<NO, I don’t approve of insults as a missiological strategy. Please read the whole post before making a judgment. Anything less than that would be… insulting.>
When I was in college, I became familiar with “Chick Publications.” They are still active, but I really have no familiarity with their work in the last 25 years. However, their old works were quite distinctive. Two I remember quite well. One was about Evolution and one was about (Roman) Catholicism. Both were pretty insulting to evolutionists and Catholics. The anti-Catholic publication had the additional quirk of seeking to blame nearly every social ill in the last 2000 years on that religious establishment.
Now, this is not so unusual. People in one group tend to be good at finding the worst in other groups, but the Chick Publications works were apparently meant to be evangelistic tracts. But do insults really work as an evangelistic method?
Insults are, admittedly, a touchy thing, and tend to be in the eye (or ear) of the beholder (or listener). Consider the following:
1. A few years ago I was having a discussion with a person of the Mormon religion. I was pointing out some points of orthodox Mormonism and how these (as I see it) are inconsistent with sound Bible interpretation. He said that I was “mormon bashing.” Now I am not always a nice person. I can be a bit unkind at times, but I never could understand that. He did not argue against my understanding of his faith, and did not argue even with my basis for disagreeing with his faith. He simply felt that my statements “were not nice.” I felt he was being too sensitive (I still do)… but I suppose the level of sensitivity of a person or a group is their prerogative.
2. There has been some strong reactions to cartoons, movies, and such recently that portray the founder/prophet of Islam in less than positive light. The reaction to this has been rather strong… even violent (which not surprisingly adds to the suspicion that too much religion may be detrimental to your humanity). Christians are pretty used to denigration of our belief, our Savior, our God, and all manner of our faith and practice. So it is a bit hard understand the brittle response of some of the Muslim faith. After all, since a majority of people are not Muslim, one might think that they would already be aware that most people have a view of their founder that is considerably lower than their own. But again, sensitivity is the prerogative of the social group.
On the other hand, sensitivity can be fake (let’s be honest). To squelch dissenting viewpoints by strength of argument (and character) is difficult. It is easier to “win the argument” by saying that you are emotionally traumatized and so others should stop expressing their opposing views. It is good to be kind and understanding, but laws should not be created that encourages immaturity and false sensitivity.
Still, the question is whether insult is a sound missiological strategy. There may be an obvious answer, but before we get to that, lets try to look at it from a couple of standpoints.
Case 1. The insulting group is a marginalized people, who are insulting the majority group. The purpose of this is primarily sociological, not missiological. It adds comfort to the marginalized group that they are in the right even though they are a minority, and perhaps even persecuted, group. It is unlikely that it will have much value in luring people to their group. If the groups function within an open society, the insults will probably be tolerated. As such, the marginalized group may find that the social cohesion gained may be worth it. An example of this is probably the Chick Publication tracts which provide social cohesion for Christian fundamentalists without drawing much of a negative backlash from the broader society. On the other hand if the broader society is more closed and marginalized groups are more tolerated than welcomed, insults may result in sever backlash. An example of this may prove to be the response in Egypt to the film produced by an Egyptian Copt (a member of a marginalized and periodically persecuted group). Time will tell.
Case 2. The insulting group is the majority people in a society against one or more marginalized group. In this case the purpose often is not so much sociological as missiological (in the broadest understanding of the the term “missiological”). The effect over time often does tend to involve a reduction of the marginalized groups. This is a slow persecution seen in Middle Eastern Countries, European Countries, and frankly All Countries all over the world. In the Philippines right now is the educational program of Filipinization. While it is meant to create a common national identity, it does so by minimizing other identities. The US educational system did that in the past with the “melting pot” metaphor. Theoretically, if a religion dominates a region, it can use insult to slowly reduce the standing and number of marginal groups.
Of course, this does not answer the question of morality. For Christians, burning Qurans should not be accepted (not because of any particular belief regarding that book, but because it is insulting to people who find honor and value in that book). For Christians, insulting someone for honestly seeking truth and living out those beliefs should be opposed. The opposition should be moral not legal. Passing laws to outlaw expression of beliefs doesn’t work well anyway. It seems doubtful, regardless, that denigration of another’s beliefs is a more effective method of sharing the message of Christ than living out Christ daily.