Those who have read Rothbard or perhaps Mencken are keenly aware of the wondrous and creative labels and “names” that one can come up with when referring to the political class. If you read, say, Becky Akers whenever she puts up a new post on the LRC blog, you can completely understand this. Rodents, perverts, boobs, hacks, quacks, goats, loons, thugs, chumps, dolts. Et cetera.
You get the point. The reaction among many (especially those who disagree with the message of the particular write-up) is this: these are our leaders you are talking about! We must respect them and not get into name-calling. This is an important claim. What should be said of it? Can we use language like this to refer to the actions of politicians and other rulers?
Let’s generalize this conversation to look at how the Christian is to respond to those in society. Let’s pose an apparent paradox. The Scripture makes it plain in 1 Peter 2:17 by commanding us to “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor.” And yet, John Robbins notes in his article The Virtue of Name-Calling:
Unfortunately, most professed Christians today seem never to have gotten past Matthew 7 [verse 1]. That’s too bad, for they should proceed to read Matthew 23. In that chapter alone, Christ calls the scribes and Pharisees names 16 times. The names are “hypocrites” (7 times), “son of Hell” (once),”blind guides” (twice), “fools and blind” (3 times), “whited sepulchers” (once), “serpents” (once), and “offspring of vipers” (once). Since Christ was without sin, we may deduce by good and necessary consequence that name-calling as such is not a sin. Since everything Christ did was righteous and virtuous, we may deduce by good and necessary consequence that accurate name-calling is a virtue.
Did Christ “honor” the Pharisees (the religious leaders)?
Let’s step back for a moment and look at the word “honor.” In 1 Peter 2:7, (ten verses previous to the verse on honor above), the word honor is used as a noun. The verse aims to demonstrate that there are some who believe the gospel and therefore who have honor and others who do not believe, and therefore do not have this honor. Therefore, not everyone deserves honor. Only the first group (and only because of Christ).
However, in verse 17, the word is used as a verb. Therefore Peter is making a different argument. He has already told us that not everyone deserves honor, but now he wants to make it plain that we as Christians ought to treat all types of people (yes, even the murderous Emperor) as if they had honor. Not everyone deserves it. Not everyone has it. But none are outside of a general (to make a distinction from “saving”) grace of God (that sinners are still alive is an exercise of God’s grace). My argument is this: When Peter tells us to honor everyone, he is telling us that all types of people should be shown reverence. Our giving of honor or respect toward others is not dependent on whether they believe or their positions in society.
Therefore, whether robber or rapist, king or emperor, pastor or missionary, and capitalist or socialist –all types of people should be the recipient of our honor as Christians.
Now, in context of their actions, we must point out sin and unethical behavior as plainly and effectively as we can, without lying or misleading those who hear our message. This makes sense once we think about the entire picture of an evil action. Is it honoring to the victim of rape to sugar-coat the actions of her perpetrator? Should we stay quiet or should we be clear that our stance against sin is not confused? We must, to be honoring to the victim, make it plain that the rapist is a rapist, disturbed, evil, despicable, deranged, and the like. It is no honor to mask or shrink back from the accurate expression of the man.
The same applies for thieves and murders. The same applies for Hitler as a leader. It must be made plain that there are terrible words that accurately describe terrible people. We must not shrink back from identifying evil behavior with strong language, but we must never mislead or misinform.
That same principle was applied by Christ when he labeled the Pharisees as “sons of hell.” We must be effective in honoring the victims and verbally humbling the proud. It is healthy that society be united in the mindset of a hatred for evil. Christ could have stayed with the accurate description of “hypocrite.” And yet, he wanted BOTH the Pharisees and the people to understand exactly the weight of harm that those evil leaders had. “Brood of vipers” was a non-literal and dramatic symbol of the rotten mindsets and heart of their activity. This is the sense in which injustice must be revealed against any who practice these things. Whether they are rapists on the streets, thieves in a gang, or thugs in the White House. Ethical standard applies to all.
And yet, beware of abusing language and the role of speaking the truth! Mark Nenadov writes in an excellent post on a similar theme as this one (albeit much broader in scope):
In the paper which defends name calling [which was written by John Robbins and quoted and cited above my me –CJEngel]…, it is said that “Accurate name-calling is a virtue, not a sin.” I believe that statement is incorrect. While all justifiable name-calling is certainly accurate, not all accurate name-calling is justifiable. Why? Because the Christian ethic of communication involves a lot more than merely truth-telling. Not everything that is technically correct is expedient to say. Not everything that is technically could be said conforms to the graciousness required by Col. 4:6. Etc.
We must never lie. We must never “call our brother a fool” when he is not a fool. But if he is, it is not wrong to make that known. Just as Christ called the leaders “blind fools” three times. The rulers are not in a special class, protected from ethical standard and scrutiny of those who live under them. We are all equal under the glory of God and majesty of his nature. Kings and peasants alike.
All types of people shall receive our honor. But when the time comes to reveal truth, never hold back, but always proceed graciously. It should be effective and it should be eye-opening. When the State declares a new income tax, call it theft. When a robber does the same, call it theft. And then turn the other cheek and humbly pay it. We do not obey the State because it is right, we obey because we are pilgrims and the kingdom to which we belong is in not of this world.
But when you see your brother being robbed, whether by a commoner or a man in uniform, it is not honoring to your brother to sit there quietly and say: well, I best be honorable to the thief. Honor those around you by telling the truth and exposing sin. Honor does not infer withholding truth. In fact, such would be a dishonor. Perhaps ninety-five percent (from public education to warmongering to welfarism to mass taxation to business regulations to monetary manipulations) of what States do historically and presently, worldwide, is unethical and beyond the demands of justice. We must be clear about these wrongdoings, even though we submit as a slave submits to his master. Matthew 10:27-28:
“What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Even the Emperor has a specific job: to punish evil doers and praise good doers. (It is my understanding, and I realize that I am largely in the minority on this issue, that the existence of the Emperor lines up with God’s will of decree, not his will of command. I think this is how Romans 13:1 should best be read.) Every single, tiny, action he takes outside of that command is beyond his role. This includes acting in the very same way as those he is meant to punish (thieves, murders, rapists) and creating a monopoly of his services. In other words, he is not to become the evil doer himself.
For more on Romans 13 and the role of government from a libertarian perspective see my post here.