We’ve discussed various ways a Christian author handles writing a character who cusses in my last post. In this one, I want to look at how we handle a character who uses hate speech.
The first question we might want to ask ourselves is: why would we want to write a character who uses hate speech in a Christian novel?
I suppose the simplest answer is that we live in a fallen world where hate speech exists… and even exists in the church. Not just churches like Westboro Baptist, but the church down the road where a minister’s zeal against sexual sin and for the sanctity of marriage causes him to demonize gays, divorcees and unmarried couples who live together. It happens in churches where cultural racism has been accepted in twisted Scriptures that justify that discrimination and hate. It happens in otherwise accepting churches where folks use a person’s disability [“retard”, “retarded”, etc] as a slur or insult without considering how such speech affects the lives of persons with intellectual disabilities.
But we don’t need to write characters who use hate speech just because it is an unfortunate and outrageous reality; we also have an opportunity to expose hate speech for what it is – and where it is – in all its ugly shame and contrast it to the grace and love of Christ. Some folks just don’t know any better and God can use your writing to show them a better way.
One of the major themes of Johnny Came Home is racism and prejudice. While I was writing Johnny, I posted the following to an apologetics fiction forum:
“How do I write a racist character in a Christian novel? How far is too far?
My protagonist is African American and my story takes place in a rural setting. As an Appalachian American [I love that term!], I can tell you that not all of us hicks are racists, but, alas!, some of us definitely are. It seems unrealistic to exclude racism from the novel, but how do I write a racist character without being overly vile or offensive?
Other elements to consider are that the protagonist was adopted by a Caucasian family and, well, he has a white girlfriend.
I’d appreciate any advice you can give me.”
I received exactly ZERO responses. Apparently, this is a subject folks don’t particularly even want to discuss. Yet racism remains prevalent, despite the fact that we know it’s wrong. People have even misused the Bible to back their hate and prejudices.
So I was on my own.
Now I was not [nor am I now] under the misapprehension that racism is acceptable. The sin of racism is hatred in its vilest form and respect of persons in its mildest. Jesus specifically denounced hate as murder during the Sermon on the Mount in the same way He denounced lust as adultery (Matt.5:21,22). John goes on to famously say that “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? (1 John 4:20).” James also notes that he that commits respect of persons commits sin (James 2:8,9), which only stands to reason since God Himself is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34; Rom.2:11). Genesis states that God created mankind in His own image (Gen.1:27); therefore, racism is an affront to God Himself!
Still, some claim that the Bible says that dark-skinned men resulted from the “curse of Ham,” an idea derived from a false interpretation of Genesis 9:25, that God marked Cain by giving him black skin after he killed his brother Abel or, bizarrely, blacks are the offspring of demons. None of the passages they use to try to justify their racism so much as mention skin color. As regards interracial marriage specifically, some maintain that miscegenation caused Israel to be judged by God; however, when God forbade Israel to intermarry with the Canaanites, the issue was not racial purity. A careful reading of these passages reveals that God warned them that if they married peoples of other faiths, they would forsake God for idol worship — which is exactly what occurred!
Another example of Scripture-twisting is this claim that since God made everything “after its kind” that we should maintain “racial purity.” However, a Biblical baramin, or “created kind,” has the ability to interbreed, which people of differing ethnicities can clearly do. A baramin has no reference to skin color. According to the Genesis record, we are all the genetic offspring of Adam and Eve (cf. Gen.3:20; Deut.32:8; Luke 3:38) and of Noah and his wife. The biblical view is of one human race, who were separated into different language groups at Babel (cf. Gen.11:1-9). As they dispersed and certain physical traits became isolated, the various cultures and people groups of the world developed. The Punnet square at left shows the range of skin color coded into the gentic potential of two middle-skinned people.
God does not judge us by the color of our skin, but by the condition of our heart (1 Sam.16:7). All, regardless of race or culture, are guilty before God and in need of a Savior (Rom.3:23; Gal.3:22). All sinned in our father Adam, but the Good News is that anyone of Adam’s bloodline may be saved through the shed blood of Christ. [John3:16; 1 Cor 15:22]
So the question is not whether racism is a sin but how we ought to write of this unfortunate reality.
I wrote Johnny Came Home to explore a possible world where super powers were explained within a Biblical creationist worldview rather than by an evolutionary POV as is common in most comic books these days. I chose Appalachia as the setting for my novel because you write what you know… and I’m an Appalachian American! It is also an undeniable fact that some of us are racists or have been raised to accept some things as normative that we ought to speak out against. One reviewer thought that the “anti-redneck sentiment was a bit overdone in the first half of the book.” Fair enough. The irony is that as I was editing the final version of the novel, overheard the following exchange between a young girl and her little sister as I was entering a store:
“Do you know what a redneck is?” the older sister asked.
The younger girl didn’t even hesitate. “That’s a racist, right?”
(Sigh.) It is what it is.
I knew I’d have to tackle some issues concerning the origins debate within the novel. As I wrote it, the issue of evolution’s relationship to racism kept coming up – and not just because the story is set in Appalachia. You see, evolution is by its very nature a racist theory. I’m not saying that everyone who beleives in microbes-to-man evolution is a racist, but rather that the theory itself is inherently racist. Even the late Stephen Jay Gould, an ardent evolutionist Marxist, admitted that:
“Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1850, but they increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.” Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Belknap-Harvard Press, pp. 127–128, 1977.
Gould himself was vehemently against racism, but he admitted that evolutionary theory could readily be used as a justification for racism. This is because evolution teaches that some people groups are simply less evolved than others, that some are closer to animals than others. While the Bible has been used as a justification for racism, people have to twist Scripture and take verses out-of-context in order to make the Bible fit their prejudices; evolutionary theory on the other hand is pretty much consistent with racist ideals, especially if one views evolution as progress.
In Johnny Came Home, some of the super-powered characters have decided that they are the next stage of human evolution, a common trope in superhero fiction. The following, an exchange between the book’s villain and our protagonist, illustrates how such beliefs play out in our actions:
“You’re denying your destiny.”
Johnny was pretty sure he’d just been handed a veiled ultimatum, but he simply couldn’t buy her argument. “What destiny? Do you think you’ll actually win? Better yet, do you think you’re actually better than people without these powers? I mean, look at what you do with them,” he pointed out. “These powers certainly don’t make you morally superior or wiser; they just make you stronger than the next guy, so it’s really just might makes right.”
“Or survival of the fittest.”
“Yeah, I recall that Hitler had ideas like yours, and your racism is just as wrong as his was.” The conclusion that evolution was an inherently racist theory had never occurred to him until he spoke those words. No, he didn’t think that everyone who affirmed evolution was a racist, but the theory itself implied that some people groups were just more evolved than others. Johnny recalled that his father used to mention a man named Ota Benga, a pygmy who was once on displayed in the Bronx Zoo’s monkey house because men believed that people with darker skin were more ape than human. It was no longer politically or socially acceptable to voice such racist opinions, but no matter how you sliced it evolution still implied that some men were less evolved than others.
Pandora’s voice dripped with condescension. “Oh, that’s right. Pull the race card.”
He ignored her attempt to sideline his point. “Hitler used ideas like master races and survival of the fittest to justify the Holocaust and Germany’s bid for world domination. I don’t see how you’re any different. If anyone’s pulling the race card, it’s you.”
In my Otherworld series, mankind has created pantropic Homo adaptis, aka mutants, to farm the oceans, work in near-airless Martian mines, fight our wars and do pretty much anything else we deemed too dangerous to do ourselves. Unfortunately, our intended slave race revolted and sued for recognition of their basic human rights. Even still, mutant-hating Purists do their best to either put mutants “back in their place” or else work toward eradication of the Great Mistake. As a point of irony, mutants have a prejudice against robots, who now basically fulfill the roles mutants were first created for.
Imaginary races like Homo superior and Homo adaptis provide an excellent opportunity to showcase humanity’s petty hatreds and prejudices from the relative safety of fiction. It also gives us an opportunity to show redemption in action. Only God can change a heart, but that change is possible even when we’re taught to hate from an early age. This is one of the themes I got to explore in Johnny.
Nailing down what is and is not hate speech can be a little tricky because almost anything can be used as such, tends to change from time to time and there are a lot of misunderstandings that come with the territory. Oh, we recognize that the N-word is bad. But there are a LOT of terms and stereotypical associations we have that fuel our prejudices. Some of them have been innocuously incorporated into our society in such a way that folks who do not consider themselves prejudiced use terms that others recognize as hate speech.
For example, I once used the term squaw at the office. I didn’t see anything wrong with it and I happen to be 3/8ths Native American. I was under the impression that the word simply meant Native American woman. This is in fact what the term actually means; however claims that the term actually referred to a vagina, which gained currency during the 1970s, have caused the term to be viewed in a derogatory manner, similar to demeaning terms for ethnic women like Jewess and Negress. If I can use an analogy from profanity, it’s like the B-word. The exact meaning of the term is a female dog, but it has come to mean a demeaning term for a woman we find displeasing or difficult.
My personal solution was to apologize for using the term squaw in ignorance and then pretty much never use the term again for the sake of tolerance and respect [academic usage such as the essay excepting]. Understand that it didn’t matter that I meant to use the term in a non-offensive manner and that I was ignorant of how it hurt others; once I knew, it was my responsibility to make a decision and abolish what some folks consider a hateful term from my speech. This is the correct solution in real life, especially as Christians, but how do we write of such things?
For example, on page 36 of The Infinity Man, Christian author Kirk Hastings uses the R-word [“retard”] to refer to “them people they have in mental hospitals.” No Bible-affirming Christian should EVER use the term “retard,” “retarded” or any other variant of the R-word. It is grievously insensitive and hateful to use someone else’s disability as an insult. It makes the world a darker, more hostile place for persons with disabilities. We [should] all know that.
Now in the example above, the thing that bothers me is that while the reference above was made by characters who were clearly semi-literate rednecks at best, at no point does the author try to temper their ignorant assessment with the truth. At no point was there the counterpoint by an intelligent person regarding persons with intellectual disabilities. As Christian writers, I don’t see how we can let such things go unanswered. It is much more than our responsibility; it is our privilege as literary apologists to shed the light of truth on the subjects of prejudice and racism. And we need to be CLEAR about that truth.
To illustrate this point, consider the following: I often have folks tell me that they witness with their lives rather than with words. That all sounds well and good, but I have to ask them if others only see the good they do and if they haven’t heard about saving grace, haven’t you just told them they can be saved if they are good enough? In effect, actions without words leaves one with the impression that good works save us [while words without actions simply leaves them thinking the word “hypocrite”]. In the example from Hastings’s book, we are left with no counterpoint to remind the reader that we ought not use the R-word and that the way the characters use these terms is wrong. If we fail to do this as Christian authors, we risk leaving folks with the impression that using the R-word is OK and that, yes, these are people from mental hospitals, which isn’t really the case. We need to be clear because at the very least the Christian novel should present the truth.
As with profanity, the Christian author has several tools at their disposal:
- We can pretend like hate speech doesn’t exist and pretend that all of our characters speak like born again Christians who’ve never used a day in their lives [so there couldn’t be a moment of backsliding] or who’ve never even heard a swear word [Pleasantville, anyone?]. This is the pure Idealist position.
- We can have hate speech occur “off-camera.” There’s no real hate speech equivalent to a generalized “He swore” or “He cursed,” unless we count x-word variants: “He said the N-word.” Or “I couldn’t believe someone as intelligent as Dr. Giggles would refer to an autistic child by the R-word.”
- We can hintify. “As Darnell turned to leave, George called out a racist word you never heard in polite company! And he said it with a satisfied sneer. Emily wanted nothing more than to slap the smugness off his face, but judging by the way Darnell and his friends were looking at George, she was going to have to wait her turn.”
- We can make up fake hate speech. Battlestar Galactica used the word “toasters” for their Cylon foes. Of course, Cylons are now biological robots who are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Calling this variant of Cylon a “toaster” or machine is a way of dehumanizing them so that they can be abused and tortured as Gina, the Number Six copy held prisoner aboard the Pegasus was in Season 2’s 10th episode, “Pegasus.”
- We can stick to milder versions of such speech [if that’s at all accurate]; specifically, terms that have neutral meanings if not used in a racist context. For example, having a hater refer to someone of color as a “boy.” It may not be as blatantly offensive as say the N-word, but the reason that hate speech is so hard to define by terms is that almost anything can become hate speech in the right context. So be aware that you’re basically flat-out utilizing hate speech, even if you’re not using something blatantly [as opposed to contextually] offensive.
- We can use hyphenated versions of hate speech. For example: “You n–!” Honestly, that only works with well-established terms, so you can’t really utilize this method as often as you can with profanity without forcing the reader to guess… and that’s just distracting at best!
- You can just flat out do it. This would be the pure Realist position. And I’m not at all sure it’s advisable. We’ve rather left the day and age where a modern author, Christian or otherwise, could write something like Huckleberry Finn.
Here’s how I handled a scene involving a super-powered racist redneck and my super-powered protagonist in Johnny Came Home:
He was a little surprised to see three guys waiting on the stairs. They were dressed in Halloween zombie makeup. They hadn’t noticed him yet. Johnny couldn’t believe someone was actually trying to haunt his own house.
“Can I help you gentlemen?”As one, all three stared up at him in terror and shock. One of them was wearing a pair of infrared goggles, the kind he’d asked Weasel to pick up in the toy section of the local SuperBig Mart earlier today.He recognized the biggest one. “Brad Farley, get your big ugly butt out of my house.”One of Brad’s sidekicks wailed. “He knows your name!”“Dwayne?” Johnny asked.“He knows my name!” Dwayne tried bolting down the rest of the stairs, but Brad grabbed him by the back of the shirt.“Wait!” Brad said. He frowned at Johnny. “You’re supposed to be dead.”“Oh, I am dead and you’re trespassing.” He pointed his hand at a framed photo on the wall. It came loose and hovered in the middle of the stairwell in front of their eyes. He did the same thing to all of the other photos in the stairwell, until the trio of trespassers was surrounded. Dwayne wet himself and nearly fell down the stairs to get away from this apparition. Tater didn’t run, but he did stand closer to Brad.“I’m not afraid of you,” Brad said. “How are you doing that? Where’s the wire?”“That’s right, Brad. I’m not a ghost. I came back after all these years for no better reason than to stage a haunted house just for you.”“You better watch how you talk to me, boy!”“And you’d better take care not to call me boy again,” Johnny warned. “This ain’t grade school, Farley. You have no idea what I’m capable of now.”Brad flexed his biceps. “You actually think you can take me?”“I know I can,” Johnny said.“Only one way to find out.” Setting his massive jaw, he charged up the stairs at Johnny.Johnny almost didn’t react in time, but going uphill slowed his would-be assailant down and he managed to catch the hulking jock with a wall of kinetic force. Oddly, it only rocked Brad back onto his heels. It did eventually stop him, but only after he’d managed to reach the top of the stairs. Johnny frowned. The muscle mutant from the police station had been able to resist his telekinetic push like this. Was Brad like Bantam?Brad’s piggish eyes narrowed. “How did you do that?”“Forget this!” Tater yelled from below. Brad and Johnny watched him go.“You should go with your friends,” Johnny said.“Listen here, you stupid n–”Brad never finished his racist threat. Hit by a kinetic blast, he flew backwards, slammed against the wall and dropped onto the stairwell. He rolled to the bottom of the stairs with an avalanche of grunts and curses.Emily and Heather appeared at the bottom of the stairwell, drawn by the commotion.Heather recognized her boyfriend’s impressive form at her feet, despite the zombie makeup. “Brad!? What are you doing here?”Brad sighed and looked up at her. “I’m fine,” he said as he rose to his feet. “Just fell down a flight of steps. Thanks for asking.”“You were coming here to scare us, weren’t you? Weren’t you??” Her face darkened.“Gimme a break. It’s Halloween.” He glanced over his shoulder at Johnny. “Besides, I ain’t the only spook haunting this house.” He leered at Emily.Emily clocked Brad with a vicious roundhouse.Brad rubbed his nose and glared at her. “You hit like a girl.”“Brad!” Heather shouted.Reading the look on Heather’s face, he left via the kitchen door. Heather decided that wouldn’t do. She chased after him, scolding the whole way._____________________
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For more information on why we shouldn’t use the R-word, visit http://r-word.org