A thought experiment: Is it worse to call former secretary of state Colin Powell a racial slur, or to call him a liar?

We now live in a society where it is impermissible to call a person a name that does not call his or her character into question, but where it is permissible to call a person a name that does, like "liar." If one goal of social interaction is to learn to judge people by the content of their character—as Martin Luther King Jr. put it—then this strikes me as a serious moral and social problem.

Most people would agree that to call Colin Powell a racial slur reflects nothing on Colin Powell as much as it says something about the person using the word. But if one calls Colin Powell a liar, (as some are now doing regarding his role leading up to the Iraq war) then that is a direct attack on his very character. While many would not believe for a second that Powell is a liar, it raises in other minds the possibility that maybe he is—and thus his character is smirched.

Does this not sound like the society of Jesus' day? According to the Gospel of Mark, it was religiously correct to call something Corban, meaning it had been dedicated for religious use. It was also religiously correct to tell one's parents that you could no longer help them financially because your extra resources were Corban. Jesus pointed out that in attempting to make deeper sacrifices for God, such people ended up disobeying the more fundamental divine commandment to honor one's parents.

Jesus never tired of pointing out the problem of majoring in minors—in fact, chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew is an extended jeremiad about it. But while we gather around the campfire with Jesus to listen to him talk about how he mercifully accepts all types of sinners, we've forgotten this aspect of his message.

Many were aghast recently when they learned that reality show star Dog the Bounty Hunter used the n-word to describe some blacks, and earlier we were disturbed that shock jock Don Imus implied that certain black athletes were prostitutes—both comments manifestly silly that reflected nothing about the character of the people they were talking about. Yet when bloggers and pundits—and even leading Christians who describe themselves as "social prophets"—call their current political leaders "liars" and "murderers"—well, we hardly blink.

We are appalled when men treat women like sex objects, when they use sexually demeaning terms to talk about and to them. But we as a society wink and smile when we hear jokes on sitcoms that imply that a sexually healthy person will—of course! —look at pornography now and then. If there were ever a world where women are really demeaned and abused, it would be pornography. While we've created workplace laws to prevent verbally demeaning talk, we have no political will to create laws that will stop the pornographic degradation of women.

In the church, examples abound. Take just one: I've noted how some members are shocked, just shocked, if their minister uses an occasional swear word in conversation, yet they don't seem to worry much if he rarely preaches about bringing justice to the poor.

Jesus talked about the nature of our spoken words in a larger context. He told a story about a father with two sons. One son says the socially correct thing to a command of his father: "Yes, Father, I will go work in the fields." The other son says the socially scandalous thing: "No, Father, I will not go work in the fields." Yet later, the socially incorrect son actually went into the field to work, and the socially correct son did not.

Jesus said the socially incorrect son was the righteous one. The words we use to talk about others, and the promises we make to others—that is, how we use language—seems secondary to Jesus. It's what we do with our lives that counts. Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" (or avoids swearing or slurs), will enter the kingdom of heaven.

How we use language is crucial to the health of a society or a community; you're not going to find this writer denigrating the importance of the words we choose to utter. But when we become offended, hurt, or shocked by another's language while ignoring the manner in which they have actually lived their lives, we are looking at trees but missing the forest. When we're more worried about the words another uses than the deep-seated injustices and oppression in our midst, something has gone terribly wrong.

Jesus does not consider such behavior a peccadillo. In that extensive sermon in Matthew, he called people who do this sort of thing "children of hell" and "snakes," people who, he says, will receive a judgment that will not be pretty.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker). You can comment below or on his blog.

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In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
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