A distressing and especially malicious element in public discourse these days is the widespread practice of labelling people instead of discussing the issues. Let anyone betray his or her belief that homosexual behavior is defined as sin in the Bible, and immediately that person is labelled a homophobe. If someone expresses an objection to calling the union of two homosexuals a marriage, that person is labelled a bigot. If anyone suggests that every person’s life is valuable, regardless of color, that person is labelled a racist. As soon as the label is applied, the discussion ends, because calling people names shuts down every possibility that multiple viewpoints may be considered.
This practice is extremely detrimental to the citizens who want to use the right of free speech to discuss touchy topics. There are a lot of topics that should be discussed, but too much of the conversation is stifled when one side or the other begins to apply labels instead of looking at the information and various viewpoints.
It must absolutely be said that people who proclaim themselves as progressive or freethinker are no less likely to engage in this practice than someone who claims the name of conservative or Christian fundamentalist. Name-calling abounds. And wherever you find name-calling you do not find any fruitful conversations. Instead there is often competition to see who runs out of pejorative labels first. That person must slink off the field of verbal combat in disgrace, carrying the last label thrown at him with shame-faced despair, muttering diatribes and vitriol that don’t quite carry the punch of a widely-ratified insult such as islamophobe.
Our nation is being impoverished and starved by the dearth of real political conversation. It may lead to the end of the USA as it was once known. I don’t doubt there will be a country called United States of America a hundred years hence, but it will no more resemble the country we enjoy today than today’s Italy resembles the Roman Empire.
I don’t bring up this subject to beat on people who disagree with me. They have their names for me and my viewpoints, and I recognize that they take comfort from using those names. It makes them feel good about themselves. The ugly names apply to me, and in their minds, by sticking me with the labels, they look better themselves. I am bringing up the subject, however, because some people whose honest views I share have begun to use those ugly, vicious labels themselves.
Some will say that the people who promote abortion, for example, are the real racists, because more black babies than white are aborted annually. They believe that they are making a point that should be considered thoughtfully by the people who have been calling them racists for saying that all lives matter. They are not making any point at all. The person who is zinged with one of these ugly labels does not respond to the logic that led to the use of the label. The wounded party wants to rip that barb out of his flesh and plunge a spear into the enemy before him. He does not want to discuss with his enemy the rules of engagement or the topics in the declaration of war. Name-calling does not make logical points; it prevents any logical points from being discussed.
This is why I say, “You can’t share God’s love with a bigot.” You may be ever so correct in your analysis of the issues and positions when you call your honorable opponent in the conversation a bigot, but as soon as you apply that label, the issues and positions might as well not exist. That label is a personal assault, and the injured party will absolutely respond to both the pain and the anger such an assault creates. If you are a Christian who wants to discuss when human life begins with an abortion advocate, you may be semantically correct to call him a bigot, but you will be committing a serious rhetorical blunder. After you have used that word, you will not be able to say with any credibility, “God loves you.”
What is it that we all want to accomplish when we enter into these discussions, conversations, and shouting matches? I can only speak for myself. I want people to read or hear my words and recognize that I am speaking truth without malice. I may be advocating on behalf of injured parties such as aborted babies, starving families or even the fabric of our culture, but I always want to speak with words that do not have built-in barbs. I really want the points I make to be true to the teachings of Jesus, and I want Jesus to shine through my words. I want the truth, not the insult, to prick the hearts of my opponents.
That is why you may sometimes detect that I have taken a rather convoluted route to get to the truth. I want to sidestep those moments that might lead to name-calling. I never want to weaken or avoid the truth, but I may want to apply it in small bursts rather than in a salvo. I always fear that somehow one of those ugly words will break out despite my best efforts. If it comes my way, I hope to deflect it with words of truth.
My only source of courage and strength in such difficult conversations is prayer. When I know that such a conversation is coming up, I pray about it ahead of time. If the discussion takes place online, I pray as I go, and likewise with unexpected interactions. I believe that is how Paul always had such good answers when he was challenged. I believe it is the reason he wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 that we should “pray without ceasing.”
I am no master of the art of argumentation. (Keep in mind that argumentation is very different from squabbling.) I do think that Carl Medearis is a great model for Christians engaged in the conversations that shape the culture conflict. Medearis has spent his life speaking truth to Muslims, and he has learned a great deal that is valuable to any Christian who wants to speak words of grace, seasoned with salt, whether engaged in advocacy or just sharing the good news. I recommend his book Speaking of Jesus: The art of non-evangelism. I have only just begun reading it, and already I recognize that it is a good guide to help anyone with the problem I am discussing here.
Any Christian who chooses to speak up rather than sit on the sidelines and let the deluge of secularism wipe out religious liberty and public morality will face the challenge to avoid name-calling. It is tough. Because we are human, the battle with our cultural adversaries is predictably accompanied by a battle with our emotions. It is not easy to love someone who readily abandons the battle of ideas and begins to battle with insults, but we must bathe all such conversations in prayer. It is impossible to convince someone you love him and speak as the ambassador of a loving Christ if you have just called him a bigot.
By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com. Watch for the release of Thrive! Live Christian in a Hostile World, planned for release in the autumn of 2016