Few websites have the spite, sarcasm, and general nastiness of Twitter. The platform is virtually designed to reward quick, cutting comebacks instead of substance, and “quick and cutting” can often become cruel. Sadly, Christians are often among those engaging in bad-faith speech on Twitter, including against one another.
Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Lying about, belittling, abusing, or otherwise failing to treat people as fully human and made in God’s image is sin. If they’re Christian brothers or sisters, it’s worse. The Bible offers no exceptions for Twitter.
Some argue that, on certain occasions, mockery, if done right, is acceptable. In a time as morally and culturally insane as ours, it could even be useful for discrediting wicked and foolish people in powerful places. Consider the Christian satire site The Babylon Bee. While they don’t always hit the mark, many of The Bee’s headlines, articles, and illustrations are genuinely clever, refusing to take seriously things that truly are absurd. That’s helpful. Not to mention, at times they keep us from taking ourselves too seriously.
Also, a few essays in publications like First Things have reexamined the notion of “winsomeness” for Christians, arguing that a culture as hostile as ours sometimes requires a more confrontational approach. Films like Matt Walsh’s recent What Is a Woman? illustrate this approach. While not overtly Christian, the documentary overall depends on restrained mockery to make its point about how irrational transgender ideology is.* The views of some of the “experts” Walsh interviews truly are ridiculous, not to mention disturbing and dangerous. When he explains to several Maasai tribesmen in Africa how much time is spent in America talking about men becoming women and vice versa, their chuckles say a lot.
On one hand, the Bible tells us to love our enemies, that a gentle answer “turns away wrath,” and to season our speech with grace. It also contains examples of God’s people being anything but gentle and gracious with opponents, such as Elijah on Mount Carmel mocking the prophets of Baal and their god, Jesus calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” and the Apostle Paul telling the Galatian Judaizers they should emasculate themselves! While there is a difference between the Bible describing behavior and endorsing it, if our goal is to be Christlike, then what Christ and His closest followers did and said is relevant.
A couple of months ago, my colleague Shane Morris had a fascinating discussion on the Colson Center’s Upstream podcast with Brendan Case of Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program. Case wrote a thought-provoking essay at Church Life Journal about Christian mockery, using the writings of 17th-century mathematician and Christian apologist, Blaise Pascal.
In his 11th Provincial Letter, Pascal included a surprisingly thoughtful defense of Christian mockery. He believed that poking fun at opponents could sometimes be godly and even loving, and he gave six criteria for when and how Christians can do it.
First, argued Pascal, Christians must speak only the truth. We must never lie about our opponents for rhetorical effect or paint them as worse than they are. Second, we should avoid getting personal. We should ridicule ideas, not people. Third, we should only mock what is evil, never what is virtuous. Fourth, we should always desire the good and ultimately the salvation of those whose behavior and ideas we mock. This, after all, is the definition of loving your enemies.
The last two principles, which Pascal only implies, may be the most important. First, we should punch up, never down. Mockery is a tool to expose evil and folly in powerful places, not for grinding down the weak. And, mockery is a last resort, for use on the unreasonable after appeals to reason have failed.
As Case admitted, “Pascalian mockery” is limited, and is “ripe for abuse by those who have not cultivated a spirit of charity.” Ultimately, no list of rules will keep those with untamed tongues (or keyboards) from doing great damage. But as platforms like Twitter facilitate nastier and hotter debates than ever, Christians who take part would do well to examine our principles and consider how it’s possible to laugh at our enemies and love them.