I’ve written several times about how Catholics should not be jerks on the internet (Cardinal Sins of Social Media Debate and Paul’s Letter to Social Media). I would think it obvious that being unkind towards others—especially over media as impersonal and public as social media—pushes people away from the faith.
Yet each time I’ve written, I’m met with resistance by devout Catholics—both left and right leaning—justifying their nastiness by citing various examples from scripture where Jesus (or Paul or somebody) supposedly did something similar so it’s ok—noble, even—for them to hurl insults.
This righteous indignation, most often expressed in name-calling and a cynical, condescending tone, is symptomatic of a larger trend within modern Christianity that thinks we’ve become too “nice” and what we really need to do is to stop with the lovey dovey hippy crap and go hard core Old Testament justice to wake all these snowflakes up to the truth! There’s even one famous Catholic news outlet that has embraced the uncharitable, hyperbolic, and inflammatory as their modus operandi. (Their name escapes me presently. Oh well!)
“But!” you might say, “Is kindness the proper response to blatant injustice and sin? Are not anger and condemnation appropriate in some instances?” So I got to thinking: is it ever 1) ok and 2) productive to be unkind in the name of Christ? So I dove into the bible to see if there were any guiding principles we could glean for our 21st century context. Here’s what I found:
Jesus Changes the Game
It’s pretty easy to find examples of righteous anger and vitriol in God’s name in the Old Testament. Even John the Baptist is telling people that the messiah will “burn with unquenchable fire” those found unworthy. However, Jesus appears and declares that his mission is to “bring good news to the poor and liberate the captive” (Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61). In fact, Jesus’ message is so radically merciful that a few chapters later, John the Baptist starts to doubt that Jesus is the messiah after all (Matthew 11, Luke 7). Jesus makes clear he is a different kind of prophet than they’ve seen before and a different kind of messiah than many were expecting.
Unkindness is the exception, not the rule
The examples of Jesus or the apostles insulting someone are few and far between. Meanwhile, their explicit teaching and lived example of shocking kindness and mercy abound. Jesus says to love our enemies (Matthew 5: 21-26, 38-48). Paul says to return no evil for one who hurts you but instead treat your enemies well (Romans 12). Paradoxically, this unfettered kindness makes their few moments of abrasiveness even more shocking. As a high school teacher, I witness this dynamic routinely. Students ignore the teacher that screams every day, but when a nice teacher gets stern? Everyone pays attention. So if I find that outrage and insult are my default (or if I’ve built a small Catholic media empire out of them), I’m probably not being very Christ-like. In fact, I’m probably not even being effective.
Unkind interactions are part of a larger relationship
Jesus didn’t show up on the scene calling the Pharisees a “viper’s brood” (Matthew 12:34). It was only after many discussions and debates that he had some strong words for them. These were face to face interactions with people he knew. Some of them were his friends and disciples (like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea). Likewise, Paul had spent a considerable amount of time with the Galatian church before he famously called them “stupid” in his letter (Galatians 3) and he goes on to say some fairly affectionate things later in the letter (Galatians 4:12-20, 5:7, 6:11). He also exhorts them to correct others with gentleness (5:22-23 and 6:1). Whether Paul always practiced what he preached is debatable but the point is this: neither Paul nor Jesus led with anger (see Acts 17 for an example of how Paul debated strangers in Athens). To the contrary, Paul and Jesus explicitly taught gentleness. Even in a few cases when they became stern or insulting, the relationship came first—mercy came first. The same should be true for us. If I find myself being unkind to someone I have not unambiguously demonstrated love and concern for, I’m probably off base, no matter how right I am.
Provocative, non-violent action is all good
Think of Jesus flipping the tables in the temple square and driving the animals out (Matthew 21:12). Think of Peter, Paul and other apostles stirring up trouble in pretty much every town they went into (Acts 5:27-42). People love to use these stories to justify rudeness in the name of Christ but these aren’t examples of holy people losing their temper (don’t take my word for it, here’s the world’s leading New Testament scholar on Jesus in the temple). These are examples of carefully chosen public signs to highlight the gospel message. This is Martin Luther King, Jr. stuff, not Samantha Bee or Matt Walsh stuff.
Churchy types get it worse than the “sinners”
You’ll notice the above examples of Jesus and Paul’s sternness are almost all aimed at people who are churchy types: Pharisees, temple priests, the holier-than-thou. They also tend to be public figures. Never does Jesus or one of the apostles go on blast against the ordinary, everyday sinner. In those cases (the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus, Levi/Matthew), Jesus’ first response is gentleness and concern.
So there you have it. Some basic guiding principles on when you can be a jerk for Christ. Based on the scriptural evidence, it’s not something we should do frequently. Much like the Church’s teaching on war, it’s justified only in rare cases. Rather, let us focus on recommitting ourselves to revolutionary love because that is the sort of radical, extreme, hard core badassery that Jesus preached and embodied. That is how Christians conquered the most powerful empire in the world in ancient times, and it’s the only way we’ll ever conquer as soldiers of Christ in the 21st century.