A thought experiment: Is it worse to call former secretary of state Colin Powell a racial slur, or to call him a liar?

We now live in a society where it is impermissible to call a person a name that does not call his or her character into question, but where it is permissible to call a person a name that does, like "liar." If one goal of social interaction is to learn to judge people by the content of their character—as Martin Luther King Jr. put it—then this strikes me as a serious moral and social problem.

Most people would agree that to call Colin Powell a racial slur reflects nothing on Colin Powell as much as it says something about the person using the word. But if one calls Colin Powell a liar, (as some are now doing regarding his role leading up to the Iraq war) then that is a direct attack on his very character. While many would not believe for a second that Powell is a liar, it raises in other minds the possibility that maybe he is—and thus his character is smirched.

Does this not sound like the society of Jesus' day? According to the Gospel of Mark, it was religiously correct to call something Corban, meaning it had been dedicated for religious use. It was also religiously correct to tell one's parents that you could no longer help them financially because your extra resources were Corban. Jesus pointed out that in attempting to make deeper sacrifices for God, such people ended up disobeying the more fundamental divine commandment to honor one's parents.

Jesus never tired of pointing out the problem of majoring in minors—in fact, chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew is an extended jeremiad about it. But while we gather around the campfire with Jesus to listen to him talk about how he mercifully ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
Previous SoulWork Columns: