Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
-Ephesians 4:29-32 (NIV)
Depending on whether I wear a mask in public or not, I might be a “sheep” or a “selfish jerk.” Which it is, of course, would depend on whose social media posts I was reading at the moment.
Depending on whether I vote Republican or Democrat, I might be a fascist or a….well, I’m not going to use the term I’ve probably heard most frequently because it slurs a whole category of people unrelated to political debate. No discussion. No interest in hearing why I might vote a different way than someone else. My vote, my political orientation, makes me unworthy of a hearing. That’s what we do in our political culture: we dismiss whole segments of the population we don’t agree with by a word.
I have to be careful not to do it too.
It isn’t just our political climate, either. In sports, economics, media, we reduce those who seem the least like us to a generalized “other” that we don’t have to pay any attention to. I’ve heard it, seen it, more often than I like to think about. So have you. “That’s how ______s are.” We assume the worst of those we disagree with. It excuses us, we think, for saying terrible things about them. Anything goes: character slurs, mockery of physical appearance, racist comments, etc.
We assume the best of those we agree with; their motives are pure, their character unblemished. Which excuses us blindly embracing everything they say and do.
I'd like to think it’s only a “worldly” thing — and it is worldly. Unfortunately, we’re as good at it in the church as anyone else. Some of the most vitriolic words I’ve ever heard spewed have come in the context of disagreements between sisters and brothers in Christ, not in a hotly-contested election. Some of the worst examples of dismissive, hateful takes on politics or current events I’ve heard or seen have come from people who would say they’re Christians.
Which might lead someone to ask the question, “Can you imagine Jesus calling someone a ‘moron’ because they believe a conspiracy theory about the pandemic? Or a ‘fascist’ because they believe in gun control?”
I can’t, but that doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that Paul can't either. In Ephesians 4, he’s writing to a church about living the kind of life they were taught when they “learned Christ.” English translations tend to smooth it out a little, but that’s what it says: “learned Christ.” Christians follow Jesus. We live the way we learn from him. And if you can’t imagine Jesus doing something, then you probably ought not to be doing it, either.
If we’ve learned Christ, then, we’ll work hard to make sure that the things we say (and write, tweet, and post — I think social media has made us careless with our words) are helpful, that they build others up “according to their needs.” That is to say that our speech doesn’t serve our own interests. We shouldn’t be using our words to build a following, win arguments, vent our feelings, or impress others. We should be — as should be usual for followers of Jesus — thinking of those who’ll hear (or read) our words. Is what we’re saying helpful to them? Does it build up, or tear down? Do our words show that we’re looking for a fight, or do they demonstrate kindness, compassion, and forgiveness?
That’s not to say that we shouldn't ever speak words that are hard, critical, even cutting. Jesus could speak like that at times. While none of us have the perfect insight that he did, there will be times when it will be necessary for us to speak in ways that don’t sound so encouraging. Sometimes Christians use this text to try to censor unpleasant speech — especially if it makes our own lives easier in some way to do so. There are times when evil needs to be called evil. There are times when someone needs to be called to account. There are times when we need to speak up unequivocally for those who aren’t being heard. And there are times, when we do so, that it will sound as though we’re bitter, angry, and not very forgiving.
Building up those who are beaten down might mean speaking against those who are doing the beating. Words that are helpful for the hurting might sting those who have caused their wounds. It isn’t that we intend for our words to hurt, necessarily. We certainly shouldn’t use words that hurt out of some desire for vengeance. We shouldn’t slander anyone, or provoke confrontation for the sake of confrontation. That’s why Paul says it’s essential that we “get rid” of motivations like bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and malice before we speak. That’s why we have to cultivate kindness, compassion, and forgiveness even for those with whom we disagree. But people who have been taken advantage of are not hearing the gospel if they aren’t hearing us speak against those who have taken advantage of them. We can’t use pseudo-Christian “niceness” as a hedge against our responsibility to call out evil when we see it.
I appreciate my brother in Christ, Eddie Reed, who is a black Chicago police officer. I won’t recall his words exactly, or do them justice, but this week he asked that we would pray for law enforcement officers to make good decisions, to have wisdom in the way they deal with the people they protect and serve, because of his concern that officers who do reprehensible things make it more difficult for officers who want to do right. I loved how his words acknowledged the pain caused by officers like the one who killed George Floyd, without attempting to defend his actions, while at the same time calling us to do the very Christian thing of praying that God will help other officers to be better than that. Those words weren’t easy for him to speak. That was obvious. But those are the kinds of words Christians should be speaking at such times. Full of compassion and love for the hurting. Ringing with justice. Realistic about the evil that can easily take root in our world and in our lives. And hopeful in God’s faithfulness.
In this time of turmoil, be careful how you speak. As a Presidential election gets closer, be thoughtful and prayerful about what you say. Speak less, maybe. Be less certain that you’re always right. Be more willing to listen, even to those who disagree with you. And speak often of the gospel, Jesus, and hope.
That’s what the people who will hear your words most need.