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Why Christians Should Model Civil Public Conversation

September 1983. Franklin, Tennessee.

One of our best soccer players runs toward me, tears streaming down his 7-year-old face. Because he’d just accidently kicked the ball into our net and scored for the other team, I thought I knew why he was upset. Not so.

“They’re calling me big, fat Jabba the Hutt,” he sobbed, motioning with his head toward his teammates. “I’m not a big, fat Jabba the Hutt.”

He also wouldn’t be a soccer player much longer. The next week he told me he was quitting to concentrate on gymnastics. “I’m going to do something so I don’t have to depend on anyone but me,” he explained.

Unstated, but clearly understood: he was not a big, fat Jabba the Hutt – the disgusting, sloth-like evil meanie from the summer’s hit movie, “Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi.”

And when his angry teammates targeted him with that name, it was intended to hurt. Bull’s-eye.

Unfortunately, the power of words to damage doesn’t end when you change sports. Or grow up.

In fact, a strong case could be made that in today’s antagonistic, I’m-right-you’re-wrong culture, adults are much more productive and creative in wounding with words. Only we’re not always as obvious about it.

Today, it is seen as a “right” to say anything about anyone and if they don’t like it, tough.

For many people, being “politically correct” (PC) – originally intended to encourage people to say “deaf mute” instead of “deaf and dumb,” not call grown men “boys” or adult women “girls” and to recognize that ethnic slurs are contrary to civilization in general and Christianity in particular and so on. (you know, the verbal aspect of the Golden Rule) – has become a bad thing.

At best, being PC is considered a weakness; at worst, akin to Nazi Germany’s and Communist Russia’s attempts at thought control through groupthink.

The Oxford dictionary defines “political correctness” thusly: “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”

Logically, it follows that the opposite – political incorrectness (PIC) – requires using terms that offend and hurt people: negatively labeling “other” groups by painting emotions with the broadest possible brush, demeaning people for things they have no control over, insisting that the mean-sounding words aren’t mean – they are just “honesty.”

Does the Bible speak to this?

A good starting point is to check our emotional and spiritual temperature when we choose to be PIC. If I knowingly call an individual or a group something that may sting or rile, what motivated that word choice?

I confess that when I want to insult by being PIC, it is because I am angry at a person or persons or at something they remind me of. And I want to hurt them.

What does it mean if my PIC vocabulary is spawned by anger? Jesus warned that, “out of the heart come evil thoughts” (Matthew 15:19). The Old Testament advises, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

How does our Second Amendment right to free expression stand up to our responsibilities as Christ followers to care about the feelings and needs of others?

Jesus clearly felt that loving others trumped our rights. Thus, we should walk the second mile (Matthew 5:41) and give people more than they ask for (Matthew 5:40-42). The church at Phillippi and all Christians were encouraged that “your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).

Paul states we should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21) and he clearly championed being PC when he talked about eating meat or not, depending on the feelings of those surrounding you at the table (1 Corinthians 8:9-13).

And being “all things to all men so that some may be saved” (1 Corinthians 9:22) looks PC-ish to me.

And why was it necessary for Timothy to be circumcised as an adult (Acts 16:3) but it wasn’t necessary for Titus (Galatians. 2:3-5)? Apparently, being politically correct to make the telling and hearing of the Gospel possible was what believers were (and are) called to do.

But if I can have only two, I opt for, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ”(Galatians 6:2) and “It [love] does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5).

Some reputable scholars argue that the Galatians’ instructions are limited to Christians carrying burdens of other Christians, but that seems to go against the clear meaning of Matthew 25 about our involvement with the least of these.

That means I am called, and gifted, to help those on the margins of society who are stung by PIC terms. They know how and where they are wounded; I don’t. So, if a fellow human says, “that hurts,” I should listen.

Of course, the “love chapter” is all about being considerate of others. Particularly relevant to this conversation is 1 Corinthians 13:5, which states that Christ-like love doesn’t dishonor others (as slurs do), casts off anger and doesn’t keep score of how it has been wronged.

Recently, I’ve given myself two spiritual tasks in watching over my language about other people:

1. To commit myself to civil and civilized discourse (such as not casually using the term “political correctness” because it offends some other people Jesus died for) and,

2. To never forget that, in Christ, love never demands its rights. It asks for the privilege.

The young boy slurred as big, fat Jabba the Hutt became a very good gymnast. He had enough self-identity to quickly throw out the emotional garbage his unthinking teammates poured into his soul.

But, unlike most targets of mean-spirited PC, he didn’t have to absorb ongoing, unrelenting emotional trash. Many people and many groups do – and not from 7-year-olds but from adults who should know better.

As we daily have an opportunity to show Christian values and attitudes with our speech, may we use our words in a way that give honor and glory to God – and show God’s love and care for all human beings.

Craig Bird is assistant professor of missions and cross-cultural communications at the Baptist University of the Américas. A version of this article first appeared on the BUA faculty blog and is used with permission.