The Art of Petulance: Boycotting Nike, Serena Williams, and the Christian’s Tongue

pouting baby

by John Ellis

Over the last few weeks, both “sides” of our increasingly bifurcated society have aptly demonstrated that our similarities transcend politics. Sadly, the specific similarity we’ve witnessed of late isn’t reflective of our “better natures.” Our society appears to be in the throes of competing temper tantrums.

After Nike released an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, many who claim to be conservatives began protesting. Burning their Nike gear, those upset at the company for helping promote a message they believe to be unpatriotic are demanding people boycott Nike. Refusal to do so brings angry denunciations. The owners of a jewelry store in Massachusetts are receiving death threats for daring to put up a humorous billboard playing off the kneeling controversy. Not quite as drastic, a mayor in Louisiana has apparently banned the city from purchasing Nike equipment and clothes. The list could go on.

On the other side, progressives are up in arms over the alleged sexist treatment of Serena Williams at the US Open. Cheering Serena’s emotional meltdown on the court, progressives are screaming that this is proof that society is weighted against women. Never mind that Serena Williams threw a literal temper tantrum on the court, stealing the spotlight from Naomi Osaka who won the title, criticizing Serena’s actions brings with it the same petulantly rhetorical force from many progressives that Serena displayed at the US Open.

Both sides celebrate and promote violence (rhetorical or otherwise) and petulant actions as a legitimate means for getting what they want. Christians are not immune from the allure of using temper tantrums as a way to be heard. However, petulance is not an appropriate tool for Christians.

Many of us are familiar with James foreboding words concerning the tongue in James 3:5-10:

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

However, and I’m writing mainly to myself here, do we really seek to apply James’ admonishment when interacting with others? Do we seek to bless others with our words and actions, or curse others?

The apostle Paul urges his readers in Ephesians 4:29 to, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear it.”

There are times to rebuke, exhort, and take a stand for truth. However, even during those times, Christians are commanded to use their voice to give grace. Ultimately, we “give grace” by calling sinners to repentance and faith in Jesus. If we don’t “bridle our tongue,” to borrow language from the book of James, we run the risk of undermining our ability to “give grace” in its most fundamental meaning. Why should nonbelievers listen to us when we share the gospel of Jesus Christ if our communication is dotted or even exhibits a pattern of “corrupting talk?”

By way of example, if I’m not careful, I have the tendency to drive more aggressively than is probably healthy. Over the last couple of years, however, especially since I went on staff at my church, I’ve tried to keep in mind that my driving communicates something to the drivers around me.

If I tailgate the driver in front of me, what am I communicating? Well, many things. I’m not giving grace, that’s for sure, and, in a petulant manner, I’m definitely letting the driver in front of me know that I care more about myself than I care about him. Now, considering that I’m fairly recognizable, what would happen if the driver in front me came to my church the following Sunday? Chances are, especially if it were a Sunday when I was preaching or service-leading, that individual would be tempted to disregard what was said during the service.

The warning in the above illustration extends to all of our communication, be it online or in person. The command to “give grace” is applicable for all times and places, even in times and places when it appears that giving grace is the farthest thing from most peoples’ minds as they interact with each other.

Christianity has been and will always be, until Jesus returns, counter-cultural. One way that followers of Jesus can demonstrate our identity in Christ in a counter-cultural manner is to communicate in ways that demonstrate grace. By God’s grace, we should seek to avoid vain arguments (online and in person) that obscure our ability to share the gospel with our hearers. By God’s grace, we should strive to speak with love in order to give grace, regardless of where, why, and with whom we’re speaking. By God’s grace, we should always remember, as James 3:9 reminds us, that no matter whom we’re speaking to, that person is also “made in the likeness of God.” By God’s grace, our overriding priority with our interpersonal communication should be to see sinners saved and not to win arguments.

Soli Deo Gloria


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