The National Catholic Review

I am always worried when people go to the “that’s how Jesus did it” arguments, especially when Ned Flanders gets dissed in the process: “You don’t think I should overturn your tables? That’s what Jesus did in the Temple!” “Whoa, I’m sorry you don’t like me saying ‘Woe, to you, hypocrites,’ but that’s how Jesus rolled!” This is the basic argument made in a National Catholic Register article "Voris, Corapi, And The Ned Flanderification Of Catholic Commentary" about someone I have never heard or seen before, but who has been, apparently, criticized for his rough as sandpaper, in your face style: Michael Voris, who contributes to RealCatholicTV.com. Pat Archbold has jumped to his Voris’ defense, and I have nothing to say about Voris’ style or the worthwhileness of his defense, as I cannot comment on either of these issues. What I want to comment on is Archbold’s type of defense of Voris by plucking passages from Jesus and John the Baptist in the New Testament.

If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then I would have to say that defending annoying, loud, judgmental or irritating behavior or speech on the basis of Jesus’ behavior or words is the last refuge of one who does not have an argument. This is meant to be an argument stopper: “you think his speech is bad, rough around the edges, pushy? Do you know what Jesus said to the Sadducees? How about John the Baptist, do you know how he talked to his opponents?” Expected response: “well, if Jesus and John the Baptist were that obnoxious and rude, then I suppose that if that preacher (or writer/ priest/teacher/evangelist/self-appointed judgmental bossy person, etc.) is rude in speaking the truth to me he has every right to be rude to me.”  

Here is the significant excerpt from Archbold’s article:

“Remember St. John the Baptist?  He called the Pharisees snakes, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.”

That St. John guy, do you hear the way he speaks to people?  He won’t win over anyone speaking like that.  Who does he think he is?  Only the greatest of all men born of women.  Who says so?  Jesus says so.

Oh, and then there is Jesus.  Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites and whitewashed tombs.  That sounds more like Voris than Ned Flanders.  Not very nicey nice.  And then there is hyperbole.  Jesus was fond of that too as when he said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  And then there was that whole “Get behind me Satan” thing he said to Peter.  That is about as in your face as you can get.  If exaggeration to make a point is good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for me.

And why not a little righteous indignation from time to time?  Jesus threw the money lenders out of the temple.

So why did St. John the Baptist and Jesus sometimes use blunt criticism and hyperbole to make points?  Because they knew, as some others do today, that this can be an effective way to reach people.  Not everyone can be reached by soothing tones and polite discussion.  Sometimes it takes a little more.

So in the pantheon of Catholic commentators and preachers, isn’t there a little room for the blunt?  Isn’t there room for a little fire and brimstone among the soothing pastels of the preponderance of today’s preaching?  I hope so.”

I will try to be as kind as I can in responding to this argument, but a couple of points need to be established. John the Baptist was a prophet and Jesus is considered by Christians to be both God and man, the Messiah, Lord, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. The next time you feel like shouting at someone, or judging them, or using blunt criticism or calling them names, you need to take a breath, count to five and ask yourself, “Am I the son of man,the Messiah?” If you answer “no,” you might want to rethink your strategy and try speaking the truth in kindness and gentleness. You might want to keep in mind a particular word: presumption. Do not presume to speak like a prophet if you do not have the calling of a prophet.

This is not, by the way, an argument against speaking the truth, in season or out of season, but it is an argument against using the language and behavior of Jesus as an excuse to satisfy your desire to bully, hurt, and manipulate others with your words. How do I know? Because I have always had a sharp tongue and a way with words and I was constantly looking for excuses to justify my speech when I hurt people. Usually, though, rough speech is intended to satisfy the speaker emotionally and not help the one they hurt. So, when we want to use this sort of speech and justify ourselves for using it by pointing to Jesus, we need to keep one word in mind: presumption. You are not the Messiah and you do not know the true heart and mind of the one to whom you are speaking. Jesus’ speech and John the Baptist’s speech was divinely ordained speech, contained in revelatory documents. Is your speech divinely ordained? Do not presume to know how proper your cutting words are if you do not know the person to whom you are speaking as the Messiah does: completely and perfectly.

It is an act of presumption to speak in the manner of Jesus and John the Baptist, with blunt criticism and hyperbole, speaking of  hypocrites and whitewashed tombs, and broods of vipers, with righteous indignation, when you do not have the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Then you just seem to people like a scold and a judgmental bully. Do not be surprised that if you act with this kind of presumption, people will not have a lot of time for you when you stumble and fall, except to accuse you of being a whitewashed tomb, a hypocrite, and a member in good standing of a brood of vipers.

In fact, it is best in speech to take the advice of James and Paul. James says in chapter 3 of his letter:

For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. (James 3:2-18)

This is a long passage on the use of the tongue, human speech, but it is worth reading and considering in full. There are a few lines that stand out for me: “for all of us make many mistakes;”  “no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison;” “show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom;” “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” Since all of us make many mistakes in speech, and the tongue is a deadly poison, we ought to work hard to minimize these possibilities of error wherever we can. We cannot be presumptive in our speech and judgment when we know that many have been hurt by these tactics. Gentleness and peace are the hallmarks of a Christian life, in deed and in speech. As Paul says in Philippians 4:5, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” This gentleness can be practiced even when speaking the truth or, rather, especially when speaking the truth. And if anyone disagrees with me? Slither back to your pits, you vipers and hypocrites, before I come and turn over all your furniture! Ooops! Neighborinos, I should have said, "Well, tippety-top of the A.M. to every-good-body here. Cockily-doodily-doo, good buddies." That's what I meant to say.

John W. Martens,

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

Comments

Anonymous | 4/20/2011 - 11:19pm
Did MLK ever raise his voice and call out those who were less than faithful - in his eyes - to the Gospel message of salvation?

How about Tom Gumbleton when speaking of the school of the Americas or America's nuclear arsenal or military industrial complex?

Seems to me there need be a distinction between style and content. Style may include fire and brimstone.... IF the content warrants it.

If the content of our speech is iffy at best and we're arguing over taste (Latin or English?) then perhaps fire and brimstone is just not called for (unless its wicked satire).

But there are topics of concern both theologian and social that do call for someone to speak truth to power in a vociferous way. And in the USA cultural scene, the powers that be are well insulated in their cocoons of a lap-dog media complex that spares them the indignities that the other half of the country has suffered routinely for the past 50 years or so. Giving someone a small taste of their own medicine in the form of a harague might be the best thing that ever happens to them. Heck of a lot better than lulling them into complacency.

Anyone remember the last day before the election in 1984? Mondale was moving up in the polls. CBS was confident that the race was going to be close one. Half the country was convinced that the Democrats were 'almost' there.... and then Reagan won in an historic 49 state landslide. How did that happen unless the media told itself what it wanted to hear rather than the unpleasant truth of a political tectonic shift? Do we want ecclesial or cultural shifts to happen under our feet unawares or do we - enlightened, smart folk all - want to get a heads up? Voris is a heads up as to what's going on. There are a lot of things moving folks... we just need eyes to see the signs of the times and not just whatever it happens that THE TIMES happen to decide is newsworthy!
Dan Lord | 4/20/2011 - 12:33pm
John, in response to your response: your idea that a guy can only emulate Jesus' or John's occasional use of stern methods when that guy has a "divine mandate" is an invention on your part. There is no precedent for that idea in Church teaching, as far as I know. Since hindsight is 20/20 we can all look back on the spiritual heroes of the past and say, "yes, they had a divine mandate," yet few prophets could say the audience of their time recognized or accepted that fact. Instead, prophets are generally rejected, as Jesus was rejected. The fact is, we are all called to share in the prophetic ministry of Jesus, and-as he showed-that may sometimes, when the situation warrants it, call for something other than gentleness of speech. Not rudeness-that's just bad manners-but righteous idignation. That's an important distinction which validates what Mr. Archbold was trying to tell us.
Marie Rehbein | 4/19/2011 - 12:48pm
I think the tone some people use to convey whatever it is they hope to convey has more to do with getting media attention these days than it does with choosing the means that is most likely to influence individuals.  If the someone has a message and hopes to bring it to the attention of a large number of people, then being loud and outrageous will likely acheive that aim.  

There is a difference between being heard and being influential, however.  If one is supposed to be persuasive, then it is not reasonable to offend those whom one wishes to persuade.  How stupid it is to claim that it is one's "style" to say things rudely and expect that one's intended audience will look past one's style and hear one's message.  It is even more stupid to claim that it is Jesus's style and that one is imitating it. 

Having been to many meetings for many different purposes, I attest to the fact that the speaker at the front of the room using a raised voice does not attract nearly as much attention as the individual whispering something in the middle of the room.  So, if someone has something they want to convey to others, the better approach might be to speak softly in the midst of the gathering, rather than attempting to draw attention to oneself in preparation for delivering one's message. 

 
Richard Imgrund | 4/19/2011 - 12:19pm
It seems to me that your advice is applicable mainly to oneself in contemplating a particular manner of presenting an issue as a Christian. If you are contemplating correcting another Christian, as you or Mr. Archbold contemplate responding to Mr. Voris' style of presentation, that is when you remind yourself that Jesus Christ or John the Baptist often used a similar style. In the event, Mr. Voris should be reluctant to use the "Christ overturned the tables, too" defense FOR HIMSELF. You and Mr. Archbold and others should be eager to use the "Christ overturned the tables, too" defense FOR HIM.
Dan Lord | 4/18/2011 - 5:44pm
Hi John, I like a lot of what you write here, but I think your criticism of Mr. Archbold is WAY over the top. He isn't condoning pathological verbal abuse, after all. He writes clearly:"Isn’t there room for a little fire and brimstone among the soothing pastels of the preponderance of today’s preaching?" Gentleness of speech should be our default; I feel pretty sure that Mr. Archbold would agree. But, as some of Jesus' actions show us, there is a legitimate time and place for stern speech; James doesn't rule that out-he tells us that we definitely should guard our tongues, and not be "boastful and false to the truth," but he doesn't say that we should never use "a little fire and brimstone," if the situation demands it (a tactic which worked nicely for the Ninevites in the Book of Jonah-they repented!).  
Kang Dole | 4/18/2011 - 2:13pm
You've nailed it. This could not have been better stated.

Actually, your commentary intersects with a massive pet peave of mine, which is when people use "Pharisee" as an epithet to denigrate their opponents with respect to religious questions. It's terribly common (and just plain terrible in my mind), and demonstrates a lazy engagement with history, the Bible, and rhetoric. Much as someone who wishes to call hiis opponents "broods of vipers" isn't the Son of Man or a called prophet, his opponents probably aren't members of early Jewish dining associations engaged in debates over social and ritual purity issues.