Ben Carson says internet comments are bad? He should read the Bible’s insults
At Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in North Charleston, South Carolina, Ben Carson made a surprise appeal for civility in American political discourse, decrying the internet’s lack of manners as ungodly.
“You go to the internet, you start reading an article, you go to the comments section, you cannot go five comments down before people are calling each other all manner of names,” the retired neurosurgeon said.
“Where did that spirit come from in America? It did not come from our Judeo-Christian roots, I can tell you that.”
One biblical scholar, however, disagreed.
“Comments in news articles don’t even aspire to the beauty of some of those insults in antiquity,” Dave Barnhart, pastor and founder of Saint Junia United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, told the Guardian on Friday.
“There’s some delicious insults in the Bible. And to say that’s not part of Judeo-Christian roots is just to ignore history.
“Because these guys were preachers and they were authors and poets, they can spin an insult that is just really mind-blowing. Martin Luther was one of the best smack talkers in history.”
A German priest who kickstarted the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, Luther’s cutting insults live on as internet memes. Barnhart’s personal favourite, he said, was Luther’s description of the pope as: “a fart-ass and enemy of God”.
In Matthew 23, Barnhart pointed out, even Jesus himself calls people fools and hypocrites.
Fool was a pretty harsh slander, and Proverbs 26:4 says: “Do not argue with fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.”
“Which is the Hebrew Bible version of ‘don’t feel the trolls.’ And possibly good advice for reading the comments section,” said Barnhart.
Traditional Christian slander “rarely uses sexual humor or insults”, Barnhart said, instead going for “scatological insults, poop- and bathroom-related stuff”.
“Because the Bible is translated by committee, they translate it with church people in mind, and sometimes they sanitize it,” Barnhart said.
One classic biblical insult is to be found in 1 Samuel 20:30, when King Saul shouts to his son Jonathan: “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?”
“If you were to translate it [son of a perverse and rebellious woman] in modern language, it would be SOB [son of a bitch],” said Barnhart. “Really vile language.”
There’s more. In the New Testament, Galatians 5:12, Paul, writing about his theological opponents who were pushing for circumcision, writes: “I wish the people who are bothering you would castrate themselves.”
“He’s basically saying, ‘I hope the knife slips,’” Barnhart said.
Nor is it only Christians who throw insults around: the Hebrew bible includes the great line: “Fools return to their folly, like a dog returning to its vomit.”
Some names, such as Nabal from the story of David and Nabal in 1 Samuel 25, contain insults.
“Nabal means ‘foolish’,” Barnhart said. “It’s unlikely that his mother named him ‘foolish’ … Authors love word play and love clever insults.”
Plus, Barnhart said, rabbis have a great tradition in arguing with each other.
“They were not strangers to trash talk,” he said. “To say that Christians have this elevated rhetoric, or Jewish people have better language skills, is simply to ignore history and current events.”
In fact, Barnhart said Carson’s claim in the debate that “we need to start once again recognizing that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and let’s not let the secular progressives drive that out of us” was almost anti-Christian in its attitude.
“To claim all virtue for the Judeo-Christians and to lay the blame on progressives or liberals is just bunk,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that is divisive and disrespectful. Trying to claim a moral high ground is baloney and insincere and it’s historically ignorant.