Political correctness in and of itself is not a bad thing. In the simplest of terms, it’s a way of treating people with respect regardless of ethnicity, gender, race, religion, socio-economic status, and other things that have the potential to divide. According to that definition, Jesus was politically correct. He treated everyone with dignity because God’s love does not discriminate; Jesus knew that God loves everybody as much as He loves anybody.
Scripture instructs us to be civil in our conversations: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up… that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29). However, what if charitable discourse in Jesus’ day was nothing like what we consider civil today. If we’re being realistic we have to admit that we live in a pampered society. Our sense of entitlement causes us to reject anything uncomfortable.
Yet without discomfort, there is no cross. Without pain, there is no discipleship. Without offense, it’s impossible to live the life Jesus calls us to.
People groups of the world have distinctive understandings of what “civility” really means. I’m not sure overindulgent mainstream Americans should be the ones setting the bar for what’s considered offensive, especially if God is more clearly identified in the margins. Marginalized people want the truth; they need the truth. They long for the only thing that has the power to set them free. I’m thankful to be part of the Church of the Nazarene: a church that has been intentionally taking truth to the margins from the very beginning.
For many cultures, passionate disagreement is not only normal but also expected. There’s a great deal of biblical evidence supporting fervent dialogical disagreement. The Prophets, the Apostles, and Jesus himself spoke harshly at times. Their language wasn’t set-aside only for the religious leaders as some might say. Jesus had heated words for His followers, adversaries, disciples, and general audience. Peter, Paul, and other disciples also expressed themselves very matter-of-factly in many situations.
When Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers it wasn’t a charitable act. The moneychangers were common folk that had set up a spiritual flea market in the temple. They had taken something meant for one thing and turned it into something else. Jesus obviously thought the situation warranted a strong correction. In the Palestinian culture of that day, and in many cultures around the world today, confrontational dialogue wasn’t, and isn’t, considered offensive. In fact, it was, and still is, commonplace.
Postmodern America has an inaccurate understanding of political correctness. It’s become a new form of intolerance disguised as tolerance. The current cultural climate makes absolutes almost nonexistent; any claim to truth disturbs people’s sensibilities. I’m uncertain how we arrived at this place when one of the foundational blocks of American society is freedom of speech. It’s impossible to live in a society of free speech and never be offended by what others are saying.
Remember, “To those who are disobedient, ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,’ and ‘a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.’ They stumble, being disobedient to the word…” (1 Peter 2:7-8).
The gospel is offensive… period. The gospel confronts people; it makes us uncomfortable. It leaves us with a difficult choice. It forces one to admit that his or her way is the wrong way. Challenging people to completely reorder their life is a radical and evasive concept, particularly in postmodern America.
When a church becomes more concerned with political correctness than the power of the gospel it quickly becomes ineffective.
Let me explain how this has affected me personally. Often I have reservations about saying things in conversations with other Christian leaders, from the pulpit, and on social media. I’ve identified these reservations as a condition imposed on my thinking by the current state of our society. If the Bible speaks to an issue, I believe with grace and truth, I should be able to speak to the issue as well. In fact, as a minister of the gospel, I feel obligated to speak.
The old adage, “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean,” has become an increasingly difficult task. People take offense where none is intended, which causes pastors and Christian leaders to be guarded. People presume the act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant and intentionally hurtful; this is especially true in the digital world. Therefore, an insistence on greater civility has emerged. Failure to engage by the arbitrary rules of cultural civility results in charges of ignorance and bigotry.
If there’s ever been a society where no one has the right to live unoffended, it’s the United States of America. In fact, we should expect to hear things that challenge our worldview. Dealing with what others believe is a small price to pay for living in a free country. Yet being easily offended has become fashionable. One can hardly exist on a college campus without being inundated with progressive points of view, and it’s not much different in Christian universities. If you refuse to drink the cool-aid then you’re labeled close-minded and lack critical thinking skills.
The paradoxical outcome of insisting on greater civility often goes beyond frequent offense to the realm of “outrage.” When this happens the PC police come after their opponents with no holds barred. They will shut anyone down at any cost that constantly disagrees with their views. Sound familiar? Yes, that’s exactly what the religious leaders did to Jesus when they put Him on the cross. The rules of political correctness get tossed out the window when the PC crowd becomes convinced that they’re right on any given issue.
The problem with the postmodern understanding of political correctness is that it focuses primarily on people’s feelings, not on being gracious and truthful. And when progressive thinkers assume places of greater influence in the church the focus shifts from what God declares as true to how people feel about what God declares as true. When the church starts focusing on how people feel about truth more than truth itself, God quickly gets extracted from the conversation.
We have arrived at a place where one cannot caringly confront cultural deception without upsetting the applecart. When this happens the spirit of offense protests. Again, they believe their cause is greater than anything anyone else has to say. Their rhetoric causes those who don’t agree with them to back down because they feel intellectually inferior. Of course, if it’s coming from the university it must be intellectually informed, right?
This, my friends, is the influence of postmodernity’s version of political correctness.
Now might be a good time to remember the words of the Apostle Paul: “Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ” (Col. 2:8).
Instead of allowing scriptural truth to speak to modern-day concerns, the spirit of political correctness is causing many to impose contemporary cultural issues on scripture. They insert a version of the truth and spoon-feed it to the masses until it becomes uncharitable to say anything contrary.
Paul tells his young protégée, Timothy: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:2-4).
That’s good advice for all of us.
Remember, it’s impossible to speak truth without rocking the boat. Don’t stop speaking. Speak gracefully, but boldly. Don’t cave to the pressure of the current cultural stream of political correctness. When we do the gospel loses its effectiveness. Once that happens, like the builders of old, we reject the “chief cornerstone.” When the foundation is stripped away everything else falls apart and that’s not good for anyone.