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The lack of civility in public life these days is regularly commented on. The often vicious rhetoric that opposing sides in current national debates fling at each other ought to be a cause for profound concern. God’s people, finding themselves “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation,” are meant to “shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Phil. 2:15–16). However, we are often tempted to justify the kind of toxic engagement that we so deplore in the secular culture. If we in the church want to critique the way that public engagement happens in our national life, we must make sure that as we do so we are living by our own professed biblical standards. One of the key things that we need to consider in this regard is Jesus’ teaching on this subject in Luke 6:28. The Lord said, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
The Lord Jesus exemplified both zeal for the truth and a deep love for people. Christ is often held up as an example to follow, however, by people who seem to enjoy giving offense and want to tear others down with their salty rhetoric and pejorative epithets. For example, there is a well-known meme that features a picture of Jesus clearing out the temple and notes, “If someone asks, ‘What would Jesus do?’ remind them that turning over tables and breaking out whips is a possibility.”
Paul’s perplexed exasperation with the false teachers in Galatia is also sometimes presented as a model for emulation, especially when he says, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12). This is taken, along with the Old Testament prophets’ pronouncing woes upon people, as carte blanche for us not simply to speak clearly and passionately against error but to insult and excoriate and attack our political or theological enemies. This, of course, wrongly assumes that the words of Paul and the prophets were actually personal insults and not divinely inspired words of confrontation.
It is interesting that there is no sense in Acts that the Apostles chose Jesus’ forceful cleansing of the temple as the model for their own stance toward religious opponents, even after His unjust death at the hands of the temple establishment. In Acts, physical violence and verbal abuse are directed against Christian leaders but never undertaken by them (4:3; 5:18; 7:58; 16:19; 17:5–6).
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus rebuked James and John for even suggesting retribution against those who rejected Him (9:51–55). He certainly did not give a deservedly harsh answer to every ridiculous thing said or done against Him, as we might be tempted to do. Even as He was unjustly crucified, it could be said of Him, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). He Himself exemplified what it means to “bless those who curse you and pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28). Even as they crucified Him, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (23:34).
In our own polemics and public engagement, we would do well to meditate more on this aspect of the Lord’s example, not to mention His intense prayerfulness (Matt. 14:23; 26:36; Mark 1:35; 6:46; 9:29). I am not suggesting that we ought simply to be silent. Yet we are neither divine, all-knowing, and sinless saviors nor Apostles of Christ with prophetic insight and revelation.
So, we ought to be more wary of too quickly claiming to imitate Jesus and the godly authors of Scripture before we have heard their strictures on harshness, discourtesy, and disproportionate argumentativeness. Let’s attempt to do as they say before we boldly permit ourselves to do as they occasionally did. And maybe, just maybe, the world will take note of the One we claim to follow as we bless and pray for those who oppose us—a very countercultural thing to do.