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To speak or not to speak? 


It’s an awkward situation that I’m sure every Christian has to deal with from time to time, if not regularly: how should we respond when someone uses offensive language? A reflection by Colin Sedgwick 

Man silhouette

I was chatting the other day to a man I know very slightly. He seems a nice enough person, friendly, humorous and just “an ordinary bloke”. But his way of expressing surprise at some bit of news or whatever was to exclaim “Jesus Christ!”, which introduced a decidedly jagged edge into a light-hearted conversation. I’m sure he had no wish to offend - it was just his way of speaking.

But... how should a follower of Jesus react in that sort of situation?

If you turn a deaf ear you can’t help feeling you have let Jesus down, and have missed an opportunity for witness. And perhaps you think too of those words of Jesus about “disowning me before others”, with the threat of yourself being disowned before the Father in heaven (Matthew 10:32-34).

All right, you haven’t in fact positively disowned Jesus - like Simon Peter before the servant girl (Matthew 26:69-75) - but it amounts to much the same thing.

But then, on the other hand, if you do decide to respond it’s very difficult to know what to say without coming across as self-righteous and sanctimonious. Result: embarrassment all round, leaving them thinking “Uh-oh, he’s one of those religious nutters”, and you, putting it bluntly, feeling a bit of a prat.

I heard of one Christian who would say, “Excuse me, but you are talking about my dearest friend...” Well, ten out of ten there for zeal and courage; but it does come across as a bit squirm-inducing, don’t you think? You could say something like “I would be grateful if you didn’t use that kind of language when I’m around,” but doesn’t that sound rather like the pompous over-reaction of a delicate little petal? - like those splendid Victorian ladies who would swoon in horror and have to be revived with smelling-salts if somebody said so much as “Oh bother!”  

There’s plenty of snowflakes around these days without us Christians swelling the numbers.

Tricky, eh?

Well, I’ll tell you what I did: I turned a deaf ear. I think that was probably a sensible, balanced reaction, proportionate to the kind of offence caused. But I must admit that the nagging thought that it was in fact an act of cowardice won’t entirely go away.

We live in a world where people being “offended” seems to have become an epidemic; you almost feel, with some, that as soon as they get up in the morning they’re looking around for something new to be offended by.

We Christians shouldn’t go down that path - quite apart from anything else, I suspect that God’s shoulders are pretty broad, and we can leave it to him to look after himself.

And, as some will point out, in a world where children go to bed hungry every night, and people are being bombed to pieces, and others are rotting in prison for no other reason than that they have the wrong religious or political opinions - in such a world, can we really afford the luxury of being “offended”?

People who say that certainly have a point. But that doesn’t mean we should be indifferent to what may seem relatively trivial faults (if indeed something that appears in the ten commandments can be called “trivial”). The way we talk matters; the way we talk about God matters. Year on year our western world becomes more accepting of obscenities, crudeness and blasphemies, and this can only accelerate the coarsening and vulgarity in which we find ourselves swimming.

The more I thought about my little interaction with that man, the more I felt that the real issue is the one about failing to witness. After all, our increasingly godless culture does need to be reminded (a) that there is a God and (b) that there are people around who take him seriously, and it did seem a shame not to have taken an opportunity to fly the flag, so to speak.

Let’s be positive. The best way through the awkwardness, surely, is to live a life of such Christlike attractiveness that people instinctively sense that certain forms of speech and behaviour are not appropriate. Putting it another way, our business is to be the kind of people who command respect without others necessarily knowing that we belong to Christ.

I dislike it when people apologise to me for coarse speech because they happen to have found out that I’m a minister. But wouldn’t it be great if they refrained from such speech simply because, without even realising it, they are seeing something of the purity of Jesus in me? (If only!)

What do you think? Any thoughts on this? Any stories you have to share? 

Share your thoughts via our letters' page

Image | Ximena Nahmias | Unsplash

Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry.

He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com

Baptist Times, 05/06/2018
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