Brood of Vipers (Part 2 of 2)

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 has no interest in doing what I think he would see as stooping to Graham and Metaxas’ level and arguing that people who oppose Trump are actually the “Children of Light” and that people who support Trump are actually the “Children of Darkness.”

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. 

(Of course, in a case like this, I don’t know if there would even be a way to call out broods of vipers without the conversation devolving into a shouting contest of “you’re the brood of vipers.” “No, you’re the brood of vipers.” Brings back memories of “You’re the puppet!”)
I don’t know whether using words like “brood of vipers” is actually helpful in our context. It seems worth noting that John called the Pharisees and Sadducees―the religious leaders―broods of vipers, not the people who followed them or lived under their authority. So, if John were to call someone a brood of vipers, I imagine it would be Trump and the powerful people in his inner circles rather than every regular American who supports him.

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.

Unsatisfying Apologies

And they were baptized by John in the Jordan river, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:7)

Confession can be a vague thing. It might sound like someone is confessing to a crime, or confessing their love. It might conjure up images of a confessional booth in a Catholic church, where a priest listens through a little window as someone talks about their sex life or how they haven’t been to church in a while. It might bring to mind a moment in a Protestant service for silent, individual soul-searching and prayer. (For me, this moment is often too short. I’m just starting to bring my mind back from wherever it was wandering and maybe just beginning to think about asking God to reveal my sin to me…and then the too-chipper pastor moves the service along to brighter and happier things.)

Confession can mean a lot of things, but at its core it just means to name something, and to do so openly. The Greek word translated as “confessing” in Matthew 3:7 is a conglomeration of roots that mean something like “out,” “together,” and “word.” (The meanings of Greek words, like English ones, are not always exactly equal to the sum of their parts, but the parts usually still provide some useful clues.)

A close relative of this word, which is made up of just “together” and “word,” is used more often in the New Testament. It is what Jesus uses when he says, whoever acknowledges (confesses) me before others, I will also acknowledge (confess) before my father in heaven (Matthew 10:32). It is what Paul uses when he writes, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9). Jesus wants to be named and acknowledged before others, and Paul wants people to speak and believe that Jesus is Lord.

Similarly, the people who confessed by the Jordan river were just naming their sins. They were acknowledging the wrongs they had done, in all of the ugly, awkward, painful specificity of these wrongs. I don’t know exactly how public these confessions were. I don’t know if people mumbled under their breath, ashamed, or if they shouted out so that the whole crowd could hear―or maybe some of each, depending on things like personality or perceived gravity of sin―but the confessions were put out there in some way. It was not just a silent time of personal prayer but, in some way, a shared communal experience.

When I think about these people being baptized by John in the Jordan and confessing out their sins―braving acknowledging and bluntly naming the specific ways they had failed to love God and people―I think of the courage it takes to do that. And, in contrast, I think of confessions I have heard, or heard about, that are not at all brave or blunt. Attempts at apologies that are in fact completely inadequate and unsatisfying.

I think of the various “apologies” high-profile men have offered when confronted with their actions over the course of the #metoo movement. Things like “I’m sorry if you took my comment that way,” or “I’m sorry if so-and-so didn’t think that what we did was consensual.”

I think about Matt Chandler, who is the lead pastor at an influential megachurch in Texas called The Village Church. A few months ago, Chandler addressed fellow Southern Baptist church leaders regarding his church’s gross mishandling of a woman’s accusations of child sexual abuse by a church leader, saying that The Village Church is “an imperfect church with imperfect people,” and “I’m not sure what we could have done different” (quotes are from this article).

These kinds of statements are so distant from any sort of real confession. They don’t actually name any wrongdoing. The people who speak and write them care much more about trying to clear their own public image and avoid legal repercussions than about taking ownership, understanding how they hurt someone, changing their ways, and, in the cases where it makes sense and is possible, seeking actual reconciliation and restoration of relationship.

By the time I read Christine Pohl’s book Living Into Community, I had heard of―and experienced firsthand―enough confession-avoiding, truth-bending, misleading, manipulative communication from churches and church-y leaders that I was struck by Pohl’s emphasis on truth-telling as one of four key components of Christian communal life. (The other three are promise-keeping, hospitality, and gratitude. It’s a good book.) 
Pohl’s words were refreshing and healing for me: We do not need to save face for God by ignoring certain relevant but problematic aspects of truth or reality (p. 136). Lies, small or large, undermine integrity, discipleship, and fidelity to God’s word (p. 144). It is wrong and irresponsible when colleagues, supervisors, or congregations allow a leader who has been involved in some form of grave misconduct to leave quietly and go to another congregation and continue ministry (p. 134).

These might seem like some very basic, obvious things; but in a world teeming with examples of just the opposite, they need to be said. Where there is no real confession, no real naming of the wrong and acknowledgment of the trauma it has caused, there is no integrity, no discipleship, no fidelity to God’s Word―none of the things Christians and churches and Christian leaders say they are all about.

The little faith community that formed around John the Baptist by the river did not require anything from people, but invited them to confess―really confess―and experience the joy and relief that comes from naming sin and facing up to it. Even, and perhaps especially, when confession might have held real and significant relational or social consequences, setting some of these people on a difficult path.

Some confessions might have continued in the form of hard conversations back in people’s villages, or on the journey home with friends and family. But they started there at the river. John’s announcement of the nearness of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 3:2) brought brave words out of his listeners: words of truth, words of justice, names of hidden sins that were now no longer swept under the rug as if they didn’t hurt people.

God is still near to those willing to speak these kinds of brave words. The kingdom of heaven still comes near.