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Christian college to replace plaque that calls murderers “savage”

Wheaton College, a US evangelical liberal arts college, has taken down a plaque “dedicated to the glory of God” and “in loving memory of” two martyred alumni, because it used the adjective “savage” to describe their murderers.

The plaque was erected in 1957, exactly one year after five missionaries, including the two Wheaton alumni, were killed by the tribe they were trying to reach with the Gospel. But now the plaque is down, with plans to have it reworded and replaced. Wheaton’s president Philip Ryken explained in an email:

“Recently, students, faculty, and staff have expressed concern about language on the plaque that is now recognized as offensive. Specifically, the word ‘savage’ is regarded as pejorative and has been used historically to dehumanize and mistreat indigenous peoples around the world. Any descriptions on our campus of people or people groups should reflect the full dignity of human beings made in the image of God…”

But is this a problem of word choice? Did the Class of ’49, who erected the plaque 64 years ago, use a word that they shouldn’t have? Here is the problem passage, in context, (with “savage” highlighted in bold – emphasis mine):

Because of the Great Commission Ed and Jim, together with Nathanael Saint, Roger Youderian, and Peter Fleming, went to the mission field, willing for “Anything – anywhere regardless of cost.”

They chose the jungles of Ecuador – inhabited by the Auca Indians. For generations all strangers were killed by these savage Indians. After many days of patient preparation and devout prayer the missionaries made the first friendly contact known to history with the Aucas.

On January 8, 1956 the five missionaries were brutally slain – martyrs for the love of God.

The story of Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Nathanael Saint, Roger Youderian, and Peter Fleming might be best known today for what happened afterward. Two years after their murders, Rachel Saint, sister of Nathanael, and Elisabeth Elliot wife of Jim, went to live with this same tribe, to evangelize to them.  What they did was remarkable, because they were not going to a peace-loving tribe. And the miracle God worked in many tribesmen’s hearts was all the more remarkable precisely because of how savage they had been before – six of the very men who murdered the missionaries later turned to the Lord.

So is it wrong to call murderers “savage”? To answer that question we must first establish by what standard are we going to assess what is “offensive” and “pejorative.”

Christians should, of course, turn to the Bible for our standard. In the world, many today think feelings – and their feelings in particular – are the measure of all things. Before we roll our eyes and be done with this nonsense, let’s remember there is a biblical command that takes feelings into consideration. Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would want done unto you” (Matt. 7:12). And since we wouldn’t want to be called savage, we shouldn’t call others savage, right? As the college president noted, this word has also been used to dehumanize indigenous peoples in the past. So, case closed?

Well, no. This “Golden Rule” applies to our own actions: what we should or should not do. Thus if you find “savage” a “pejorative” and needlessly “offensive” word, then you really shouldn’t use it on any plaque you might be planning to erect.

But how do we assess the actions of another? By what standard should we judge the word choices of a previous generation? In Matthew 7, just a few verses earlier, Jesus shows us the way here too:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (7:1-2).

So the question we should ask is, how would we want a generation, 64 years from now, to evaluate the words we say today? If there is no offense expressed and no offense intended when we first say them – if there was no sin at the start – would we want them to read in a sin six decades hence? Would we want our bronzed words taken down because they offended the current day’s sensibilities? There is, of course, an argument to be made here since, as the Wheaton president noted, some peoples in the past have been written off as “savages,” as if that was an irredeemable part of who they were. But that overlooks the completely opposite point this plaque is making: what is being celebrated here was an attempt to bring the message of redemption to the Aucas Indians. The five men who went, and the class that celebrated their efforts, did so because they knew the Word of God was for every tribe and nation, and because they knew that the Aucas were made in the Image of God too. There is no attack on anyone’s dignity or any dehumanization being done here.

While the word “savage” is a very good adjective for murderers, it is, of course, okay if today’s Christians don’t want to use it. What’s worrisome is when they want to scrub it. If God’s people become so sensitive about offense that could be taken, even when no actual offense is committed, that they feel the need to edit bronze, it’s hard to imagine how they’d ever have the courage and frankness to speak to the world about such sins – such sensitive issues – as homosexuality, transgenderism, and abortion.

This plaque was erected to remember how these five missionaries were willing to risk everything to bring God’s good news to a savage people desperately in need of it. Instead of finding fault where none exists, we should be looking to these missionaries’ example, asking, “What are we willing to risk to present His Word to our own savage culture?”

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Culture Clashes, Theology

May I judge?

I hear repeatedly that we’re not supposed to judge another.  Young people express themselves this way, and that’s not surprising – after all, not judging others fits hand in glove with the postmodern dogma of tolerance that’s so rampant today. Different strokes for different folks, so let the other be; who am I to say that what you’re doing or thinking is wrong…. I’ve heard Christians appeal to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to provide Biblical justification for the position, for Jesus told His disciples: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). Case closed: do not pass judgment on another. Inconsistent But the Internet is full of comments passing distinctly unfavorable judgments. These leave me puzzled.  We’re quick to repeat the mantra "do not judge" but judgments abound. Something is not consistent here. This sort of thing happens more often. In our relatively small community we hear numerous details of what happens in the life of the person in the next pew, or in the congregation up the road.  And very quickly we have a judgment ready on what we hear. It affects what we say to one another, and affects too how we think about or treat the person(s) about whom we heard a story. Do not judge rashly A quick judgment is simply unbiblical. Solomon put it like this: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). The Lord in the 9th commandment gave the instruction not to “bear false witness against your neighbor,” and the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes the instruction of this command with this confession: “I must not … condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard” (Lord’s Day 43). That counts for what we say on Facebook too. We do well to repent before God and man of our easy judgmentalism and seek to learn that God-pleasing habit of doing to others as we’d have them do to us (Luke 6:31). As we hate being on the receiving end of perceived gossip or slander, so we need studiously to avoid being on the giving end of gossip or slander. Test the spirits This does not mean, however, that I’m to be neutral concerning all I hear. The postmodern mantra that I’m to be OK with whatever anybody else thinks or does is simply not biblical. Consider, for example, John’s instruction to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). So much gets said, and people believe so many things.  But I’m to test whether what they say and believe is “from God.” John emphatically wants us to have an opinion on that – and then reject what is not from God. Testing, of course, involves so much more than hearing one thing and swallowing it dumbly as the final word on the subject. Testing involves listening carefully, understanding the details and circumstances, and then evaluating in the light of the revelation of the Lord of lords. You’re meant to have a considered opinion. That’s why, in 1 Cor. 5, the apostle Paul was emphatic to the Corinthians that they needed to pass explicit condemnation on the brother in their congregation who lived in sin, sleeping with his father's wife. They were not to be neutral on this man’s behavior but were to take a stand and excommunicate him. That’s because in this instance the details were abundantly clear (it wasn’t hearsay but indisputable facts evident to all parties), and so the saints of Corinth were obligated before God to form a judgment and carry it out. That obligation was so self-evident that Paul put the matter in the form of a rhetorical question: “is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). Judging: that’s your duty…. Jesus wrong? Is Jesus wrong, then, when He in the Sermon on the Mount tells His disciples, “Judge not, that you be not judged?” (Matthew 7:1). Actually, Jesus does not tell us not to have a judgment on what we hear or see.  Instead, Jesus’ point is that we’re not to judge rashly. That’s clear from Jesus’ next line, “For” – yes, note that connecting word! “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged...” (vs. 2a). If you are quick to condemn another, do not be surprised when others will be quick to condemn you; “...and with the measure you use it will be measure to you” (vs 2b). So if you hear one side of a story and condemn before you’ve heard the other side, be prepared to have folk condemn you on hearsay before they’ve heard your side of the story! Similarly, if you, from a self-righteous height, condemn others' behavior while you are yourself entangled in sin, do not be surprised that you’ll find no sympathy when others find out about your sin. Jesus puts it like this: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (vs 3). That, Jesus adds, is hypocrisy (vs 5). As long as you try to hide skeletons in your own closet, you are in no position to draw attention to skeletons you think you see in someone else’s closet. Clincher But Christians are not to hide skeletons in their closets! True Christians are repentant of their sins, and confess those sins to God and to those they’ve hurt by their sins. Then you’ve pulled the log out of your own eye – and at the same time have great understanding and empathy for another’s weaknesses and failures. Then you’ll test the spirits, and you’ll have an opinion on what you hear, and carefully avoid condemning the other in a spirit of lofty self-righteousness – and certainly avoid trumpeting your condemnation to John Public. The person who knows his own weaknesses and failures will instead sit down beside the sinning brother to show him his wrong and lead him on the way back to the Lord. It’s Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Judge? May I judge another? It depends on what you mean by the word "judge."  I am not to condemn rashly and unheard. But I am to have an opinion on my brother and help him in the way the Lord wants him to help me. This article was first published back in 2014. Rev. Clarence Bouwman is a pastor in the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church....