It’s interesting how some words that were initially intended to convey positive ideas can be turned into pejoratives.
For example, the word “woke” finds its origins in the Black community, where it was a compliment about a person’s awareness of injustices in society. Now it is used as an insult meant to paint someone as a “radical leftist.” The same goes for “social justice,” a term meant to describe the systemic nature of justice, which has now become associated with Marxism and radical ideologies in popular fare.
Additionally, prior to a couple of years ago, empathy was broadly accepted as a value to which all Christians should aspire. That is, until Minnesota seminary president Joe Rigney alerted us to the “enticing sin of empathy,” in a “Screwtape Letters” style parable that sought to illustrate “how Satan corrupts us through compassion,” thereby weakening our moral fortitude.
It appears that nuance is the latest concept to come under fire by political and theological conservatives.
Nuance is a word to describe an understanding of the complexities of a situation, particularly when making moral or theological determinations. It accounts for the differing perspectives involved in a dispute, acknowledges the validity in each of those views, and arrives at a conclusion that incorporates the best of those perspectives into a new outlook.
To some, this is seen simply as a lack of moral courage, an unwillingness to take a stand for Jesus. They want an unequivocal judgment of right or wrong. Anything less, and you’re just a “nuance bro.”
Because we live in a fallen world, finding the morally correct way forward can sometimes be incredibly complex. On the other hand, there are moral questions to which God has spoken clearly in Scripture.
Nevertheless, there are two equal yet opposite dangers when it comes to the concept of nuance and how we apply it to our moral and theological reasoning.
Danger #1: Making Things Appear Simpler Than They Really Are
A suspicion toward “nuance” often results from a fear of ambiguity. If the answers to our moral questions are clear and simple, then we know what to do (or who to be mad at).
This has been quite apparent in our recent discourse regarding the overturn of Roe v. Wade, which has vastly changed the landscape of the pro-life movement.
As the question of the legality of abortion is now being addressed on a state-by-state basis, the discourse around legislation that would restrict abortion has been fraught. In some states, such as in Louisiana, conservative politicians have pushed for laws that would not only ban abortion but would also seek murder charges against a woman who obtains an abortion. Some even believe that the death penalty is warranted in these cases.
The moral reasoning is simple: the unborn life is a human child. To unjustly kill another human being is murder. Abortion unjustly kills a human being. Therefore, abortion is a capital offense.
However, this is a remarkably flat way to morally reason through a complex situation.
It does not take into account the economic realities that disproportionately disadvantage communities of color, which if abortion criminally penalized mothers, would likely lead to even higher racial disparities in criminal justice.
It does not take into account the dearth of education regarding life inside the womb. Indeed, many have been trained to believe from a young age that an unborn child is not a fellow human.
It does not take into account the immense pressure women feel from romantic partners, parents, or other community members to obtain an abortion during a crisis pregnancy.
So, if we want true justice, if we want to save and preserve as many lives as possible, then merely criminally punishing women who obtain abortions is not the best solution—even if it is the simplest.
What are the best ways to address the economic, racial, social, and educational factors that underlie our current crisis around abortion? How is the woman’s moral culpability brought to bear in light of these realities, both from a civil perspective and a spiritual one? How do we ensure the lives of women are not lost due to ectopic pregnancies because they or their doctors feared legal repercussions if they performed a life-saving termination of the pregnancy, or that women won’t be traumatized with criminal investigations following a miscarriage?
That’s a complex conversation, or rather a complex network of complex conversations, that requires a heaping helping of, well, nuance.
Danger #2: Overcomplicating Things Where Scripture Has Been Clear
On the other hand, while many moral questions require a level of reasoning that delves into the complexities of our fallen world and holds its various aspects in tension, it is possible to nuance yourself into moral oblivion.
This kind of moral oblivion can be illustrated by returning to the example of Roe’s overturn.
Following the Dobbs decision, which removed abortion’s status as a constitutionally protected right and opened the door to more reasonable abortion laws, many pro-life advocates and evangelical Christians around the nation were celebrating.
For this, they received a stern rebuke. Oftentimes, from fellow evangelicals.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again: the overturn of Roe represents the single largest victory for the pro-life movement in five decades. For the last 49 years, America has had some of the most extreme abortion laws around the globe. In fact, only seven countries in the world have had as unfettered access to on-demand abortion as America, and two of them are China and North Korea.
By any measure, the overturn of a ruling as unjust as Roe is a win. It is the culmination of thousands of marches, petitions, and the tireless work of many people who have given a considerable portion of their lives to fight for the rights of the unborn.
This is something that Christians who are on the side of life should take a moment to celebrate.
Given the unfolding moral and legal complexities that pro-life Christians must now grapple with, that celebration may be somewhat sober in light of the new moral responsibilities it presents. But one thing is unequivocally true: a moral evil has been undone.
While Christians are most certainly called to “mourn with those who mourn,” love also requires that we do not “rejoice at wrongdoing” but rather rejoice “with the truth” (Romans 12:15; 1 Corinthians 13:6).
We Are Not Without Moral Direction.
At the end of the day, God is mysterious. But God is also knowable. Interpreting and applying the truths of the Bible requires care and critical thinking. But God has promised that his Holy Spirit will illuminate his will to us.
So while we must not allow our moral reasoning to become so wooden that we ourselves become unjust, we must also be willing to stand firm on the aspects of moral truth that are categorical.
Nuance for nuance’s sake is moral weakness. But the moral compass of Jesus is exemplified by someone with both a strong spine and a soft heart.