At a time when it seems we can’t agree on anything, 98% of Americans state that incivility is a serious problem; while 68% agree it’s reached crisis levels. From cyberbullying, to hate speech, workplace harassment, demonizing political language, verbal abuse, and intolerance the vast majority of us (87%) no longer feel safe in public places sharing our opinions.1
As we debate key issues, even the expectation of civility seems to be fading. In commenting on the open Supreme Court seat due to the passing of Justice Ginsburg, Fox News contributor Liz Peek candidly asserts: “Let us be clear: Republicans owe Democrats nothing. No courtesy, no respect, no accommodation.”2 Regardless of your political affiliation, Peek brings up an interesting question: What do Americans owe each other as we disagree? For the sake of this post, let’s ask a more pointed question: What do Christian communicators owe others as we enter the public square and are met with incivility? The apostle Peter offers one piece of Scriptural advice to prepare the early church for persecution.
For Peter persecution is a recurring theme in his first letter to Christians scattered abroad (1:6; 2:12, 19-20; 3:13-17; 4:12. 14; 5:8-10). How should these early followers of Christ respond to the increasing intensity of attacks against their faith? Believers should not “repay evil with evil or insult with insult (3:9). Rather, they should respond with a “blessing” (3:9). In classical Greek “blessing” (eulogein) merely meant “speaking well of” another person. New Testament scholars argue that Peter is greatly extending the Greek idea of blessing to include praying for the well-being of adversaries and their personal salvation.3 For Christians to accomplish what Peter is describing they must turn from evil, do good, and pursue peace (3:11). He particularly states that a believer must “keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech” (3:10).
No doubt Peter knew how difficult and counter-intuitive this response would be for many in the Christian community. He offers three motivations to a believer seeking to apply the abnormal communication he is advocating. First, a person engaging in this type of communication will “see good days” (3:10). While Peter does not guarantee that a believer will never experience persecution, pain, or even death, he or she will experience a qualitatively richer life full of God’s blessing and favor. Second, the “eyes of the Lord” will be on the righteous and “his ears attentive to their prayer” (3:12). As a believer seeks to pursue peace and respond to harsh insults with a blessing, they can be assured that God is present and attentive in the moment. Third, the “face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (3:12). Peter is telling his readers that God will, in his time and way, respond to those who do evil to his children.
Before we consider from a communication perspective what is gained from the abnormal forms of communication advocated above, two clarifications need to be considered. First, refusing to pay evil for evil or insult for insult does not mean that Christians cannot critique or passionately disagree with another person’s worldview. Peter presupposes that the reason a Christian is being insulted is because they are advocating a perspective that will be counter cultural and possibly offensive. Second, the blessing being given may be that as we disagree we still offer respect, compassion, and civility to the other person.
What does Peter’s blessing-for-insult method practically accomplish? In short, they can halt a negative communication spiral from gaining momentum. Communication spirals occur when the actions—both verbal and nonverbal—of one person mirror and accelerate the actions of the other person. When a person raises their voice to you, or types a comment with all caps you don’t merely match the response, but rather, meet the raised voice with a yell, and respond to all caps with profanity. Negative spirals pick up a momentum of their own and can easily co-opt the conversation. Communication scholar William Wilmot offers a key suggestion for altering negative spirals. To check a spiral, you must “alter your usual response—do what comes unnaturally.” The key word to keep in mind when in the midst of a negative spiral is change. “Change the patterns,” notes Wilmot, “and you change the spiral.”4
Sadly, rather than changing the trajectory of a negative communication spiral, Jesus followers have all too often added to them. Christian author Daniel Taylor notes that “in our battle with a hostile culture, we have adopted the culture’s tactics. We fight ugliness with ugliness, distortion with distortion, sarcasm with sarcasm.” Why is that? Rather than mirroring today’s argument culture, why don’t we adhere to Peter’s admonishment to offer a blessing for an insult? “Turn the other cheek, the first shall be last, lose our life to gain it, love your enemies. Those bold principles of Jesus make for great sermons, but in our bones we appear not to believe they are practical for everyday living in a hostile society.”5
Not only does today’s argument culture offer us a chance to live out Jesus’s assertion, “blessed are the peace makers” (Mt. 5:9), but it is a referendum on whether we believe in his power. As Christian communicators, do we believe in our bones that just as a “harsh word stirs up anger” a gentle word has the potential to turn “away wrath” (Prov. 15:1)? If we are to make a difference in today’s toxic communication climate, then we have to make a commitment to the relational level of our communication.
All communication exists on two levels of meaning. The content level is the literal meaning of the words we are using. The relational level expresses the affection, respect, and compassion between people. Both levels can be seen in Peter’s admonishment that believers need to “be prepared to give an answer” for our faith but to do so in a communication style evidenced by “gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Our answer is the content level, while the gentleness and respect we show those who disagree with us establishes the relational level. The same can be seen in Paul’s command to “speak the truth (content level) in love (relational level)” (Eph. 4:25). As followers of Christ we are not called merely to be tolerant of others. We are called to love those who disagree with us. Blessing those who curse us establishes the relational level of our communication and demonstrates our concern. Because we know that words can wound others like the “thrusts of a sword” (Prov. 12:18) we refuse to harm others with our communication even as others may seek to harm us.
Does that mean Christians need to become verbal punching bags and just have to take it? No. We are free—even commanded—to confront those who subscribe to the argument culture, but do so with gentleness and respect. As you read this, you may be thinking that’s asking a lot in today’s political climate! Peter would agree. Before asking his readers to adopt a blessing-for-insult relationship with others he reminds us that when people hurled insults at Jesus he “did not retaliate” but rather, “entrusted himself” to God (1 Pet. 2:23).
The crux of the issue is, trust. Before we enter a public square filled with vitriol, it would do us well to ask: Am I primarily trusting my righteous anger and air-tight arguments, or in God using my gentleness to sway hearts? Note, one doesn’t cancel out the other. However, our gentleness puts boundaries on the anger and the tone of our rhetoric.
Can a blessing-for-insult communication style really make a difference today? The writers who compiled the book of Proverbs seemed to think so. “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him” (16:7). The realism of the verse is striking. Blessing those who insult us will not necessarily turn all those who disagree into converts, or comrades, but it may provide a reprieve from the argument culture and buy us time to create a communication climate of peace where hard, but civil conversations can occur.
- Norman Hillyer, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude in W. Ward Gasque (Ed.), New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 105.
- William W. Wilmot, Relational Communication (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), 65.
- Daniel Taylor, “Deconstructing the Gospel of Tolerance.” Christianity Today, Jan. 11, 1999, 43.