Reflections on the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:21-22

July 31, 2018
Last week, we talked about the challenging standard that Jesus sets for those who wish to follow him.  They have to be more righteous than those men who were considered experts in the instructions that God gave to Moses.  As we continue to work our way through this carefully crafted homily, we begin see why that might be the case. In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus begins a process that can only be described as a radicalization of the Law’s demands.

So what exactly does he say in these verses?  He says that God’s law is about more than the avoidance of murder.  Indeed, he contends that even being angry with one’s “brother [or sister]” makes one a candidate for condemnation.  A public insult (presumably an expression of such anger) is worthy of a court proceeding, and condemning the intellectual and moral fitness of one’s “brother [or sister]” puts one in danger of God’s judgement.

As I thought about this radical statement of God’s will, my mind turned to a recent conversation sponsored by The Trinity Forum on civility in public life.  In it, the Christian rapper Lacrae shared poignantly about his own experiences with incivility, and Michael Wear constructed a theory of civility for Christians in public life.  The conversation left me with lots of questions. I wanted to ask Lacrae how someone could disagree with him passionately on issues of race and policing and not end up as one of his examples of incivility.  For Wear, I wanted to ask him who gets to decide whether rhetoric is actually uncivil. Nevertheless, the conversation was extremely stimulating and profoundly helpful.

Civility and Human Dignity

One thing that both men seemed to agree on is that incivility seems to start with a denial of an opponent’s dignity and worth as a human being.  It is an idea that may find some support in our present text, and it certainly reflects the best of social psychological research. We have all had the experience of being “lumped and dumped” into a negatively defined ideological category simply because we made an argument that someone disagreed with.  And, if we are honest, we have also all felt the rising rage within us when someone presents an argument with which we disagree and have heard the little voice in our head say, “Their just a [insert your own category here].”

What is going on here?  One person is treating another person as merely a representative of a category rather than as a person created and loved by God with a complex range of experiences and emotions.  Why do we do stuff like that? It is easier to destroy—both literally and metaphorically—a symbol than it is a person. And Wear, in particular, postulates that this is both the root and the definition of incivility.

But does Wear’s theory hold up to biblical scrutiny?  On the one hand, Jesus here reminds his hearers that their fellow disciples are not just humans created in the image of God but also siblings in a God-created family.  To be angry with one’s sibling is problematic, but to treat one’s sibling with public disrespect is a serious transgression of that relationship (to say nothing of the rules of etiquette).

On the other hand, both John the Baptist (Matthew 3:7-8) and Jesus (Matthew 23:13-36, esp. v. 33) use dehumanizing rhetoric against their opponents in the religious and political power structure.  Amos, Jeremiah, Paul, and other figures in the Bible also use relatively harsh rhetoric on occasions. Wear rightly points out that not many of us can claim the mantle of prophet for ourselves, but some of us can (and Acts 2:17-21, quoting Joel 2:28-32, seems to imply that this mantle may be more widely available than it was in the past).  Sometimes, tough things need to be said in order to shock people out of their complacency.  Perhaps more to the point, sometimes people need to have their inhumanity pointed out to them if they are to reclaim their dignity as creatures made in the image of God.

Taming the Rage within Us

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I still think that Wear is on to something.  I just wonder if there are some additional criteria that we can add to our evaluations of whether rhetoric is civil or not.  And that is where the question that I wish I could have asked Lacrae comes in. Some of the things that he says make people angry, and they want the ability to rebuke him out of their anger without ending up as one of his examples of incivility.  And some of that is on him not to take things so personally.

Or, is it?  True enough, we live in a society that is hypersensitive and overly obsessed with political correctness, but that isn’t really the issue here.  The issue is speaking out of anger to a brother in Christ. Jesus himself takes a pretty strong stand—stronger, in fact, than most of us are comfortable with—against anger in our text, and we need to remember that this, and not how we feel in any given moment, is the standard by which we live our lives.

Moreover, Lacrae himself offered some helpful advice on how to deal with the anger that we feel.  Remember, he is an African-American man in a society that has made precious little progress in addressing the negative consequences of four hundred years of state-sponsored oppression and that still too often trades in negative racial stereotypes.  Out of his experience, dealing with his own anger, Lacrae counsels us to consider carefully what we are doing with our anger. Are we channeling it into efforts that build up others, or are we using it to destroy people and institutions that we find loathsome.  It is advice that is reminiscent of Paul’s command to be angry while at the same time maintaining control of our minds, our mouths, and our hands (Ephesians 4:4).

Of course, Lacrae’s advice isn’t perfect, either.  After all, Jesus sometimes engages in both destructive rhetoric (see above) and actions (Matthew 21:12-13 and parallels), and God will, in His wrath, destroy all those who perpetrate evil.  Nevertheless, we would do well to listen to this brother in Christ, who has wrestled with issues far more serious than whether a particular public figure has run afoul of our ideology.  We are not God. We cannot act out of our own wrath and be righteous. So we would do well to channel our rage into conduct that we know will actually make things better and not into rhetoric that may well destroy the person that we are trying to correct.

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