Monday, December 08, 2014

Rabbit Language

“Hmm. How to proceed ...”
A Thanksgiving blog post (American, that is — I’m not running that far behind) has me thinking about freedom of speech, the Christian and the giving and taking of offence with respect to how we speak about those in authority.

Christians definitely disagree on this issue. I was in the U.S. last summer and heard them doing it. Naturally they were all doing it politely.

Thanking God for Obama

In a post entitled “Thank God for Obama”, author Sherri Jason quotes the apostle Paul as he encourages Timothy not only to pray, but presumably to teach others to pray for those who exercise authority:
“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions …”
That would most certainly include the current American president, as she goes on to point out:
“This passage clearly indicates that President Obama and other authorities should be on our Thanksgiving list. And on our daily list. What pleases God? That we pray for these men and women in authority and live peaceable and quiet lives which are godly and dignified.”

An Erroneous Conclusion

So far, so good. But here’s the conclusion she draws:
“What does this mean to us? It means that if we are saying or posting things about our authorities that rile up the Christians and anger the non-Christians, then we are displeasing God. It means we are blessing and cursing from the same mouth. It means we are acting in an ungodly way … Regardless of what we think of President Obama, we really have no business as believers publicly berating him.”
Here’s where Sherri and I part ways. I’ll agree that “berating” may not be the way to go, but I see in scripture that principled criticism of authority is not only legitimate but sometimes necessary from believers living in what is indisputably a corrupt society run by men who often run the gamut from morally compromised to spiritually insensate to actively malevolent.

“I'm keeping an open mind here ...”
So I’m trying to keep an open mind here, but I’m not sure her application follows from Paul’s teaching.

If we simply tell the truth about what we observe and people object to what we have to say, are we really behaving in an ungodly way? Are Christians to go out of their way to stress the positive characteristics (however few they may be) in our authority figures? (I certainly know some Christians who take that line.) Or are we to remain silent altogether about wickedness in high places?

Here we find ourselves a little at sea because the post provides no examples of exactly what sorts of speech ought to be considered inappropriate, nor does it suggest an alternative to publicly berating authority figures (other than voluntarily curtailing our North American free speech rights whenever the subject of government comes up).

Taking the Temperature of Our Audience

Further, the author seems primarily concerned with outcomes rather than words and actions themselves. But this is surely the tail wagging the dog: believers get “riled” and unbelievers get “angered” for many reasons, and unless we have deliberately or insensitively incited such reactions, the fault may well be in the wrong-thinking of our audience. Worrying about how the message is received rather than how we deliver it is a hallmark of 21st century human resources departments and social justice obsessives who believe that hurt feelings trump honest communication every time.

Sure, it’s possible to be too strident in addressing the sins of our leaders and the evil consequences that often follow from their actions. It’s possible for us to jump to conclusions about the motives of those in authority and accuse them unreasonably and in a manner that may even call for an apology.

But all criticism does not amount to “cursing”, and hostile reactions in those who agree or disagree with us are not necessarily indicative of ungodliness in what has been said.

If we work backwards from people’s reactions, John the Baptist was wrong to condemn Herod for “his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done” (and by inference Luke was also wrong to comment that Herod “added this to them all” by locking up John). If we judge by how it was received, the Lord ought to have dialed back his rhetoric a notch or two when he accused the scribes and Pharisees of being “a brood of vipers”. These men were indisputably leaders and figures of authority to be obeyed but he did not hesitate to take them to task scathingly for their hypocrisy. He was also presumably over the line to refer to Herod as “that fox”.

Some people become offended because they don’t listen. Others are offended because they hastily attribute to you arguments that have been badly made by others with whom they have disagreed in the past. Still others are offended because they are uninformed or misinformed about the facts. In the case of President Obama, there are many who are offended at condemnation of his policies because they wrongly consider criticism of a black president to be racist by definition. And there are those who are so solipsistic that they become offended by criticism of others that they wrongly perceive as being directed at them. There may even be those souls who are hurt by criticism of the president because they contributed to his election, in which case I applaud the sensitivity of their consciences.

The fact that people are offended may well mean that we have spoken amiss, but it is not always the case.

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice …

The author goes on to say, “We are to thank Him for our nation’s leaders, not speak evil of them”. But surely these are not our only options? There’s a dichotomy in that logic as false as the one President Obama set up recently by suggesting that the only choices confronting a U.S. president are isolationism or extreme interventionism.

“Let’s make a list of things to be thankful for ...”
Should we “thank God for Obama”? Certainly. It’s the plain instruction of the word of God. But that doesn’t mean we ought to ignore the evidence of our eyes and ears and pretend everything Mr. Obama or other leaders are doing is wonderful. It also doesn’t mean we ought to shut up about injustices and evil perpetrated by our leaders, although as Christians it is far from our number one priority to worry about how the country we happen to live in is run.

Frankly, I’m not sure we need to start thanking the Lord for drone strikes that have sent thousands of victims of collateral damage to a lost eternity. If there is a more cowardly and ineffective way to wage war, I cannot think of it. I would also avoid being thankful for the most divisive stance on racial politics of any president in recent memory. And I decline to approve of the actions of the NSA and IRS under the direction of the White House or give thanks for them.

I’m Thankful

I am, however, very thankful for President Obama. Every time he stumbles, whatever his motivation may be, I am reminded that no man, however smart he may appear, is capable of turning mere idealism into justice and righteousness. The utopia that Obama’s followers look for still thankfully awaits the return of the Lord Jesus. I’m thankful that things are not worse than they are. I’m thankful that we still have freedom to speak out on behalf of our Savior and Lord. I’m thankful for the thousands of believers who stand up to the President when he errs despite the cost to them, and I continue to pray for his salvation and ultimate blessing.

I’m thankful that, like Pharaoh, God has “raised him up” for a purpose, and though that purpose may be opaque to me, I can be fully confident that he will accomplish it gloriously. Maybe the purpose this time is to show us God’s power, so that his name “may be proclaimed in all the earth”, or maybe it is to demonstrate the foolishness of the wisdom of man, or maybe it is simply confirmation that the wages of national sin is the death of a nation — in this case death by a thousand self-inflicted paper cuts.

Whatever God’s purpose may be, it is his and I’m thankful for it. But my reasons for being thankful are specific and (hopefully) biblical. They are not merely random goodfeel, happy talk or the attribution of good motives where none appear to exist.

And realistically, I don’t think Sherri Jason is any blinder to the follies of the President or of other leaders than I am. As she rightly says:
“There’s no question that there’s character flaws galore and abused power that is making our lives miserable in some ways. There’s alarming support of immorality and even enforcement of policies that go against our beliefs and cause us to make difficult choices or in some cases, even go out of business. It’s enough to make some fearful of what the future holds.”
The only difference that I can see between me and Sherri is that it troubles her to risk speaking out of turn, or to feel that she may have incited an ungodly reaction in others. One’s conscience is not a bad thing to be concerned about, but I am considerably more comfortable interpreting the commands of the apostle Paul in the light of the conduct of the Lord Jesus and people like John the Baptist than through the lens of political correctness or even modern standards of what is considered “nice”.

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” The saying is venerable, to be sure, but not old enough to merit inclusion in holy writ.

And they’re not the words of a prophet, they’re the words of a rabbit.

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