I received an email this week, typical of a handful I have received over the years -- fewer of late than earlier -- objecting to harsh language used on a commenter at the Ticker blog who had been making a set of the usual foolish arguments we've seen from American churchgoers these past few years -- the sort which insinuate that the Spirit is one's own personal instructor and sometime therapist, and makes any pew sitter as competent to exegete and interpret Scripture as (say) N. T. Wright. I also got a YouTube PM from someone who made similar objections to harsh words accorded to YT atheists, using the standard emotional claptrap and poor exegetical reasoning. When I pointed out that I had heard all this before, and linked to my article, the complainer merely reasserted his arguments as though nothing had been said.
After all these years, there's nothing in the mindset of such complainers that seems at all comprehensible. It seems that they're quite tolerant of those who spread error, or bully the innocent, or even cravenly devour the faithful with falsehood; but call one of these wolves a name like stupid or ignorant, and you may as well have announced that you made a hobby of dropping live puppies into boiling water.
It's an ironic sort of sickness that considers harsh words the greater sin. It isn’t, but let’s just grant the premise that is it, just for the sake of argument. I would like to ask such people a simple question.
Let's say you were transported back to 1958, and were brought face to face with a young pastor named Jim Jones. Yes, that one: He who would in 1978 caused over 900 of his followers to kill themselves.
Let's say also that you knew that to halt that career from happening, all you had to do was berate and mock Jones to the point that he became unnerved, lost his confidence, and from them on would become nothing more than a minor cult leader that few people paid any attention to.
Would you call him names? Or would you decide it was sinful because Jones was a human made in God’s image; or because you had been insulted once yourself and felt bad about it? (That was the two main arguments used by my detractors – bad as they are.)
Complainers of this sort lack the perspective this story implies. No, I am not saying that every fundy atheist wolf, or ever wacky Christian who thinks the Spirit is a personal hotline, will end up being a Jim Jones. I am saying, however, that we have foolishly convinced ourselves that harsh and confrontational language -- the sort of thing that can and does effectively break down such people before they can reach their prime -- is a sin, and a worse sin than what such wolves and Spirit-mongers go on to do.
Can anyone honestly say that we'd have been worse off had someone confronted and berated an insecure and foolish young Joyce Meyer so that she never got to the point today where she teaches to millions such nonsense as that the Spirit instructs Christians to do things like make fruit salad and open their eyes during sexual intercourse, but instead remained an obscure nobody who taught nothing greater than a home Bible study – which is frankly the most she really deserves to be?
I expect the whiners will say that not everyone I call an idiot will have such influence. Assuredly, that is so -- but let's reduce the stakes and see if it gets any better for them. Is it better to allow even ten people to be deceived out of eternal life just because you're squeamish about telling someone they're being -- well, stupid? How about five? How about one?
I also expect the complainers to say that well, maybe you will turn someone INTO a Jim Jones by insulting them. I rather doubt that; the arc of behavioral psychology doesn't make that very realistic. But even if it were possible, odds are far better you'd create a Jim Jones by ignoring him or being nice to him than by berating him. Do spoiled children get spoiled because they've been spoiled -- or because they've been disciplined?
Wake up, folks. We're in this mess we're in now because – among other things -- for too long we've turned insults into something more to be avoided than letting wolves run amuck. And the problem is still the same – either Jesus was a hypocrite, or else it is indeed not a sin in certain circumstances.
After all these years, no one’s given me a good argument against that point, either.