As a younger preacher I sometimes read the following admonition: “We do not speak so as to be understood, but so as not to be misunderstood.” I guess that sounded catchy to whoever thought of it and apparently to others who kept repeating it. There was always something that bugged me about that cliché, and then one day it hit me: Not even Jesus could speak so as not to be misunderstood. The gospel records are full of misinterpretations by His audiences, from His use of figurative language to violating conventional wisdom to outright distortions of what He said by His enemies. Jesus expressed Himself perfectly, yet His words were often mangled beyond recognition.
Then it further dawned on me: Communication is a two-way street. Yes, speakers (or writers) have the duty to speak clearly, logically and consistently, but the hearers have a responsibility as well. They must fight mental laziness, resist the tendency to filter everything through their prejudices and not falsely attribute conclusions to the speaker or twist his words into a meaning he did not intend.
Well, here we are in 2020 where words have become weaponized, inadvertent misstatements have become toxic and special interest biases have set linguistic landmines in order to destroy the enemy. We routinely see reputations ruined, careers destroyed, public shaming over an opinion or the use of a term that some grievance group has recently pronounced offensive, bigoted, phobic, demeaning, abusive or hateful. Freedom of speech is being replaced by fearfulness to speak. This is not accidental.
The “wokeness” movement is not designed to help people become kinder and gentler. It is ideological warfare, the attempt to gain an advantage by silencing the enemy and destroying the cultural landscape that he occupies. The political aspects of this warfare are not our immediate concern; our interest primarily lies in the spiritual threat that such an atmosphere creates for God’s people. Consider the following challenges:
The temptation to speak untruth. With fear of public ostracism and professional reprisal, the temptation is to simply conform to the current standards and adopt the imposed language. There are dangers in this: 1) If you speak the words, how long will it be before you believe the ideas behind them?, and 2) It is demoralizing when you say things you know aren’t true. In either case we lose when we follow the path of least resistance.
Various societal factors can force us into a veritable minefield of moral dilemmas. Most of the “gotcha” issues of the day are based on sexual identity and race, and “virtue signalers” – corporate and individual – are trampling each other to get on the bandwagon first. The result: there is tremendous pressure to speak untruths out of self-preservation.
When His opponents spoke lies, Jesus made their loyalties very plain: “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (Jn 8:44). We should have a strong revulsion against speaking untruth, for doing so identifies us with the wrong father.
What a pathetic moment it was when the Jewish high priest, flush with self-righteous indignation, demanded of Jesus: “I adjure You by the living God that You tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God” (Mt 26:63). Jesus knew the implications of His answer, but He refused to deny Himself (cf. 2 Tim 2:13). Truth had to be told no matter the cost, and speak the truth He did. Yes, speak with love and grace, answer wisely, but do not sell out your faith and integrity by speaking what you know is not true.
The temptation to withhold truth. Perhaps more insidious is the temptation to speak with ambiguity and lay low until the crisis passes. After all, Solomon says there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecc 3:7), and “he who restrains his lips is wise” (Pr 10:19). We Christians want peace; we want everyone to get along. But at what price? And is peace that withholds truth really peace, or is it called something else?
Granted, there are occasions and media platforms in which it is wise to restrain one’s words. Social media is proving to be extremely hostile to thoughtful, constructive discussion. An acquaintance recently opined that some don’t yet understand the volatility of Facebook, that comments made on it are being read by scores of people ready to pounce on any perceived politically incorrect language or idea. Further, words can be broadcast far beyond the audience intended, and great damage can be done once an exchange “goes viral.”
Please consider this carefully: Many people fighting the cultural war do not want a reasoned discussion; they just want to silence the opposition any way they can – slander, labeling (bigot, racist, homophobe, etc.) or outright intimidation. While it may be wise to avoid situations where our words will be distorted, when we are personally confronted with a direct challenge to the truth, we must have the courage to speak. That does not mean we must respond to everything we read on social media, but it may mean telling a family member who has “come out” as transgender that we will not speak or act in a way that denies reality.
In a world of lies, distortions, political correctness and humanistic claptrap, telling the truth is the greatest gift we can offer. And while it might create a momentary backlash, it just may save a soul in the long run.
The temptation to adopt the world’s tactics. The current climate in public discourse is ruthless. When someone expresses unapproved words, they are castigated, denounced and publicly humiliated. And even though many grovel and beg for forgiveness for daring to voice their un-PC view, they often lose their job regardless. Once again, mea culpas are fruitless because the enemy isn’t after apologies. The end game is capturing the ideological high ground, and anyone in the way is expendable.
Sometimes saints adopt the standards of society rather than repudiate them. It is easy to conflate the political and the religious and unconsciously parrot the language of our peers. Instead of engaging others in reasoned discussion, we may employ a scorched earth policy and divide ourselves into “us” and “them” – and then show “them” no mercy. “My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (Jas 3:10).