Once in a college psychology class we were discussing the harm of stereotypes in popular culture. The teacher was livid about stereotypes involving ethnic minorities being criminals, especially child abusers, but then she quipped, “That’s just not true . . . unless you’re a Catholic priest.”
Everyone chuckled at the professor’s sleight against priests, but I raised my hand and said, “Professor, you’ve been telling us how bad stereotypes are, but you yourself have just promoted one about priests. Isn’t that a double standard?” The professor awkwardly tried to change the subject and eventually the discussion moved on to another topic.
In his book, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, historian Philip Jenkins aptly describes this kind of prejudice:
[A] statement that could be regarded as misogynistic, anti-Semitic, or homophobic would haunt a speaker for years, and could conceivably destroy a public career. Yet there is one massive exception to this rule, namely, that it is still possible to make quite remarkably hostile or vituperative public statements about one major religious tradition, namely, Roman Catholicism, and those comments will do no harm to the speaker’s reputation.
So how should we respond when we encounter anti-Catholic bigotry, especially when it is directed at us? I recommend a form of engagement I call verbal judo.
Judo is a style of hand-to-hand combat that specializes in using an opponent’s strength against him, or, as many of its devotees say, “If my opponent pulls, I push. If he pushes, I pull.” For example, a judo fighter won’t try to bring down an opponent with punches but will redirect the opponent’s attack and use that energy to throw him onto the mat before subduing him.
The word judo comes from a Japanese word that means “the gentle way,” which makes it an ideal style to adapt for verbal conflicts we have with opponents of our faith. Our goal is to not verbally pummel these people into submission. Instead we should give a gentle yet firm answer and remember to, “keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet. 3:16).
When someone makes a belligerent comment about our faith, it’s easy to succumb to one of two opposite temptations. The first is to over-apologize or kowtow to the person’s claim. The second is to never admit to any wrongdoing and strike back with an equally belligerent—or at least overly defensive—tone. A better approach is to seek common ground and then ask simple questions that redirect the conversation back to the central point of disagreement (bonus points if you can identify a principle the person holds that undermines the prejudice he is voicing).
Here are a few examples of how I’d use verbal judo when facing some common incendiary claims:
- “So you’re pro-life? I bet you’re against welfare and programs that help the poor, because you only care about a human life before it’s born.”
The assumption to redirect: It’s wrong to care only about one group of human beings and not all human beings.
Verbal judo: I agree we should help the poor, but can we reasonably disagree about which political programs are the best way to help the poor? It seems like we both agree, though, that the poor or any other born people shouldn’t be executed just because they are in a difficult situation. I just also think the same principle should apply to the unborn. Do you think unborn children should be treated with the same compassion that is due to the poor?
- “So you’re against same-sex marriage? Why do you support hate instead of love?”
The assumption to redirect: It’s hateful not to allow people to marry the person of their choice.
Verbal judo: “Why do you think it’s hateful to have an opinion of what marriage is? What do you think marriage is? If you believe marriage only involves two people, does that mean you hate polygamists?”
- “People who go to church are a bunch of hypocrites. You’re better off without religion.”
The assumption to redirect: Religion is a breeding ground for people who say one thing and do another.
Verbal judo: What do you mean by “hypocrites”? Do you mean people who say they have a moral standard but occasionally fall short of it? Isn’t everybody a hypocrite by that definition? Also, how am I better off giving up eternal salvation in order to avoid sinners at church when I still have to face sinners everywhere else and every time I look in the mirror?
Once my wife was reading an angry email a critic sent me and she asked, “How do you stay so calm when you read this stuff? These people make me so angry!”
“It’s not easy,” I replied, “but I know that there are only two possibilities: they’re right or their wrong. If they’re right and I gave a bad answer or acted in a rude way, I note it and I try to do better next time. But if they’re wrong, and if I wasn’t rude, then I can’t be held responsible for their hurt feelings.”
At public events, especially those at university campuses where I discuss controversial issues, I sometimes hear people say, “I was really offended by your talk tonight.” When I hear this I ask, “Is there a way I could have phrased what I said so that you wouldn’t have been offended?”
If they were offended because I used a poor choice of words or had a rude attitude, then I apologize and try to remedy my behavior for my next presentation. On the other hand, if it was the content of my message that offended the person, and if that content is true, then I remind them that they aren’t mad at me—they are mad at the truth I was sharing with them.
If we share the truth to a world that loves sin, then we are bound to offend someone. What we should instead strive for is to not unnecessarily offend someone. We should make sure that it is only Christ, the rock of offense (1 Pet. 2:8, KJV) that has offended them and not bad behavior on our part. And we can learn to avoid doing that by engaging in peaceful, yet powerful forms of dialogue that cut through verbal attacks and redirect the conversation to the issues that matter most.
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