The world is full of recrimination nowadays. There’s the online marketplace of terror, for one thing: doxxing, death threats, so-called “cancelling,” and just plain old ad hominem bomb throwing. There is the bloodthirsty tribalism that casts one’s opponent as an existential (and almost inhuman) enemy. And there is always, in abundance, that quiet world of “bitching and complaining” that flashes out, sometimes, from break rooms, lavatories, and the corners of bars, whenever wounded hearts give vent to their demons before an indulgent audience.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus somewhat surprisingly equates this kind of behavior with murder. After discussing the killing of bodies, He adds, “anyone who says ‘you fool’ will be in danger of the fires of Hell (Mt. 5:22).”
It is hard for materialistic, concupiscent, death-denying moderns to understand how a dismissive insult could in any way be equivalent to the slaying of a body. But Jesus felt and knew the real shape of things much better than we do. He knew the soul was eternal and susceptible to pain that transcended the physical. He knew that the word “fool” was uttered a billion times a day in the demons’ upside-down kingdom of hate and punishment.
In the online world of low-stakes slap-downs, insults have become an art form. Truth and ontological respect (that is, respect for the unique being of another) take a backseat to a cunning scent for the personal jab. What comment will be most withering—regardless of its truth value? Where is your opponents’ greatest insecurity, and how can you get your knife in? Here, constructive argumentation gives way to gloating “mic drops” whose only purpose is to wound. In a culture that sorts people into oppositional identity categories, this othering can seem justifiable. Under such a paradigm, your opponent is wrong because of who they are, not because of their mistaken positions on the issues. And if they’re wrong because of who they are, it only makes sense to personally tear them down.
In the gospel, when Jesus equates name-calling with murder, he refers to the notional unpersoning of one’s brother or sister. A person declared a “fool” no longer has to be listened to or respected—they are intrinsically bad, and so their intentions, their reasoning, their needs, and their gifts don’t matter. In spiritual terms, to declare someone a “fool” is to proclaim them unholy. They are no longer part of the trial-and-error realm of choice, sin, repentance, grace, and mercy. Rather, they are standing in Hell already, their ankles surrounded by brimstone, contemptible to the core.
Our current plague of judgmental discourse, then, really is a kind of spiritual death-dealing. And furthermore, it is the MO of Satan, the Accuser, whose chief message is to declare everyone “bad” and thus beyond God’s grace. When we believe Satan (perhaps condemning ourselves), or recapitulate his message (condemning others), we bring Hell to Earth.
The church today is in danger of producing and reproducing little corners of Hell on Earth. This danger is especially heightened at Christian universities, which stand at the crossroads of cultural experimentation and ancient tradition. Here, it sometimes seems, conflicts are always burbling, passions are always high, and the stakes are always historic—even cosmic. (Some twentysomethings, after all, believe they must save the world, and college professors often believe this, too—for both their students and themselves.)
But when we whisper “fool” in our hearts and break fellowship, we set in motion a dynamic of condemnation and punishment that bears rotten fruit all the way down. There is much to disagree about in Christendom today and much to disagree about in public policy. It’s hard to sustain fellowship when arguments feel spent, lines have been drawn, and real-world choices have inflicted physical and emotional wounds that are hard to sustain.
But the moment we whisper “fool” in our hearts, we have created a portal to Hell that will only grow.
May the God of all lights and surprises preserve us in this tension! May He help us sit with open hands and accept how He will reconcile. May he cleanse all bitterness from our hearts, applying honeyed ointment to wounds and giving us expectant peace. May He open our eyes to the unexpected and the ontologically, unerasably beautiful.
Wherever there is a glimmer of good, there is God. And there are glimmers of good absolutely everywhere. And good, enamored of itself, strains toward fellowship, not rejecting but embracing. And this it will always do, despite Satan’s condemnations, until that day when all good things will be united around the living throne of God.