But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7).
(Same verse as yesterday, new thought.)
It must not have been very fun to be called a brood of vipers―the offspring of a venomous snake. I don’t know about you, but I have felt offended by words several shades more diplomatic than that!
A Christianity that tries to make people look more like some (not-particularly-biblical) image of a gentle Jesus―meek and mild and perhaps a bit anemic―has no place for harsh words like these. And yet, John says them. And, later on in the book of Matthew, Jesus says them. Twice. (See Matthew 12:34, 23:33).
I wonder where, or whether, there is a place for harsh words like “brood of vipers” in our world and in our faith communities today. Are we supposed to be nicer than that? I usually am―at least to people’s faces. It’s easier to say harsh things about someone than to someone.
When I think about harsh name-calling from Christians―things not entirely unlike John’s “brood of vipers”―I think about this recent article by Peter Wehner in The Atlantic. Wehner thoughtfully addresses statements recently made by (author and radio host) Eric Metaxas and (evangelist and Samaritan’s Purse CEO) Franklin Graham, in which Metaxas and Graham agree that there is a demonic spiritual power behind opposition to Trump. They don’t exactly call people who oppose Trump demonic, but it kind of feels like it.
Wehner’s piece is worth reading, I think. He takes issue, and rightly so, with Graham and Metaxas’ implication that everyone who supports Trump is on God’s side, and everyone who opposes Trump is on the side of the devil. For Wehner, this is a “dangerous” worldview that “leaves no room for the democratic virtue of compromise” and “makes makes learning from others who hold different views all but impossible.”
Wehner has some pointed (and very fair) critiques of Graham and Metaxas’ harsh words about Trump’s opposition. But Wehner seems hesitant to use harsh words in return. Among the strongest things he writes, he accuses Graham and Metaxas of “acute political tribalism” and says that they are “acting irresponsibly and unwisely.” He specifically does not want to say that either of these men is “wicked, malevolent, or at the mercy of demonic powers.”
Wehner wouldn’t say these things. I wouldn’t say these things. Most Christians wouldn’t say these things. But if John the Baptist were here in the US today, would he? Would he call Trump and his cronies a brood of vipers?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I am wary of assuming too quickly that he wouldn’t.
There is also a difference, I think, between John’s “brood of vipers” and Graham and Metaxas’ “demonic influence.” While a viper, being a kind of snake, may bring to mind the devil (who is often called a snake in the Bible), the Greek word Matthew uses for “viper” is actually not the same word that the devil is called. “Viper,” as opposed to “snake,” seems to be more about the venomous or poisonous nature of the snake than about demonic powers per se.
It seems that John is saying that the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ opposition of his baptism is poisonous. It works against the health and wellbeing of individuals and the community.
Perhaps in this light, we are not to demonize our every opponent, but we are to discern and name what is healthy and what is poisonous. This discernment can be complicated and involves hearing both from the Bible and from a diverse group of people’s stories and experiences.
Even if the demonizing impulse is to be avoided, though, I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to just meet accusations of demonic influence with an “oh, well, people like Graham and Metaxas are mistaken, but that’s okay, no big deal, we’re all part of the same Christian family and we just need to be nice to each other and have unity.” (I don’t mean to accuse Wehner of doing this; I’m just reflecting in general on the state of things.)
John the Baptist did not meet the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ opposition with “oh, well, I think you’re mistaken, but that’s okay, no big deal, it’s chill that you’re here trying to keep people from being baptized, all that matters that everyone’s nice and we all get along and no one gets upset.”
There are things that are in fact demonically influenced, like racism, and misogyny, and homophobia. Not in the sense that every person who says or does something racist, for example, is demon-possessed, but in the sense that racism is something God hates, something the forces of evil love. Racism, in all of its personal and structural forms, is evil, and there is no good that comes from beating around the bush and pretending otherwise.
To me, saying that there is demonic influence involved does not free us from responsibility for our own racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. Rather, it acknowledges that part of why evil power structures like these are lodged so deeply in our experience and prove so difficult to root out is that their roots are not entirely merely human.
“Brood of vipers” may or may not be the best word choice for us in our time and place, but reflecting on these words that John chose reminds me that there are higher values than playing nice and trying not to make waves. There is real evil, real poison, that needs, with careful discernment, to be named as such.
And in the areas where well-meaning people disagree about what makes for poison and what makes for health, let’s talk it through, even if it means that uncomfortable words are exchanged. The cost of pretending poisonous things are healthy is too high.