthew 18 gives instructions on redemptive confrontation designed to restore a sinful brother into loving community (Matthew 18). Paul considers this a sign of love, from one brother or sister, to another (Galatians 6:1).
  3. The Bible commends public arguments against sin and heresy. Jesus very publically, throughout the gospels, confronted errant religious leaders. When the heart of the gospel message was at stake, Paul was unafraid to confront Peter publically (Galatians 2:11-13). And much of the New Testament, the inspired canon of Scripture, consists of public letters that contain, at times, stinging rebuke of sin. Paul says that polemics are not only important within the church, at times, but also without, as we are tasked with engaging the reigning worldview arguments and presenting alternative, biblical worldview (2 Corinthians 10:5).
  4. The Bible seems to commend the use of satire and other forms of creative engagement. Elijah playfully taunted the false prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:27). Jesus employed the use of parables, metaphors, and similes in communicating truth. Paul was often acerbic in his rebuke of the Corinthians. Sharply worded polemics, uplifting satire, and, at times, sarcasm, can be employed in a way that reflects faithful Christian witness. However, this must be done within the boundaries of what is considered civil and wise speech (see below).
  5. The Bible commends civility and respect in speech. In the Scriptures, kindness, respect, and good manners are not simply “nice” things for certain people, but are considered Christian virtues. Peter, in a letter written to address the persecution and marginalization of Christians, exhorts God’s people to be both courageous and civil (1 Peter 3:15). Later Peter reminds us to treat every single human being with dignity (1 Peter 2:17). In the Pastoral Epistles, you will notice that one of the cornerstone characteristics of qualified church leaders is gentleness (Titus 1; 1 Timothy 3).
  6. The Bible commends wise and informed speech. The way we speak is a oft-repeated theme in Scripture. James devotes almost an entire chapter to the power of the tongue (James 3). Words have power. Words matter. Words can either be life-giving or life-crushing. King David’s prayer was for a mouth that offered words that were “acceptable” in the sight of God (Psalm 19:14). Proverbs affirms the value of applying just the right word in the right moment (Proverbs 25:11) and, like James (James 1:19), rebukes those who speak before thinking (Proverbs 17:28; 29:20).
  7. The Bible says that the mouth is a good barometer of the heart. Luke records Jesus words: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45). Words are not neutral; they reflect either good or evil. Nobody can really say, “I didn’t mean that.” It’s better to say, when we misspeak, “Those words come from an unsanctified part of my heart.” What’s more, speaking my mind may not reflect speaking that is true or virtuous, because the Christian mind is in constant state of needing to be renewed by the gospel (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 10:5).
  8. The Bible commends the wisdom of not sharing everything with everyone all the time. Proverbs says trustworthy people keep confidential information confidential and it is a sign of low character to reveal secrets (Proverbs 11:3). Later, Proverbs extols the “prudent man” who knows to keep information to himself and rebukes the “heart of fools that speak folly” (Proverbs 12:23). Sharing everything all the time to anyone who listens is not a sign of “authenticity” but a sign of foolishness.
  9. The Bible commends humility as a sign of grace. “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” – this maxim is mentioned three times in Scripture (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6,1; 1 Peter 5:5). What does this have to do with our speech? I tells us, I believe that graceful, measured, civil speech is a sign of God’s grace and proud, boastful speech is a sign of God’s resistance. Humility means speaking with recognition of our own fallenness. It means resisting the urge to speak out of turn. It means we have the self-awareness to know if we are the right person to speak on a particular issue at a particular time.
  10. The Bible commends speech that edifies. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, says that Christians can either speak words that destroy or words that build, words that are given with a desire to build up the body of Christ or words that are wielded as carnal weapons of destruction (Ephesians 4:29). There is a difference, even, between verbal and written engagement meant to crush and winsome polemics meant to inform or rebuke.

So, is “speaking your mind” a Christian virtue? Not if “speaking your mind” implies unfiltered, uninformed foolish talk that hurts and destroys. Let’s pray for Holy Spirit power to seek after God in the way we use the gift of language and pray for repentance when our mouths reveal as-yet unsanctified parts of the heart.

By / Jul 7

What just happened?

Fort Des Moines Church of Christ of Des Moines, Iowa, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission to stop “the government from censoring the church’s teaching on biblical sexuality and from forcing the church to open its restrooms and showers to members of the opposite sex.”

What is the Iowa Civil Rights Commission doing to churches?

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission interprets the section of the Iowa Civil Rights Act pertaining to public accommodations in a way that would force churches to allow individuals access to church restrooms, shower facilities, and changing rooms based on his or her gender identity, irrespective of biological sex.

The law prohibits any public facility from denying access to “accommodations, advantages, facilities, services, or privileges” to any person based on numerous factors, including gender identity. This means that public facilities in Iowa must allow people who identify as transgender to use showers and restrooms of their choosing.

Doesn’t the law provide an exemption for churches and other religious organizations?

The law states that it shall not apply to “any bona fide religious institution with respect to any qualifications the institution may impose based on religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose.”

But a pamphlet issued by the Commission — “A Public Accommodations Provider’s Guide to Iowa Law” — claims that the law “sometimes” applies to churches. Under the section titled, “Does this law apply to churches?” the response is:

Sometimes. Iowa law provides that these protections do not apply to religious institutions with respect to any religion-based qualifications when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose. Where qualifications are not related to a bona fide religious purpose, churches are still subject to the law’s provisions. (e.g. a child care facility operated at a church or a church service open to the public). [Emphasis and underlining in original]

Wouldn’t a regular Sunday morning church service be considered “open to the public”?

The example provided in the pamphlet appears to imply that every church service in which visitors are welcome would be required to allow people to use restroom facilities of their choosing. As the lawsuit notes, it would also affect “communal worship, other religious services, Sunday School classes, Bible studies, youth oriented activities, annual vacation Bible schools, Easter activities, Christmas pageants, and other ministries, all of which are open to the public.”

Additionally, even activities the Church undertakes that “do not contain overt religious inculcation are religious in nature because they engender other important elements of religious meaning, expression, and purpose, such as mutual encouragement, relationship-building, demonstrating the Church’s interest in the welfare of others, and nurturing spiritual gifts to be used for the benefit of church members and the community. Events that further these religious objectives and are also open to the public include scrapbook meetings, weight loss group meetings, ‘pot luck’ dinners, and family movie nights.”

Does the law affect only the church’s accommodations?

Not necessarily. It may also have free speech implications. As the lawsuit says, “The Act and City Code prohibit the Church from issuing statements that might cause individuals to believe that they are unwelcome because of their perceived gender identity. The language of the Act and the City Code are broad enough to include within that prohibition sermons, theological expositions, educational speeches, newsletters or church worship bulletin text, or other statements from the Church and its leaders.”

The law would therefore discriminate against churches whose views on gender identity disagreed with the state (i.e., orthodox, Bible-believing churches) and affirm churches that already agree with the state about transgender issues (i.e., liberal, LGBT-affirming congregations).

What is being doing to protect the religious freedoms of Iowa churches?

On behalf of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a “pre-enforcement challenge,” a type of lawsuit that allows citizens to challenge a law before the government enforces it against them. The federal court could issue a temporary restraining order prohibiting its application to churches and/or rule that the application of the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

By / Feb 20

None can love freedom heartily but good men;
the rest love not freedom, but license.” — John Milton

The world is comprised of two groups of people—us and them—from which we are constantly resorting and regrouping. Right/Left, Red State/Blue State, Black/White, Arab/Jew. In times of normalcy, this shifting of allegiances and drawing of tribal lines occurs at a leisurely pace. But in times of perceived crisis, such as the recent murder of a dozen French satirists, the process accelerates at breakneck speed.

From reading about this latest terrorist attack one could get the impression that it was the epicenter of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and Western liberalism. Turning from a tragedy to a farce, the affair has reinforced the stereotype of Muslims as violent totalitarians and of Westerners as profane libertines. Reacting to this caricature, many otherwise thoughtful people feel they have to side with the puerile satirists for fear of giving the impression of kowtowing to the Islamic extremists.

My preference would be to reject this false dichotomy, for I do not support the aims of the French magazine—I am not Charlie Hebdo —nor do I support the violent Muslim protestors. I’d prefer another grouping of “us and them.” Like Milton, I prefer to stand with the good men who “love freedom heartily” (unlike the jihadists) and apart from those who “love license” and use their talents to blaspheme my Lord and heap disdain upon most cherished beliefs (as Charlie Hebdo has always done).

(The jihadists and the cartoonists, of course, are not equally culpable. Drawing offensive cartoons and murdering people are not morally equivalent; they are not even in the same moral universe. This doesn’t really need to be said, of course, for no one outside of an Al Qaeda training camp truly believes they are comparable. Yet if you don’t make that point pristinely clear you will eventually be charged with moral relativism. Such is the degraded state of discourse today. We feign outrage and misrepresent those with whom we disagree in our rush to signal to others which side of the “us and them” line we are on.)

Equating the two as if they were equal would indeed be an embrace of moral relativism. No one has done that. However, we should not overlook the fact that while they are not morally equivalent, both sides are morally tainted. Our choice is to side with victims over murderers, not with righteous defenders of truth over unhinged religious fanatics.

Nine years ago we endured a similar controversy when a Danish newspaper published cartoons of a Mohammad and some Muslims reacted violently. Newspapers across Europe began to republish the offending cartoons in order to show they had no respect for religion of any time. France Soir said it published the images in full to show “religious dogma” had no place in a secular society, and Germany’s Die Welt argued there was a “right to blaspheme” in the West.

The American media hasn’t fully adopted this position, for they selective about what sacred cows they will gore. For decades the media has been willing to offend Christians while refusing to take similar actions that would offend Muslims. But most critics of the media aren’t as upset about that double-standard as they are the implied assumption that the media is refusing to champion their own beatified bovine: the inviolable right to say whatever we want, whenever we want, wherever we want, however we want.

Whereas the West was once measured by our highest ideals, we now champion the lowest common denominator. Past generations of Americans could agree, however, reluctantly, that we had a responsibility to protect acts of speech that were stupid or offensive. Now we rush to the ramparts to defend the treasured “right to blaspheme” and mock and deride the very idea that anything (other than our own freedoms) can be considered sacred.

We are even offended by media outlets that refuse to offend the religious sensibilities of our neighbors—even when it serves no legitimate journalistic purpose. For many people nowadays, the willingness to offend someone’s religious beliefs is one of the highest purposes of journalism and a marker of secular integrity. Offending the easily offended is the responsibility of the press (but only when it comes to religion—all other classes are still untouchable).

What is needed is a broader perspective on our duties and responsibilities, especially as Christians. Yes, offensive speech must be defended. But “good men” ought to carry out the task with a sigh of opprobrium. Standing against the brutality of terrorists does not mean we have to stand in the muck with those who champion the baser elements of our culture.

I believe that, like religious liberty, freedom of speech is a divinely permitted freedom that demands constant vigilance. But just once I’d like to be called upon to champion speech that is true, honorable, just, and pure. Just once I’d like to defend a freedom that wasn’t vulgar, degraded, and profane. Just once I’d like to defend freedom of speech that aspired to the ideals and standards of Jesus Christ rather than to the nihilistic inclinations of Charlie Hebdo. Just once I’d like to defend those who love true freedom and not just the license to offend.

Joe Carter
Joe Carter serves as a communication specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. You can follow him on Twitter at @joecarter.

By / Oct 29

Obscenities and Harsh Words in Our Common Life

Obscenities, insults, slurs, and other harsh words are a bitter part of our common life together. Unfortunately, we cannot escape them. They are everywhere. We hear them on television, in movies, at grocery stores and restaurants, and at kids’ activities. They are expressed by politicians and other public figures, by friends and strangers, by coworkers and gas station attendants.

The significance of written and spoken words has recently been a focus of public attention. College football fans were disgusted by obscene words uttered publicly by Jameis Winston, a star athlete. Not only were the words obscene, but they also conveyed a profound disrespect for women. For weeks after this student-athlete uttered his words, which were retweeted by observers and disseminated widely through social media and the Internet, his behavior remained a matter of public discussion. That his words were an obscene Internet meme only underscores the problem with our language today.

Many strong moral judgments were expressed by members of the public and the media. For some, the student-athlete’s statement reflected immaturity and poor judgment. For others, it was the public nature of the statement (i.e., it was made in front of women) that made his words wrong. And still others thought that the statement was wrong because it would make others feel bad or would be offensive to those who heard it.

With these three assessments, the statement itself is not condemned for being morally wrong. Rather, it was the speaker’s situational insensitivity or poor judgment regarding time and place that was morally problematic. Those who offered these assessments essentially suggested that the athlete should have shown more maturity and exercised better judgment regarding context and audience and thus that he should have reserved his statement for a nonpublic setting when he was among “brothers” in the locker room.

For others, the demeaning and disrespectful nature of the statement as to women made it morally wrong. According to this assessment, the statement treated women as objects rather than persons, as means rather than ends, and failed to respect their dignity. The attitude toward women reflected in his statement represented a threat to women and held the potential of making them victims of sexual aggression.

In addition to Jameis Winston’s obscene statement, I have recently been reminded both at work and at home about the significance of our words. As a law professor, I am tasked with helping to prepare students for professional careers in the law. In their professional lives, they will communicate with judges, lawyers, clients, the media, and the public. At times, they will become frustrated and be tempted to use harsh words. In those situations, they will be called upon to exercise restraint and good judgment. Consequently, the communication habits and practices they learn in law school, the self-discipline they develop, and their training in exercising good judgment will carry over into their careers, determine their effectiveness, and shape their professional reputations.

Like sponges, our school-aged children absorb attitudes and hear harsh words from peers, media, and other sources in their lives. Before long, they try out these harsh words in their own communications with siblings and playmates. My wife and I labor to instruct our children, address their attitudes and words, and help them learn to exercise good judgment, and we strive to ensure that our own attitudes and words model the sort of the behavior we desire them to exhibit.

Biblical Teachings on Obscenities and Harsh Words

For Christians, the Bible’s teachings about obscenities and harsh words are fairly clear. First, those who utter obscenities and harsh words fail in their duty to love their neighbors as themselves. Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27. They fail by not respecting their neighbors’ right to live free of such obscenities and by not treating their neighbors as individuals of equal dignity who were created in the image of God and worthy of honor and respect. Gen. 1:26-27. Second, obscenities are corrupt and unwholesome communication, and oftentimes harsh words are too. For Christians, “obscenity, foolish talk[, and] coarse joking” are “out of place.” Eph. 5:4 (NIV). Additionally, Christians are not to “let any unwholesome talk come out of [their] mouths.” Eph. 4:29 (NIV). Third, obscenities and harsh words are not helpful to others—rather, they are harmful. The talk coming out of the mouths of Christians should “only [be] what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Eph. 4:29 (NIV). Fourth, obscenities and harsh words do not lead to peace, and Christians are to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” Rom. 14:19 (NIV).

Likewise, the Apostle James issued a strong warning about the untamable tongue: “[T]he tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” James 3:5-6 (NIV). In addition to the destructive effects of the tongue, James observed that the same tongue is used to praise God and “curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” James 3:9 (NIV). For Christians, “this should not be.” James 3:10 (NIV).

Approaches to Providing Moral Analysis of Obscenities and Harsh Words in Public Engagement

For those who do not embrace the Christian faith, acknowledge the authority of the Bible, or defer to the norms given in the Christian Scriptures, moral analysis of obscenities and harsh words may pose some challenges. For non-Christians, how is the morality of obscenities and harsh words to be judged? If moral rightness or wrongness is relative and if right and wrong are determined contextually based upon shifting circumstances, how can we know when obscenities and harsh words cross the line? If moral rightness and wrongness are judged based upon consequences or some utility balancing, when is it that we can call obscenities and harsh words immoral? Furthermore, if morality is merely a social convention, how can we declare wrongful obscenities and harsh words that may just be a bit ahead of their time?

Christians are able, I believe, to engage in thoughtful public discourse, contribute to the effort to promote justice in society, pursue excellence in cultural undertakings, and provide insightful moral analysis regarding obscenities and harsh words without appealing directly to the Bible. They can do this by evaluating actions under well-known criteria for evaluating good and bad actions, by directing analysis to the character and virtue of moral agents, and by appealing to universal standards that bind all people.

Different approaches have been proposed for determining whether actions are good or bad and what a person should or should not do. One approach (consequentialism) focuses on the ends or consequences of actions so that actions are judged to be morally good or bad based upon results (i.e., whether actions produce more advantages or good consequences than disadvantages or bad or harmful consequences). Under one common formulation of consequentialism (utilitarianism), the good or right action is the one that brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. A second approach (deontologism) focuses on duties or rules so that actions are judged to be morally good or bad based upon whether actors meet their obligations or duties and observe the rules. A third approach (intuitionism) focuses on the moral intuition of actors so that actions are judged to be morally good or bad based upon whether actors conform their actions to what they sense or apprehend to be right and wrong. Each of these approaches offers insight into the rightness and wrongness of particular actions (such as the uttering of obscenities and harsh words), but each approach also has inadequacies.

Another approach to analyzing the morality of obscenities and harsh words is to focus, not on conduct or actions, but rather upon the actor’s character (virtue theory). This approach is oriented to the moral agent’s inner disposition, and it emphasizes the cultivation of character traits or moral virtues such as wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Other virtues may be added to the list, such as faith, hope, and love. Under this approach, it is believed that those who have a right inner disposition will tend to act in right ways and be better equipped to make judgments regarding what is right in particular situations. A focus upon character and virtue invites us to think about the kind of people we want to be, the effect our choices have on who we are becoming, and the need to check our behavior against the aspirations we have for ourselves as individuals and as a polity. In thinking about our words, a virtue orientation will prompt us to reflect upon what our words say about who we are and what our character is, and it can challenge us to turn inward to the work each of us needs to undertake to become the people we want to be.

Insight from Natural-Law Thinking

The natural law tradition may also provide some tools that can help us analyze our words, actions, and decisions. The natural law tradition has a rich history that extends back millennia to both biblical and Greek sources in the ancient world. In the Christian tradition, such eminent thinkers as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin have participated in this tradition. According to the Christian understanding of the natural law, God’s creation is an ordered creation that reflects his purposes and ends. He has written his moral law into the very nature of human existence, inscribing that law on the human heart. Consequently, all human beings know the basic requirements of the moral law through conscience, and this moral knowledge provides a universally accessible standard that governs all people across all times and in all places. All humans know this law, and they can use this knowledge to justly order relationships and society. Among the basic, universally-known principles of the natural law are the requirements to seek the good, avoid evil, give to each person his or her due, and love one’s neighbor.

Nearly two thousand years ago, in his letter to the churches in Rome, the Apostle Paul conveyed a similar understanding. He wrote: “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” Rom. 2:14-15 (NIV). Thus, according to Paul, human beings, even as fallen creatures in a fallen world, have moral knowledge of right and wrong that is accessible through their consciences. Later in the same letter, he discussed civil government (i.e., secular authorities). He recognized that civil authorities are capable of understanding what is good and evil, what is right and wrong, for he observed that civil government is “God’s servant for [our] good,” holds terror for and brings punishment on those who do wrong, and commends citizens for doing what is right. Rom. 13:3-4 (NIV).

In the context of his teaching on civil government, Paul identified some of the requirements of the moral law that are written on the heart. His discussion of punishment for wrongdoing and commendation for doing what is right and good suggests that there are corresponding duties to do good and avoid evil. Additionally, Paul exhorted his reader to “[g]ive to everyone what [they] own them,” including respect and honor; to “love one another” and their neighbors as themselves; not to commit adultery, murder, steal, or covet; and to do no harm to your neighbor. Rom. 13:7-10 (NIV).

In addition to reflection on consequences, duties, intuitions, and virtues, these universal moral principles can be used to analyze our words. These principles will focus moral analysis on questions such as whether speakers are seeking the good (including the good of their neighbors), whether speakers are giving individuals their due, and whether speakers are exhibiting neighborly love. These principles will lead to additional questions for moral reflection, such as whether words are doing good or causing harm and whether words will promote the good of human flourishing. Thus, in our public reflection on obscenities and harsh words, these principles can guide moral analysis of both the conduct and the character of the actor.


No complex moral analysis of Jameis Winston’s obscene utterance is necessary to conclude that what he did was wrong. He failed to seek the good of women and those in his presence. He caused harm and offense by his disrespectful treatment of women as objects, as means to his ends, and not as persons of equal dignity and worth. He did not give them their due or love them as he loves himself. Although moral analysis in his case is fairly straightforward, the range of analytical tools discussed here may be useful in other cases as Christians analyze more complex issues, offer arguments as a part of their public engagement, and work to persuade their non-Christian neighbors regarding the rightness and wrongness of particular actions and decisions.

Winston’s obscene utterance has also reminded me of the importance of moral formation. Good character, the discipline of self-control, and the ability to make good decisions are neither innate nor developed by accident. Rather, careful cultivation, wise instruction, intentional training, and consistent correction are required over many years. For parents, teachers, and pastors, moral formation is a high calling that must be taken serious. But the place to begin is with ourselves—the place for me to begin is with myself, my character, my attitudes, my words, and my conduct. As each of us attends to the nurturing of our own character and the character of those in our spheres of influence, perhaps we can start to chip away at the regrettable reality of obscenity and harsh words in our common life and take small steps toward constructing communities in which love of neighbor is more commonly and more consistently practiced.

By / Mar 10

Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for freedom and equal rights for black Americans and other minorities oppressed by the white majority. King and his followers achieved many victories through such laws as the Civil Rights Act criminalizing racial discrimination. But decades after King’s assassination, black Americans experience an increasing amount of rhetorical racism from blacks and whites alike.

Rhetorical racism perpetrated by blacks against blacks can be traced to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s scandalous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe exposed the horrors of slavery in part by placing at the center of her narrative a house slave named Uncle Tom, presented as a virtuous, hard-working and apparently Christian slave. Against the advice of fellow slaves, Uncle Tom refused to flee his master, instead faithfully serving as long as he was his master’s property.

Consequently, the phrase Uncle Tom entered popular American culture as a derogatory epithet directed toward blacks by other blacks who judged the former group untrue to their African American selves. The phrase accuses targeted blacks of caring more about pleasing whites than about preserving African American identity and particularity.

A good education, proper English, a good work ethic, evangelical Christianity and membership in a multiethnic or mostly white church are among characteristics that might attract the Uncle Tom moniker. White associates, interracial relationships, a traditional family, theological or political conservatism, certain musical and dietary preferences, cross-race adoptions, an honest living and enrollment in certain schools are also among characteristics that sometimes attract the term. Discussions about Uncle Tom-ness in the media support some of the preceding assertions.

A couple of years ago, at least two black former professional athletes publically referred to two black athletes as Uncle Toms, referencing privileged upbringings, attendance at a certain school, a good home-life and an international upbringing.

Ironically, many blacks who call others an Uncle Tom often use the n-word as a term of endearment, in spite of its traditional use by white racists and slave owners to shame and dishonor Africans enslaved in America. Furthermore, racists continue to use the term to dehumanize blacks.

Some blacks use the n-word in attempts to be hip, cool, socially acceptable or funny, but these same blacks often have a double standard. Some of them would be offended if a white person called them the n-word, while finding the term either less offensive or inoffensive when uttered by blacks. In fact a few years ago some very accomplished blacks in the film industry publically criticized a white woman who works in media when she publically stated that no one, white or black, should use the term because it is offensive.

As a black with a multiracial background, born in an extremely racist part of Eastern Kentucky and reared there for 18 years, I have been called a number of racist epithets by both blacks and whites throughout my 35 years of life. White racists have called me everything from a black n-word, a colored kid, to a colored boy for reasons that they deemed appropriate. Likewise, black racists have called me everything from a black n-word, Uncle Tom, whitey, sell out, half-breed, or high yellow.

In my view, the n-word is the most offensive racist slur directed toward blacks, regardless of the ethnicity and race of the person speaking. The reason is quite simple. White racists used this term from its inception to dehumanize, dishonor and ostracize Africans enslaved within what such racists thought was a superior white society. Many black descendants of slaves continue to refer endearingly to each other with this derogatory word in music, movies or casual conversation, thereby reinforcing a racist, non-redemptive rhetoric and worldview of slavery and white superiority.

I am absolutely puzzled that many blacks embrace the n-word as endearing when used within the race, since racists have used and continue to use the term to degrade and dehumanize blacks. Equally, I am baffled that many blacks use the phrase Uncle Tom to shame and paint a negative caricature of certain blacks. I am most shocked that some blacks and whites who identify with the Christian faith have no problem with this sort of racist speech. By contrast, Stowe used the phrase Uncle Tom complimentary and the n-word negatively.

All ethno-racial communities should embrace the Christian identity of Stowe’s Uncle Tom. Concurrently, we should reject the racism Uncle Tom suffered, the racist worldview that enslaved some and promoted superiority in others, and racist speech used in the novel.

All slavery is evil. Those who worked relentlessly to abolish slavery and help slaves escape and attain their freedom did the right thing, indeed the Christian thing! Yet, Stowe suggests that Uncle Tom chose to be faithful to Christ even while living within the evil institution of slavery. Stowe presents a biblical principle that neither condones the evil institution of slavery nor excludes the Bible’s permission to practice civil disobedience.

Regardless of the ethno-racial group using the rhetoric, hate-speech is sinful and dishonors our God and Christ. Consequently, no Christian should use racist hate-speech, even when socially acceptable. Black Christians should speak with redemptive speech to and about all blacks and other ethno-racial groups. We should not tolerate or approve of black church members calling other black members Uncle Tom or the n-word. Regardless of the cultural popularity of racist hate-speech, black Christians should seek to be distinctively Christian, as citizens within the kingdom of God and as members of a new race in Christ, a race filled with different races (1 Pet. 2:9).

Christians from any ethno-racial community should repent of their sins, including the sins of racism and racist speech, and express God’s great work of redemption in our lives through Christ, who is wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30).

Regardless of the ostracism we may endure, the gospel must permeate every single area of our lives if we are redeemed by Jesus’ blood. The gospel must permeate our speech to or about the different ethno-racial communities God created, because God sent Jesus to die for the sins of all, and to fashion us into a new race known as Christians (John 1:29; 3:16; Eph. 2:11-22; 1 Pet. 2:9).

God chose to save different ethno-racial groups before the foundation of the world and to unite us together in Christ by faith, so that we would be forgiven our transgressions and sins by the blood of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit. God wants us to hear and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3-14) and to be new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15).

Christians from various ethno-racial groups throughout the world are elect and foreknown — loved beforehand — by God, sprinkled by the blood of Jesus Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 1:1-2). God makes Christians from different ethno-racial communities into a new race in Christ, a royal priesthood, a chosen nation, and a people for God’s own possession (1 Pet. 2:9). By one’s exclusive faith in Jesus’ wrath-bearing death on the cross and by his victorious resurrection from the dead, God will redeem some from every tongue, tribe, people and nation to be Christians (Rom. 3:24; 4:25; Rev. 5:9).

God saves Christians to be holy, to be living sacrifices to him in every area of our lives, including how we speak to and about one another (Rom. 8:28-30; 12:1-2). Scripture teaches us to lay aside filthy speech, coarse jesting and every form of evil. Scripture commands us to be holy and not to let any evil word come out of our mouths (Eph. 4:17-5:20; 1 Pet. 1:3-2:10). God wants the redeemed to speak to and about each other in Spirit-filled love, with words that build up instead of destroy (Gal. 5:16-26; James 3:5-10), because Jesus redeemed our souls and our speech.

May a God-centered, Christ-exalting, Spirit-filled and edifying vision of gospel-centered, ethno-racial reconciliation redeem our speech and empower us to live distinctively as the people of God in this present evil age.