It's Not Wrong to Tell Wrong People That They're Wrong
In my travels around the country, speaking at various parishes and conferences, I sometimes come across folks who will gently (and sometimes not so gently) get onto me about the “tone” I use in one of my talks or in one of my newsletters. They will say things along the lines of You should focus on what we have in common with non-Catholics and not on our differences, or You shouldn’t tell people that they’re wrong—or my favorite, You need to be more gentle, like Jesus, when talking to non-Catholics.
Well, I want to talk about that. I want to start with this thing about me not being as gentle, or as nice, as Jesus. You know, sometimes I get the feeling that people picture Jesus as if he were some sort of 60's hippie-type, going around flashing a peace sign and saying, “Hey man, peace...love...it’s all cool,” as opposed to what we see of Jesus in the Gospels. Don’t get me wrong: Jesus was the most kind, generous, and loving person to ever walk this planet. And, we all need to be more like Him—and I’m at the top of that list. However, Jesus was not some sort of namby-pamby, wishy-washy, type of a guy who sat around in the lotus position all day thinking about how He could rid the world of all the negative waves.
Jesus was indeed a man of prayer (Matt 19:13; Mark 14:32; Luke 6:12), but He was also a man of action. And while quite often His actions demonstrated love, kindness, gentleness, and a concern for the human condition—not to mention His concern for the eternal well-being of all—there were times when His actions, especially if they were done in today’s politically correct environment, could be interpreted as being not so nice...He might even be called downright mean by some, since He does not hesitate, at times, to give folks a verbal punch in the nose.
For example, in Matthew 23, Jesus rips into the Scribes and Pharisees, telling the crowd that they “preach but do not practice” (verse 3) and that they do everything just for show. He calls them hypocrites, blind guides, blind fools, children of Hell, extortionists, whitewashed tombs, and says that they are filled with iniquity. And He was just getting warmed up. He goes on to call them serpents, a brood of vipers, sons of murderers, and He asks them how it is they think they will escape being sentenced to Hell.
And when the lawyers got upset with what Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees in Luke 11, He ripped into the lawyers as well. And there are other instances recorded in the Gospels where Jesus got into it with all of these folks, and with the Sadducees, too. In other words, there were a number of occasions in the Bible where Jesus was not being very nice. But, even if He wasn’t being what some would call “nice,” could anyone ever argue that Jesus wasn’t being charitable? So, could we argue, from the example given to us by Jesus Himself, that there may be times when the charitable thing to do is to simply be blunt, bold, and painfully honest with a person—even if the truth might hurt a bit—to try and get them to wake up?
Now, someone might say, “But, John, Jesus was only this way with the religious leaders of the time, He wasn’t that way with the folks in the pew, so to speak.” Well, not so fast. There was the instance with the Canaanite woman who Jesus first ignored as she pleaded for her daughter to be healed. A mom, pleading for healing for her daughter, and what does Jesus do? He ignores her. And, when He finally paid attention to her, He essentially called her a dog (Matt 15:22-28). How mean was that? That's not being very Christ-like, is it? Oh wait, it is...
Another time a man brought his son to Jesus to be healed and Jesus said to him, “O faithless generation...How long am I to bear with you?” (Mark 9:19). You can almost picture Him looking up to Heaven and pleading silently to the Father, "Hey, get Me out of this crazy place!" Was He right to say that to that man? After all, the man was simply concerned about his son.
And there was the Samaritan woman who Jesus called out for having had several husbands and for currently living with a man who was not her husband. Well, that just isn’t done. How embarrassing that must have been for her. How dare He talk about this woman's sins! Did He think He was better than her? I mean, who did He think He was … God? Oh wait, He was.
And let’s not forget the time Jesus went into the Temple and tossed over tables and got a whip out after folks. These people are just trying to make a living, and here comes this guy after them with a whip— a whip that He made Himself—and turning over their tables and dumping their money on the floor. That's not very Christ-like is it? Oh wait, it is.
Then, of course, there are the times when Jesus got onto His own disciples for being a bit slow in understanding things He said and did. And He sometimes got angry with them. He went so far as to refer to Peter as Satan. All in all, not very nice things to do.
But He had a reason for saying and doing the things that He did to these people—even if they weren’t very “nice”—and His reason was that Jesus was concerned first and foremost with the salvation of souls rather than with people’s “feelings.” He realized that sometimes, just sometimes, people have to be given a little bit of a jolt, or a shock, in order to plant a seed with them or to move them in a direction they need to go. A shock to the system to get them to come out of their stupor or to get the scales to fall from their eyes. Or to maybe get them to make a decision “fer or agin,” as some would say here in the South.
All of which is to say, that while conflict and bluntness and brutal honesty is almost always viewed negatively in our politically-correct society, Jesus sometimes used conflict—verbal not physical (well, most of the time)—and bluntness and brutal honesty to make the points He wanted to make, to plant seeds of truth, and to challenge people to reach higher and dig deeper to find something in themselves that maybe they didn’t know was there.
All of which is to say that there were a number of occasions in Scripture where Jesus was not, in fact, very gentle in His treatment of some folks—religious leaders, His own disciples, or just plain ordinary folk. Jesus could, when the situation called for it, throw a pretty stout verbal uppercut to the jaw and He could toss over a table or two in righteous indignation when necessary.
Okay, so much for not being as nice as Jesus. Now, I would like to address this attitude so many people have that says we can’t tell people they’re wrong. I have to smile whenever I receive an email from someone who tells me how wrong I am to tell people they’re wrong. But, while the logical (and moral) inconsistency of individual emails like that might be a bit humorous, we have, unfortunately, become a society where just about the only mortal sin that is recognized by society is the mortal sin of telling someone they’re wrong.
Society tells us that it is a mortal sin to tell those who engage in same-sex relations that they are wrong. Society tells us it is a mortal sin to tell people that no matter how many judges get it wrong—and no matter how many licenses are issued—there is not now, never has been, and never will be such a thing as same-sex “marriage.” Society tells us that it is a mortal sin to tell a man and a woman who engage in sexual relations outside of marriage that they are wrong. Society tells us that it is a mortal sin to tell women who allow their children to be killed by an abortionist that they are wrong. Society tells us it is a mortal sin to say contraception is wrong.
And that societal attitude has frequently influenced those within the church. So Catholics—including many priests, deacons, and bishops—quite often stay silent in situations where a family member or a friend or a fellow parishioner—or a Catholic in public office—is involved in, or advocates for, same sex relations, or adultery, or fornication, or contraception, or abortion. You see, we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We don’t want to offend anyone. We don’t want anyone to get angry with us. We've become a namby-pamby culture here in the U.S., and too often those within the Church have adopted the mindset of the culture around them. Instead of the Church Militant, we've become the Church Milquetoast. Instead of "Do not be afraid," our motto is, "Don't hurt their feelings."
We just can’t bring ourselves to say anything to the people involved in any of these situations that might give them a hint that we think that their actions are morally wrong. Or, horror of horrors, that we might think they are … sinning. Mention the word “sin” in any of these situations, and watch for the reaction. “Who are you to JUDGE me?” “Judge not lest ye be judged!” “Oh, so you’re the one who would have thrown the first stone, Mr. I’m Without Sin?!” And other such niceties will surely be tossed in your direction.
So, we settle into a comfortable silence and justify our silence by saying, “Jesus would want me to just love them and pray for them...not to condemn them.” We pride ourselves on our tolerance. Well, Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that the problem in our country is not the lack of tolerance, but the lack of intolerance. The lack of intolerance for sin and error.
So, we keep our mouths closed in order to avoid any unpleasantries. Or, even worse, we actually start to buy into the arguments. The only reason, for example, abortion is legal in our country today, is because Catholics allow it to be. “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but who am I to tell a woman she can’t have an abortion, after all, it’s her body?” I don’t know how many times I have heard Catholics, and Catholic politicians, buy into the lie of that culture of death logic. Who am I to tell a woman that she can’t kill her baby? Really? We have so many Catholic politicians who vote for pro-abortion laws and against pro-life laws—even where I live in Alabama, which is one of the most conservative states in the country.
And the only reason we have laws that allow men to "marry" men and women to "marry" women is because Catholics allow it. And the only reason we have laws that allow men pretending to be women to use the girls' bathrooms and dressing rooms and showers is because Catholics allow it. It is shameful what is happening in our country today. Shameful! I believe it was Edmund Burke who said, "The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to remain silent." Well, in the Catholic Church, there are a lot of folks who have silence in the face of evil down pat.
And, if we can’t speak of right and wrong in the area of morality, then it becomes pretty doggone easy to transfer that same sentiment to the area of faith. We can’t tell Baptists they are wrong for believing that a single profession of Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior will irrevocably count them among the saved. That's just not nice. We can’t tell Evangelicals that their belief in the Rapture is wrong. That might hurt their feelings. We can’t tell Lutherans they are wrong about the pope not being the head of the universal church. We could damage their self-esteem. We can’t tell non-denominationalists that a belief in the Bible as the sole rule of faith for Christians is wrong. They might get offended.
Essentially, we can’t tell anyone they are wrong about anything. Which means, we are holding back from telling people the truth. Society has adapted the words of Pilate as its motto: “What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus. Truth is on trial today, just as it, or He, was on trial 2000 years ago. The truth is being crucified today as it was crucified 2000 years ago.
Jesus tells us in John 18 that He came to bear witness to the truth, and that everyone who is “of the truth,” hears His voice. Well, if the truth is not allowed to even be spoken today without its proponents being shouted down, mocked, condemned, vilified, and persecuted, then how is anyone to hear the voice of Jesus? How is anyone to know the truth that will set them free (John 8:32)?
Jesus spoke truth to error. Jesus spoke truth to sin. They crucified Him. Speaking the truth will make a whole lot of people a whole lot of mad. But, we have to speak the truth anyway. As I mentioned above, so many people are silent and don't speak the truth to people involved in sinful situations and sinful lifestyles, because they want to avoid being called judgmental, or of giving the appearance that they may be condemning others. The thing is, though, it could be their very silence that does indeed condemn those folks.
Jesus was sometimes gentle, sometimes not so gentle. He was sometimes calm, sometimes not so calm. However, He was always charitable. He was always thinking of the salvation of souls. Each of us has to always be thinking about the salvation of the souls of those around us. So, we each need to determine the best approach when speaking to others—our friends, our family, our co-workers—about the truth, whether it be about faith or about morals. But we cannot be afraid to speak the truth, no matter the consequences. We cannot be afraid to tell someone they are wrong when, according to the Church, they are indeed wrong. We cannot be afraid to hurt someone's feelings in the short run, so that they may repent and be restored to life in Christ in the long run.
So, if you ever think I'm not being very nice to someone, or that I'm not being very Christ-like, please read Matthew 23 before you send me an email to tell me how wrong I am to tell people they're wrong.