When is it ok to be a jerk?

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : September 10, 2008

I am committed to nonviolence. But sometimes I wish I could reach through the computer screen and slap someone senseless.

If you’ve been visiting blogs for very long, you know what I’m talking about: you stumble into a heated conversation in the comments of a controversial blog post and, as you read stupidity after stupidity, you last out.

Or perhaps you consider yourself a defender of truth. You find yourself on a website where people are saying things that foolishly deride beliefs that you consider non-negotiable. And in your quest to defend the truth, you punitively lash out at the heretics posting their inane drivel.

Or perhaps you stumble into the sort of comments section where all of the above is already happening. You find a blog where the comments are growing and find the discourse less-than-charitable. There you are wondering if there is anything you can do to smooth things over or, perhaps, you feel like jumping into the attack to show those self-righteous assholes just out ridiculous they’re being. But, in the end, you end up being a jerk just to make the point that people shouldn’t be jerks.

What a sad assembly of human failings blogs are! They gather together our prejudices, insecurities, and frustrations and wrap them in anonymity! In real life, few of us would ever call our friends a “heretic” or a “fool” or a “legalistic prick.” Yet, because blogs are filled with people we don’t know, we can say whatever we want without any real consequences.

In an effort to bring healing to these internets, I’d like your thoughts about when it is ok to be an e-jerk. I think we all recognize that 100% civility is not a realistic goal. Nor is it noble. Everyone from Dr. King to Gandhi to Mother Theresa got upset. The Apostle Paul could be ornery with his advesaries. Even Jesus got pissed when the situation required it. Unfortunately, in the Christian blogosphere, the anger of Jesus and Paul have been used to legitimize all manner of stupid anger-mongering. I, for example, was once called a “fool” and a “heretic” by someone who felt like their right to call me such things was based in Scriptural precedent. In response, I called my critic a “son of hell” because, likewise, I was invoking biblical precedent.

Using the “H” Word

Many websites exist simply to chronicle the emergence of heretics. Apprising Ministries and Slice of Laodicea are two among many blogs that set themselves up as guardians of the true Gospel. As guardians, they have focused primarily upon the emerging church phenomenon with some occasional grumpy nods towards the seeker movement. Both sites wouldn’t blink to call some leaders of the “Emergent” church “heretics.” They would probably call most liberal mainliners heretics but I’m assuming that they consider this common knowledge.

Calling a religious person a heretic is like calling a president “Hitler.” It is an over-the-top way of trying to quickly establish the high ground without having to go through all the trouble of reasoned discourse. It is an attempt to put one’s opponent on the defensive so that they have to spend time explaining why they’re NOT a heretic so that one doesn’t have to listen to the sedductive blasphemies the opponent is spewing.

The word “heretic” isn’t a very useful term any more. That isn’t to say that I believe that everyone is orthodox. No, I’m fairly certain that there are still heretics in the world. But calling them heretics doesn’t do much good anymore. Why? Because everyone used the word differently.

I’m of the camp that reserves “heretic” (if I were to use the word) to those who do not affirm the Creeds. And to me, even if you were a formal heretic, I’m not sure that you’d be “out” of God’s grace. I’m fairly convinced that folks like Turtullian and Arius will be skipping along the streets of the New Jerusalem with me someday. A “heretic” is someone who doesn’t believe the important core doctrines of Christianity, but that doesn’t mean that they are hell fodder. Either way, however, the line between orthodox and heterodox is, it seems to me, adherance to the Creeds.

Unfortunately, some folks have raised the bar on orthodoxy, making it easier to be a heretic. I’ve seen the following sorts of things added to their list of heresies:

  • non-adherance to the Penal Substitutionary View of the Atonement
  • non-adherance to innerancy and infallibility of Scripture
  • open-theism
  • “letting” women be pastors
  • sanctioning same-sex unions
  • believe it or not, but I’ve heard some folks say that it is a heresy to believe that God is against violence

There are certainly other issues that have made the “heresy” list. The problem isn’t simply that folks want to add to their heresy list. It is that different groups have different heresy lists. So calling someone a “heretic” is just an inflammatory thing to do that lacks substance, since the accused doesn’t usually get a long explanation of why they have departed from essential belief about God.

Therefore, I suggest that we take the word “heretic” out of our vocabulary. It seems better to call particular beliefs “unorthodox” or “heterodox.” That way there is still room for dialog over why a particular belief is heterodox. It makes all the difference. If you call Brian McLaren a “heretic” it communicates something very different than saying “Brian McLaren’s view of X is heterodox.”

Personal Attacks

It is amazing to me how many people will attack someone else and then claim that they didn’t attack them. Here’s what I mean:

Person A: You’d have to be profoundly stupid or perhaps amazingly naive to believe that the earth is 6,000 years old.

Person B: Hey man, no need to get personal!

Person A: Hey, I didn’t call you stupid. I just said that your beliefs are stupid…there’s a big difference.

Person B: Well…you’re a heretic!

Anytime you’re using mocking language that is meant to belittle someone’s beliefs or ideas, you’re mocking them personally. Here’s how the above conversation could have been handled without personal attacks:

Person A: I’m sorry, but the idea that the earth is 6,000 years old makes no sense to me whatsoever. Everything we’ve learned in science contradicts that belief.

Person B: My view of Scripture requires me to hold this belief, even in the face of so-called scientific “evidence.”

Person A: Is there any amount of evidence that could change your mind?

Person B: You’d have to show me from Scripture.

Person A: That will be challening, since you don’t seem willing to have an open conversation about how modern understandings of the world can inform our reading of Scripture.

Person B: I believe your openness to reading Scripture in light of modern “insights” erodes the authority of Scripture.

Mockery is almost NEVER productive. There are better ways of communicating. The only real reason, it seems to me, that folks mock other people is to rally like-minded folks and encourage them to entrench further. It is similiar to what happens when elementary kids call the fat kid in class “tubby tubby 2 by 4.”

Therefore, I suggest that we refuse to use mocking or inflammatory language (with a few exceptions I list below).

What about Paul and Jesus?

“Hey Mark…what about Paul and Jesus? They acted like jerks sometime. Why shouldn’t we?”

It is true that both Jesus and Paul used forms of mockery for their opponents. They both also went into what could be seen as rants. Because of this, I believe that there is a time and a place for angry rants and mockery. But I think they are overused.  Here are some observations about jerky language in the New Testament:

  • It tends to be focused on those who could be called oppressors. In other words, jerky language is used more often from the margins towards those in power.
  • SImilarly, it is used primarily to warn people about falling into bondage. Paul gets jerky about the Judaizers. Jesus gets jerky with the Pharisees. A Southern Baptist might try to argue that they’re simply doing the same thing with the Emergent Church, but if they want to make such a move, they’d need to substantiate their claims rather than simply employing rhetoric.
  • WIth Paul and Jesus, we get context. They use mockery or rants for rhetorical effect within a larger coherent argument.
  • Jesus and Paul suffered for their convictions. Also, they demonstrated love and a willingness to receive outcasts. As much as Paul gets a bad rap for being a jerk, he also demonstrates humility and love and a desire for reconciliation. Some blogger guy in American comfort should be careful before laying it on too thick, since their ideas come easily without cost or risk. And yes, I realize that this applies to me. :)
  • Just to play the evangelical card…it could be argued that the New Testament instances of mockery are inspired. I doubt that Mark Driscoll can claim that for himself.

So, it seems to me that we should be jerks sparingly. When we are jerks, we should aim at oppressors and those who put people into bondage. We should be careful to support our jerk-speak with thoughtful reasoning. We should strive to make instances of jerky language pale in comparison to our lives of love. And, throughout it all, we should humbly recognize that we aren’t as right as we think we are.

When have you been a jerk online? Was it justified? Do you have any wisdom for engaging in civil discourse on the web?

Image: The Story of Dick, Jane, and Sally by Wm Jas

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.

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Viewing 11 Comments

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    C'mon. I know that a lot of jerks read Jesus Manifesto! Share some of your thoughts. ;)
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    I'm sure that if anyone wanted to see me behaving as a jerk, they could simply place their cursor over my avatar and read some of my past postings. I hope that I haven't been too bad though since I try to restrain myself somewhat.
    • ^
    • v
    I usually hold it until I finally explode, and then beat myself up for having done so. I have in the last few years however more and more learned to "Leave it lay where Jesus Flang It" and leave it all all in god's hands. So I seldom post in an argument. I am glad however to see it was you Mark that wrote all this!! A solitary friend of mine talks (though seldom) about varja anger, anger that perhaps Jesus had at seeing the temple prostituted: It is anger that arises from compassion. It is I guess the feeling one gets reading "Jane and Jesus" and knowing that there are people who are taking this sort of thing seriously. It is saddening to see so much hate and self-loathing in the Church; I can accept the hate and more easily forgive it from outside, but have a hard time with the hate that comes from those who claim to follow Christ.

    How do you do it? I read your blog to learn from you! By the way, if you were offered a job in another state to continue your work but work teaching it as a church's Christian Formation Director, would you take it? At the moment, this is rhetorical.
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    Well.. yesterday I was reading a blog called somethin like "biblicism.wordpress". The guys there are theologically conservative. I even made a comment, that was answered by one of the admins. No one was angered, so there didn't happened anything. Anyway, after reviewing more entries there (I agreed with a few) I found a link to the blog of a guy called "Brandenburg". At this new blog I foun an entry when this man criticised the "liberal media" and found support for Bush because "War on terror is a dificult issue, and he gave his best". This guy also said that there wasn't any compny interested in oil drilling in Iraq... I didn't make any comment, and thanks God for that...

    But well... I'm a little democratic. Last weekend I found at youtube a video of some Chmosky's thoughts about religion. You know, he is atheist, but not a "religion is the root of all evil" guy like Dawkins et al. So, I wrote a comment when I said I am a southamerican christian with some concern on social issues, and I admire Chmosky because he is not a close-minded fashionable new atheist like dawkins and the war-monger Hitchens.... I haven't gone to this page to see if someone answered me.

    Well, I think I (although a pacifist) could behave like a war-monger when it is about bloging in the web. I should re-read 1 Corinthians 13 (Isn't it the chapter about love being more important than faith and hope?)

    greetings to all of you
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    • v
    And sometimes, even when you are trying not to be a jerk, it can come across as very condescending. Probably because it is.
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    Mark, I just don't consider myself a defender of truth. Truth IS with or without me. Those arguments seem to be a waste of time. Now conversation of two people looking to learn from each other...sign me up.
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    Mark, Stop being a jerk, seriously to say that I don't have the right to invoke the Jesus jerk attitude against those I perceive to be heretics is in it self heretical. :)

    Really though, I absolutely love it when people like Driscoll or MacArthur say all these nice "Love him like a brother" or "i'm not trying to be mean and angry here" things but then proceed to say extremely hurtful things to and about people that believe different from them.
    Sorry guys but I'll never be a TULIP toting reformed guy but I'll never be a extreme free-will guy on the other side either. I wonder if we stopped polarizing Christianity and just, like you said Mark, affirm the creeds, where would this world be?
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    Well... it seems some of us believe in the myth of the redemptive verbal violence ;)
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    Oh, that one isn't a myth at all...
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    I, for one, would argue that dropping Driscoll's name (Mark, Daniel) as an embodying example sort of fits in the jerk motif. I personally have found far more of value in his blog and his sermons than I have been offended by or disagree with...although there is some of that as well.

    And honestly, I'd love to invite him, or others that strongly disagree on some of these issues into these long as the 'asshole hats' stay on the rack; mine and theirs.
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    I found this article to be right on. I have struggled for several months not getting into some of the nasty arguments over who's beliefs are best. Sometimes ( really always) I think we feel we have to put others in their place and "make them see the error of their ways" to redeem them. Really I think this ends up being more about winning and beating the other by our wise words and big "Christian jargon", therefore boosting our own confidence while leaving the other bruised and bloodied.

    If posting to someone's thoughts gives you that "self approval I nailed it to him" feeling maybe it would be wise to not post at all. Until we can speak out of our overflow of love for others because of the amazing love we have from God, and less out of "making others" understand they got it all wrong, we might should be quiet. People are going to be more willing to follow the quiet, but profound prophetic examples versus the tongue slinging beatings of those who think expressing their opinions is done always with their mouth or keyboard.

    Momma always said, "If you can't say something nice... don't say anything at all." I think that may have been a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13. To be honest this is the first time I have posted on the JM site because of this very thing. Now I will get off my fair trade soap box (wink wink) and say that I really struggle with this and it probably pisses me off like it does because everyone else gets to say the very thing that I was thinking when I read some of the posts that people write.

    Nonetheless, we could all do with a little bit of filtering and a whole lot of loving unconditionally. I have been in school online for 3 years now and this is a lesson we learn real quick... email doesn't allow for body language and inflection which normally helps in the understanding of the meaning of things, this doesn't allow for that. All we have are :0 : > ; >. Hmm which one means heretic /: < (how's that)? Thanks for the thoughts and I am with you.


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