The question was a test.
So it wasn’t a real question at all. He wasn’t seeking to advance his understanding, nor even to engage me in a conversation.
The question was a test.
“You have been talking about Paul’s use of the word ‘gospel’ in Romans. What do you mean by the gospel?”
If that was an honest question, I would have welcomed it. But it wasn’t. It was a test of evangelical orthodoxy. Would I give this man an answer that would satisfy him and assure him that I held to the very same understanding of the ‘gospel’ as he did?
Sylvia and I were speaking together on Romans, but it was clear that his question was to me, not her. I’m not sure that he thought that she had any business speaking at all.
So as the only concession I was going to give this man, I answered the question.
The gospel is the good news that in Jesus Christ the Kingdom of God has come and that the empire of Caesar will inevitably fall.
“And how would someone accept this gospel?”
Get on board little children.
“And why would we need this gospel?”
Because we’re fucked.
“What did you say?”
“What about sin?”
“That’s what he means,” interjected Sylvia.
And then our interlocutor told us that he wanted to know exactly what we meant by the gospel, how one would accept the gospel, our understanding of sin and … (now we got to the heart of the issue) how we understood homosexuality because he (our questioner) believes that homosexuality is a sin and that the only legitimate expression of sexuality is in heterosexual marriage.
As he was giving his speech, Sylvia whispered, “let me take this one.” Sounded like a good idea to me. So she then explained Paul’s understanding of sin and redemption, rooted in Israel’s imagination, and that no, we were not going to answer his question about homosexuality at this time. Next question?
Since that public interaction some months ago, I’ve had one query about my use of the word ‘fuck’ and whether this was an appropriate use of language, or whether this just might be a matter of me enjoying to make people squirm in conservative settings by using street language. But what purpose does this really serve? Might it be that this kind of shock language is just Walsh being immature?
The person who raised this question about my language wasn’t testing me. He was asking an honest question, and a question that was going to ask me to give an accounting of why I used such language.
James says that we are to “so speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (James 2.12). And then he goes on at some length to talk about the destructive potential of the tongue. Indeed, if you can’t control your tongue, if you can’t be wise and discerning in the way that you talk, then you shouldn’t be a teacher.
James is concerned about speaking that does not bring liberty. He is concerned not just about acts that oppress but also oppressive discourse. The two go together. How we talk and how we live are mutually reinforcing. That’s why we have to use demeaning, dehumanizing and violent language about our enemies. How else can we justify killing them?
So, back to my questioner.
“Why do we need the gospel?”
Because we’re fucked.
Discourse calculated to offend and shock. And, let’s admit it, a decidedly violent use of language.
Well, without attempting a total self-justification, and also acknowledging that maybe there is something in my personality that likes to go for the jugular, and also admitting that I am not always a person who speaks with wisdom and gentleness, and not taking the time to launch the argument that the word ‘fuck’ is a pretty sound theological description of sin if you think of all the prophetic language of sin and harlotry, let me put it this way:
I had a hunch, a gut feeling, that a lot of people in that room were suffering from “Post-Evangelical Stress Disorder.” It was precisely the kind of language, spirituality and evangelical culture that lay behind my interlocutor’s interrogation that had so hurt these folks and had pushed them to the brink of abandoning Christian faith. For these folks the questions and the tone in which they were presented reawakened all the bad memories of an oppressive past.
“So speak and so act as those who are judged by the law of liberty,” James wrote.
I may have been wrong, I may have pushed things too far and too fast. I may have not given my interlocutor the benefit of the doubt. But I discerned that the pastoral need in that situation was to speak in a way that might be liberating (while still biblically faithful) in the face of a discourse that I perceived to be binding and not freeing, oppressive and not liberating.
What do you think, Empire Remixed readers? Did I go too far?