What does "Speaking the Truth in Love" mean?
Everyone agrees that we should “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) on abortion and every other subject. But what does this really mean? What words should we use and what should our tone be when we set out to rebuke sin? As they say in the military, “what does right look like”?
There seems to be a great dichotomy present within the minds of pro-lifers. On the one hand we vehemently declare that abortion is an evil like none other, a veritable “abomination of desolation” that will curse our nation and bring down the eminent wrath of God. On the other hand, we are much less aggressive when criticizing individuals for their participation in the abortion industry, and basically unwilling to say anything critical of post-abortive women and Christians who ignore the whole issue. Indeed, as regards the last two groups, we seem to go way out of our way to avoid appearing judgmental, harsh or condemning. Those who do not risk being labeled “unloving”.
I do not believe this sort of mindset to be correct, and it is certainly not Biblical. Both the Bible and extra-Biblical history are saturated with examples in which “speaking the truth in love” means a very different thing than it means to the modern American mind. This is true even when we take into account cultural differences, document translation issues and contextual circumstances. It is instructive to review how righteous Biblical and historical characters spoke when faced with situations similar to those we face in anti-abortion work.
SPEAKING THE TRUTH IN LOVE IN SCRIPTURE
Let us begin with the example of Jesus Christ. Most modern Christians have a very one-sided view of His personality. Even those who recognize that Jesus was tough on sin nevertheless most would probably not choose to express their disgust of it in the way that Jesus did. His choice of words, His tone and the times and places He chose to say things often seem very imprudent by the standards of our society.
Take, for instance, Mark chapter 7. Some Pharisees had erroneously condemned Jesus’ disciples because they didn’t wash their hands before eating. The tenor of Jesus’ response does not exactly fit modern conceptions of ‘speaking the truth in love’:
And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! … making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” - Mark 7:6-9, 13
Jesus often chose the most inopportune moments to express His frustration with the sins of the people around Him. Luke 7: 44 – 46 records that He was once invited to the home of a Pharisee named Simon. While at table a derelict woman entered and began washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair, anointing them with perfume. In his mind, Simon thought that if Jesus were a prophet He would know who the woman was and not let her do this. Jesus told him:
“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.”
Think about that. Jesus is sitting in Simon’s house, eating Simon’s food, enjoying Simon’s hospitality and, unprovoked, chooses this moment to lecture Simon on where he is lacking in love. Couldn’t Jesus have chosen a more opportune moment? Couldn’t He have “kept it positive” by just commending the woman and leaving Simon out of it? No, against all worldly prudence, Jesus felt this was the perfect time to denounce his host and compare him (unfavorably) with a social outcast. This wasn’t the only time it happened, either:
While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! … But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.” One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs.” - Luke 11:37-48
I doubt Jesus got invited to many banquets.
Of course we are all familiar with the story of Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the Temple in Jerusalem, a story told in all four Gospels.
In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” - John 2:14-16
Faced with the same problem, how many of us would have acted like Jesus? Not many. Most of us would have filed a petition with the Temple authorities, written an article voicing our concerns, or maybe gone from table to table, offering free refreshments to the moneychangers and kindly telling them that, while God still loved them, He did not like how they were conducting business. Clearly Jesus’ idea of how to address this problem is radically different than our own.
Jesus’ denouncement of His opponents sometimes bordered on what we would call fanatical. It is hard to read passages like this one without imagining Him raising His voice and flailing His arms about for emphasis:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves … you serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” - Matthew 23:15, 33-35
Jesus was, shall we say, less than understanding with villages that rejected His disciples as they journeyed about the countryside in pairs. Speaking of such communities, He said:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.”
Notice that Jesus did not consider it necessary to distinguish between the majority of the people living in these cities and the few (there always are a few) who would eventually become His followers
It was not only the opponents of Christ who found themselves on the receiving end of as sharp rebuke. When Jesus’ disciples erred, He often corrected them in a manner which we would find overly critical coming from anyone else:
But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” - Matthew 16:23
And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” - Matthew 26:40-41
Even Scriptural passages where Jesus is showing His compassionate side sometimes demonstrate His willingness to say potentially divisive and uncomfortable things. For example, when in Samaria speaking with the woman at the well:
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” - John 5:16-18
Why did Jesus ask this woman to bring her husband? He already knew she had none and had lived a promiscuous lifestyle. The rest of their conversation did not hinge on this point. Was it pertinent that He bring up such a potentially sensitive subject in a way that was bound to embarrass her? Apparently Jesus felt it was absolutely necessary for the good of this woman’s soul, but most modern evangelists would suggest a more subtle approach, one that addresses sin in the abstract and never pinpoints particular sins in a person’s life.
Now, obviously, Our Lord did not talk like this all the time. The point is that He spoke like this very often, and in situations where most of us would prefer to be far more conciliatory, non-confrontational and ‘non-judgmental’. Since Jesus always spoke the truth, and always spoke in love, it follows that ‘speaking the truth in love’ means a much different thing than we think it does. If we intend to emulate Him, we will need to alter our mindset.
Some will object that, while we are certainly called to imitate Jesus in some ways, this is not one of those ways. Jesus could speak like because He was sinless God, while we are sinful men, and don’t have the right to act this way towards others. While this objection is ultimately not a good reason for ignoring the passages previously cited, what if it were? Are there other Biblical characters from whom we can learn what ‘speaking the truth in love’ really means?
THE TWELVE DISCIPLES
When Jesus sent His disciples out into the villages of Galilee and Judea, He instructed them in what to do should a village reject their message:
“But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say ,‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you.” - Luke 10:10-11
The significance of this action, publicly wiping from one’s feet the dust of a town, is often lost on the modern, western Christian. The foot is the most dishonorable part of the human body in the Middle East. To show someone the bottom of your foot is synonymous to telling them to kiss your backside, only worse. It is likely that the disciples would have had to flee for their lives after making this statement, since the villagers were unlikely to take such an insult peaceably.
PETER THE APOSTLE
Twice in the first few chapters of the book of Acts, the Apostle Peter addressed crowds in Jerusalem, crowds which may have included men and women who had been present at Jesus’ trial before Pilate and called for His execution, but which probably also included lots of people who weren’t. Here’s a selection of Peter’s words:
“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men … Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” - Acts 2:23, 36
“The God of Abraham … glorified his servant, Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One … and you killed the Author of life.” - Acts 3:13-15a
Peter did not bother to acknowledge that not everyone in the audience was directly responsible for Christ’s death. He did not open by saying that his purpose was “not to condemn anyone”, and was not at pains to stress that “we are all sinners”. He simply looked perfect strangers in their faces and told them they were accessories to murder who needed to repent, and needed to do so immediately.
JOHN THE BAPTIST
Then, of course, there is John the Baptist. He was not known for subtlety. In the book of Matthew, when Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by him, he let them know (probably in public) what he thought of them:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” - Matthew 3:7b-10
A parallel passage in the book of Luke indicates that these words were addressed not only at religious leaders, but the populace in general. The most cutting part of John’s statement may not be his reference to vipers but his declaration that being a descendent of Abraham was really nothing special. To people whose entire self worth was wrapped up in their ethnic heritage, this was assuredly a most unwelcome and presumptuous insult. Modern Christians would never say something like this to people who were humbling themselves and coming for baptism. Yet John thought it was appropriate and well timed.
It stands to reason that John spoke just as forcefully when he reproached Judea’s puppet king, Herod Antipas, for committing adultery with his sister-in-law, and his many other sins, for it got him incarcerated.
PAUL THE APOSTLE
The book of Galatians is a good example of how Paul spoke to Christians who continuously failed to learn their lesson. In this epistle, Paul barely finishes his salutation before writing “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different Gospel.” (1:20). Twice he refers to the Galatian church as “foolish” (3:1, 3). Of those preaching circumcision as mandatory for Christians, he scathingly comments that they should have themselves physically emasculated (5:12)! He ends the epistle quite curtly by saying “From now on let no one cause me trouble” (6:17). Lest we imagine that our English translations make Paul sound more bombastic than he really was, notice that the Apostle himself realized the stern nature of his words, writing at one point “I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone” (4:20).
Throughout the entire epistle, Paul does not try to balance his criticism by complimenting the Galatian church for the things they do right. He does not bother saying things like “We are all sinners” and “I’m not placing myself above you”. He does not suggest that perhaps the church didn’t realize what it was doing. From start to finish, the book of Galatians is a solid, unvarnished, straightforward indictment against adult Christians who were in error and needed to repent.
It seems that Paul advised his own disciples to take a similarly sharp tone with troublemakers within the church. To Titus, who Paul had left on the island of Crete to deal with this very problem, the Apostle wrote:
For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced … One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith. - Titus 1:10 -11a, 12-13
Can you imagine a Christian leader today, perhaps the head of a large denomination, giving advice like this, slandering entire ethnic groups and calling on local pastors to ‘silence’ insubordinate members? Such language is virtually unheard of! Indeed, a similar letter written today might lead to the removal of whoever wrote it. Who is right, Paul or our modern sensibilities?
JOHN THE APOSTLE
In his third epistle, the Apostle John singled out a man named Diotrephes, simply for being inhospitable (3 John 1:9-10). This man’s self-centered attitude is now recorded in the most widely distributed book in history, eternally enshrining him to posterity as the guy who didn’t show enough love to strangers. Neither John nor God felt this was a problem.
In 1 Kings, chapter 18, during the famous ‘duel of the gods’ on Mount Carmel, the prophet Elijah did not exactly treat his opponents with what we would call respect. Indeed, rather the opposite. As it became apparent that Baal was not going to send down fire to consume the offering assigned to him, Scripture records that:
At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
I don’t think it would too far-fetched to imagine Elijah throwing in a few exaggerated gestures and a sarcastic tone of voice. Think about that! Elijah knew what was going to happen in the next few hours. He knew that God would miraculously send down fire to consume His own offering and humiliate the worshippers of Baal. Furthermore, Elijah had already planned to execute all 450 prophets of Baal. Yet here he was mocking the very men he would, within a short time, put to the sword. Most modern Christians would say that such behavior was very unsporting.
Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! … See how the faithful city has become a prostitute! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her, but now murderers! - Isaiah 1:4, 21
“I supplied all their needs, yet they committed adultery and thronged to the houses of prostitutes. They are well-fed, lusty stallions, each neighing for another man’s wife … Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice” … “I will send four kinds of destroyers against them,” declares the Lord, “the sword to kill and the dogs to drag away and the birds and the wild animals to devour and destroy. I will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth …” – Jeremiah 5:7b-8, 28b and 15:3-4a
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Disaster! Unheard-of disaster! See, it comes! The end has come! The end has come! It has roused itself against you. See, it comes! Doom has come upon you, upon you who dwell in the land. The time has come! The day is near! There is panic, not joy, on the mountains. I am about to pour out my wrath on you and spend my anger against you. I will judge you according to your conduct and repay you for all your detestable practices. I will not look on you with pity. I will not spare you. I will repay you for your conduct and for the detestable practices among you.” – Ezekiel 7:5-9
The prophet Amos referred to rich, self-indulgent, idolatrous women in Israel at “cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1) who sat on pillows and ordered their husbands to bring them wine. Today this would be considered uncharitable name-calling. Amos, a common shepherd, would have been caricaturized as an uneducated, backwards religious fanatic, someone respectable men of faith would never associate with.
EZRA AND NEHEMIAH
When Ezra learned that some Jewish men had married foreign women, he was not overly concerned about people’s feelings. In the 10th chapter of the book of Ezra, we read that he called an assembly of the entire nation in Jerusalem. Anyone who did not show up in three days would have their property confiscated and lose their right to participate in the nation’s assembly. On the appointed day, while everyone stood outside, shivering in the rain, Ezra chastised all of them for permitting this to take place and insisted that the elders of each town conduct an investigation to identify offenders and make them “put away” their foreign wives. We know who the guilty parties were because Ezra recorded their names in last section of his book, which became part of the public record of Judah and has come down to us in Holy Scripture. So much for fretting about anonymity!
This same incident seems to have been recorded in the book of Nehemiah, a contemporary of Ezra. Nehemiah reacted in a manner most modern Christians would consider very ungracious:
In those days I also saw that the Jews had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab … So I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair … And one of the sons of Jehoiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite. Therefore I chased him from me. – Nehemiah 13: 25a, 28
SPEAKING THE TRUTH IN LOVE THROUGHOUT HISTORY
The style of polemic assumed by many Biblical characters is mirrored by the style of numerous heroic men and women throughout history. While no one is justified in being harsh and critical all the time, history demonstrates that the greatest defenders of justice chose ‘tough love’ over ‘soft soap’ far more often than we are inclined to do ourselves. As Gregg Cunningham, founder and director of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform is fond of saying, “Effective social reformers are rarely liked. Liked social reformers are rarely effective.”
There is a story dating back to the first century AD about John the Apostle who, when he realized that Cerinthus, a well known heretical teacher, was visiting the same bathhouse he and his disciples had come to, said “Let us flee, lest the building fall down, for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!”
Tertullian once wrote a scathing criticism of the doctrines of Marcion, 2nd Century founder of Marcionism, a quasi-Gnostic heresy. Tertullian literally eviscerates Marcion and everything he preaches, referring to him as an antichrist (book 3, chapter 8), “impious and sacrilegious” (book 4, chapter 1), as exhibiting “the stupidity of Pontus” (book 5, chapter 17) and being “stone blind” (book 4, chapter 36). Marcion’s followers are called “associates in hatred” (book 4, chapter 36) and “dupes”.
In the first place, how arrogantly do the Marcionites build up their stupid system, bringing forward a new god, as if we were ashamed of the old one! So schoolboys are proud of their new shoes, but their old master beats their strutting vanity out of them.
Foolish heretic, who treat with scorn so fine an argument of God's greatness and man's instruction!
Deny now, Marcion, your utter madness, (if you can)! (book 4, chapter 11)
The heretic ought to take the beam out of his own eye, and then he may convict the Christian, should he suspect a mote to be in his eye … I wonder that in this place alone Marcion's hands should have felt benumbed in their adulterating labour. (book 4, chapter 17)
For his efforts at combating Marcionism, Tertullian won great acclaim from the orthodox church.
BARTHOLOMEW DE LAS CASAS
A 16th Century Dominican friar looms large in history as the “father of human rights”. He fought tirelessly on behalf of the native peoples of Latin America, who in his day were being all but systematically wiped out by their Spanish overlords. Las Casas was not a man to tone down his speech or writing. One biographer writes:
He was frequently betrayed into the invective, and his denunciations are as fierce as language could make them, while the energetic terms in which he depicts, in all their bald horror, the revolting inhumanity of his countrymen provoke a shudder. (Bartholomew Las Casas, his life, apostolate and writings)
Las Casas wrote several books describing, in lurid detail, the outrages perpetrated upon entire Indian nations which, if not obliterated outright, were reduced to a position of slavery via the great encomiendas of the Spanish colonists. He forthrightly condemns the barbarous conquistadors who, in his view, were “most cruel tigers, wolves and lions hunger-starved”. One Spanish captain was:
“a most bloody Tyrant, destitute of all Mercy and Prudence, the Instrument of God's Wrath … this Person exceeded all that ever dwelt in other Islands, though execrable and profligate Villains.” (a Brief Description of he Destruction of the Indies, page 332)
Though he typically did not mention names, it was not hard to guess the identity of the leaders who committed the crimes Las Casas describes. These men had done no harm to the friar, and most were not known to him personally. Yet so wicked were their deeds that he saw fit to eviscerate them publicly before both the public and the king of Spain. Typically, Las Casas found very little success in trying to win over his opponents by moral persuasion. As bishop of Chiapas, Mexico in 1545, he tried to do just that, by avoiding Indian slavery in his sermons and instead privately counseling individuals. All it got him was slander, persecution and a boycott on tithes. Changing his tone, he proceeded to excommunicate everyone who refused to free their Indian slaves, an act which sparked a general riot. Fleeing for his life, Las Casas went to Mexico City where the Viceroy (who Las Casas insulted by not meeting on the grounds that he himself owned salves and was therefore excommunicated) called a general synod on Indian affairs but declined to address the slavery question. Las Casas responded with a very polemical sermon, likening the Viceroy and his administration to the disobedient Israelites to whom Isaiah prophesized. This actually convinced the Viceroy to repent and come down on the side of the bishop!
Not only the perpetrators of colonial crimes but their defenders became targets of Las Casas’ withering rebuke. In a 1551 debate with Juan Gines de Spulveda, who supported the current Indian policy, Las Casas was characteristically curt:
So enormous are the errors and scandalous propositions, contrary to all evangelical truth and to all Christianity that the Doctor Spulveda has accumulated, set forth and colored with misguided zeal … we wish to combat him …as a moral enemy of Christendom, an abettor of cruel tyrants, extirpator of the human race and disseminator of fatal blindness … for these reasons, God will punish Spain and all her people with inevitable severity. So many it be! (1550 debate with Sepulveda)
No one was safe from the scorching straightforwardness of Las Casas’ pen. In 1555 he went so far as to threaten King Philip II with hell if he dared to roll back the reforms previously enacted to protect Indian welfare. Though Las Casas was never successful in abolishing the encomienda system that kept most of New Spain’s indigenous people in bondage, his persistent agitation had an ameliorating effect on the way they were treated and their status in society. Latin American history would have been more brutal save for Bartholomew de las Casas.
The tone and tenor of successful American abolitionists during the 1830s, 40s and 50s is well documented. Many of these men and women were committed Christians, yet they attacked slavery with vengeance, offering no quarter to slave owners and those who held political, economic or religious communion with them. Chief among these was The Liberator, published from 1831 to 1865. In the first edition of this journal, editor William Lloyd Garrison wrote:
I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as un-compromising as justice.
The Liberator and similar anti-slavery publications pulled no punches. Slave owners were referred to as thieves, pirates “man-stealers” and devils, accused of adultery, murder and even worse things. Names were published openly. Even men’s religious convictions were abashed. Frederick Douglass once wrote:
I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Appendix)
The tone and tenor of the abolitionist campaign was roundly criticized by Southerners and Northerners alike as “insane and bloody ravings”1. Certainly, the majority of anti-slavery persons preferred a much more congenial approach, and were frustrated that the radicals got all the attention. Respectable Christians, even if anti-slavery, were embarrassed by abolitionism, and sought to distance themselves from it. Catherine E. Beecher, the daughter of famous Boston preacher Lyman Beecher once wrote:
The Abolitionists have violated all these laws of mind and of experience, in dealing with their southern brethren...They have not approached them with the spirit of love, courtesy, and forbearance. (An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, 1837)
Yet it was not the passive pleadings of the majority which eventually began to turn public opinion against slavery, but the vehement, strongly worded pronouncements that persistently emitted from abolitionist societies through their speeches and publications. At the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln singled out William Lloyd Garrison, possibly the most abrasive personality in the abolitionist movement, for special recognition, commenting that as far as concerned the end of slavery,
“I have been only an instrument. The logic and moral power of Garrison and the anti-slavery people of the country, and the army, have done it all.” (statement to Daniel Chamberlain, reconstruction governor of South Carolina)
To read more about the American church’s abysmal response to slavery, and how we can do better, click here.
19TH CENTURY ANTI-ABORTIONISTS
In the mid 19th Century, the newly founded American Medical Association (AMA) and the nation’s leading newspapers carried out a crusade against the growing practice of abortion in cities around the United States. Although their publications expressed sympathy for those women who were somehow forced into abortion or who did not fully comprehend what they were doing, they were not timid about condemning both the act of abortion and those who participated in it, including those abortion-minded woman whose circumstances were less pitiable. For example, in 1860, in a book dedicated to improving the health and welfare of women, Dr. A.K. Gardner wrote:
From no excess of religious faith in even a false, idolatrous god, are such hecatombs of human beings slain, but our women, from a devotion to dress and vain pride of outward show, become murderesses of their own children … We take the liberty of speaking freely and plainly upon a topic which the pulpit shirks and the community winks at. We shall speak plainly what we know, and strongly what we feel. The moral sense of the community is at a fearful pass … Is it not arrant laziness, sheer, craven, culpable cowardice which is at the bottom of this base act? Are you not dastardly shirking your duty, the duty of your life appointed you by the Creator? Have you the right to choose an indolent, selfish life, neglecting the work GOD has appointed you to perform? Are you a man who encourage your wife to such a villainous procedure? Or are you the woman whose love for gew-gaws and trinkets prompts to the outrage against the heavenly sanctity of a true woman's nature? Whichever you are, you are a pitiful, God-forsaken wretch, and all true humanity despises you and hoots at you … You voluntarily commit murder. (The Knickerbocker, Physical Decline of American Women, January, 1860, section titled Positive Sins of Commission pages 46-49)
The physicians were aware that their tone was apt to offend sensitive ears, but were unapologetic. After a paragraph calling on respectable practitioners to utterly shun contact with “these modern Herods” (abortionists), the AMA’s 1871 Report on Criminal Abortion included this statement:
If in the foregoing report our language has appeared to some strong and severe, or even intemperate, let the gentlemen pause for a moment and reflect on the importance and gravity of our subject … an honest judge on the bench would call things by their proper names. We could do no less. (Report of Special Committee on Criminal Abortion, American Medical Association, 1871 –see storer chapter 18 note 21)
The moral sense of the community did not remain at an impasse indefinitely. As more and more physicians spoke out against the abortion industry, often in language just as strongly as this, public opinion began to shift from complacency to stalwart opposition. By 1890, strict laws against abortion had been passed in every state, and the practice, which had been growing more common and more socially acceptable prior to this point, was arrested in its progress. Abortion, in effect, became unthinkable.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer, of course, was a young German Lutheran pastor who vocally opposed the National Socialists during their infamous Third Reich of the 1930s and 1940s. His obduracy and the part he played in the 1944 Valkeyrie Plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler cost him his life, as he was executed mere weeks before the end of WWII. Bonhoeffer tried long and hard to warn the German people of the evils inherent in National Socialism. Yet even prior to the rise of the Nazis, he was speaking out against the lackadaisical Christianity that had become commonplace in German churches.
For example, in 1932, at the then famous Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin (frequented by many movers and shakers in German society), on Reformation Sunday, a day usually given to uplifting sermons about the glories of the Lutheran heritage, Bonhoeffer came down hard on the congregation for permitting that heritage to become nothing more than a formalistic ritual devoid of fruit. According to biographer Eric Metaxes:
“Bonhoeffer opened with the bad news: the Protestant church was in the eleventh hour, he said, and it’s ‘high time we realized this.’ The German church, he said, is dying or is already dead. Then he directed his thunder at the people in the pews. He condemned the grotesque inappropriateness of having a celebration when they were all, in fact, attending a funeral … It was as if he’d thrown a bucket of water on the congregation and had then thrown his shoes at them … Nor was it the only sermon of its kind that he would preach that year.”
Many of his fellow believers no doubt wondered how the young Bonhoeffer, then only 26 years old, felt justified in preaching such a condemnatory sermon to such a distinguished crowd on such an auspicious day. We see now that he was more than justified. They would have done well to have listened better.
Social revolutionaries, both Christian and secular, understand these principles, though they often take a long time to fully understand them. For example, in response to an utterly weak and compromising Vatican statement that called for the “gradual” welcoming of sexual deviants into the Roman Catholic church, a Msgr. Charles Pope penned the following:
Generally, in these days of rapid cultural collapse and deep cynicism about biblical morality, a silent, quiet, or highly gentle approach is likely to be regarded as evidence of implicit agreement. Many today will say, “See, I went to this parish or that confessor and no one said anything to me about what I’m doing; no one seems concerned. So I guess it’s all right.” Thus, gentleness is confused with approval.
In summary, let us draw some general conclusions from the examples given above.
Righteous indignation is appropriate when the people you are talking to do not recognize their sin. It is not necessary to convict a person who is already convicted. Someone who sees the error of his or her ways should be embraced and encouraged, shown mercy and forgiveness. It is the unrepentant, both those who are consciously, belligerently entrenched in their sin and those who casually assume their innocence, who should be confronted and rebuked.
If you think you’re being adequately indignant, you probably aren’t. Very few of us would instinctively say the sort of things Jesus said at the times and places He chose to say them. Our judgment is warped, and is not a reliable guide to how indignant we should behave. This is why it helps to study the words of Biblical and historical characters to put everything in perspective. Generally, our situations justify a much more forceful response than we imagine they do. The exception to this rule is when we are addressing family and close friends, people with whom we are apt to be too familiar, or personal enemies, people towards whom we have an axe to grind. With those people we are likely to be too indignant, unjustifiably. In such situations we should show more restraint.
Do not judge your effectiveness by the response of your audience. In most of the examples cited above, the persons being rebuked did not respond positively to being chastised, at least not immediately. They were defensive and often violently so. Does this mean that Jesus, John the Baptist, Tertullian, the abolitionists and Bonhoeffer were wrong? No. While the immediate response of the person being rebuked was defensiveness, it often resulted, long term, in that person having a change of heart, such as in the case of the crowd addressed by Peter and the Jews convicted by Ezra
Your audience includes everyone observing what you say, not just the person or persons you are addressing. It is far easier for someone to recognize their error when they are observing another person being rebuked for the same thing. Because they themselves are not the target of chastisement, they are less likely to become defensive, and thus more willing to consider the message. This is not always true, but it is true often enough. In addition, we must remember that there are always men and women who don’t feel any particular way about the subject at hand, listening to the debate and deciding how they feel. Our behavior and language should not be so confrontational as to be off putting, but neither should it lack the intensity and abrasiveness justified when confronting an evil of epic proportions. Observers need to know how passionate we are, or they won’t take us seriously.
Righteous indignation is not “old fashioned” or “culturally irrelevant”. Some might argue that, while this sort of thing worked in the past, it will not work in modern America. But how silly. The examples given above come from multiple societies in many various epochs. Are we really so unique? The words of Jesus, Bartholomew de las Casas and William Lloyd Garrison were just as offensive in their own cultures as they would be today, as evidenced by the often violent response of the hearer. Yet they brought men to repentance and changed the world. Cultural differences exist, but man is still the same deep down as he always was, and sin should be confronted basically the same way.
“Speaking the truth in love” is, Biblically and historically, a very different thing than modern American pro-lifers consider it to be. If we want to be successful, we should take our cue from Scripture and from successful reformers of the past. While there is a time for soft-spoken entreaty, there is also a time for harshly worded, abrasive conviction. The latter is appropriate much more often than we are inclined to think. Anti-abortionists should remove the dichotomy from their speech and behavior. If abortion is murder, we should act like it is. Strong, forceful and cutting words are not out of place or unloving. They are exactly the way God wants us to respond to sin, and demonstrate that we truly do love both the victims of injustice and its perpetrators.
1: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec. 31, 1860, p. 3