With good reason many culture-watchers have repeatedly pointed out that our civilization is in a downward spiral characterized by decreasing civility. The lack of civility is manifesting itself in the popular media of talk radio and cable TV, in the halls of Academe, in the rhetoric of different political parties and their (un)official PACs, in the pulpits, armchairs, and sofas of religious and para-religious corporations, and in the culture shaping forces of the entertainment industry.
The intensity of his downward spiral has not gone unnoticed in influential circles. Scores upon scores of books have been written in the past decade or two to address this serious problem. University campuses are sponsoring “Choosing Civility” speeches, the city of Los Angeles purportedly held a “Civility Day” on May 13, 2009 [this may be an urban legend], and Christian authors are promoting the importance of civility for followers of Christ.
Well, what kind of score would the prophet John get on his “Civility Report Card”? In the current cultural atmosphere it is certainly not hard to find New Testament scholars who criticize John’s rhetoric of violence and his interpretation of the surrounding Roman culture. Invective statements, violent descriptions, or hostile epithets used by John are labelled as “non-Christian” or “primitive ideas” from Jewish Apocalyptic thought. As one who possesses an acknowledged fondness for John the prophet, it is still hard to shake off the impression that even with John’s best foot forward (or just looking at the red letter verses) some of his ideas and speech just do not project civility.
I am confident that I can not make John’s book match the current cultural standards for civility in the United States (not to mention whether that is even a desirable goal), but I think a case can be made that John’s standards for civility were not beyond the pale of other important biblical authors and personalities. My own study of Scripture has brought me to the conclusion that there is a recurring principle that is reflected throughout Scripture when one looks at the civility issue. The principle is that the rhetoric employed corresponds to the sin or spiritual crime committed. When atrocities are committed against God or others, the volume and vehemence of the rhetoric and threats increase.
It should go without saying (but it can’t) that a believers ethical paradigm is much larger and more complex than merely asking questions (even insightful ones) about WWJD. If it is only about the imitation of Christ, then all we need is a four-Gospels Bible. While it is always necessary to ask the WWJD question, it is not sufficient to stop there with the ethical questions and discussion about civility. When we talk about Jesus Christ himself, he does not necessarily make a perfect score on the “Civility Report Card.” This is in no way intend to detract from his perfect Report Card issued at the Council of Nicea (AD 325), Council of Constantinople (AD 381), Council of Ephesus (AD 431), and Council of Chalcedon (451). But the deportment of Jesus of Nazareth was not always civil.
When Jesus is recorded as saying “woe,” it should not be confused with the English homophone, “whoa.” Serious trouble lies in the future of the person to whom Jesus says “woe.” On one such occasion Jesus invoked an image of punishment and death that depicted a very uncivil punishment from God for causing a “little one to stumble.” In fact, Christ said, God’s punishment would be even worse than the illustration. “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:1-2). I imagine this form of execution, by drowning, would easily be regarded as “cruel and unusual punishment” (8th Amendment to the US Constitution; 5th Article of Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by United Nations General Assembly). In another setting, Jesus responded to members of a different Jewish group/sect with these words, “Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds” (Matt. 23:27-28, The Message). In the same literary section Jesus vilifies his religious opponents, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matt. 23:33). Jesus also did not spare members of his own group from harsh and critical words. Jesus’ famous words with Peter, that included rebuke (Mark 8:32) and counter-rebuke (Mark 8:33a), ended with Peter being told by Jesus that he was clearly of the devil and had no idea about the thinking of God (Mark 8:33b). Only centuries of stained glass could remove the harshness and incivility of both Jesus’ mien and words in this story about Peter.
My justification for the absence of civility in these above mentioned episodes arises from the severity of the situation that Jesus was correcting. As stated earlier, “rhetoric employed corresponds to the sin or spiritual crime committed.” In some of these episodes spiritual atrocities occurred, such as causing “one of these little ones who believe to stumble” (Mark 9:42). In the Matthean setting of Matt. 23, Jesus’ opponents are guilty of:
“locking people out of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 23:13)
“making the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15)
“neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23)
“killing and crucifying the prophets, sages, and scribes I send you” (Matt. 23:34).
In part 02 this line of discussion will be extended to incivility in the words of John and other biblical prophets, and whether their contexts give support to the invectives they used.