Words. Words. Words. The past few weeks have seen more than their share of news stories about public figures and their controversial words. Cliven Bundy shares his views on “The Negro”. Sarah Palin tells the N.R.A. that, as president, she would “baptize” terrorists with waterboarding. Donald Sterling’s private comments are leaked and they reflect his already checkered, even ugly, history regarding race. Each of these issues triggered a significant response, drawing occasional cheers but mostly anger and demonstrations and petitions and a whole lot of media attention. Therefore, I want to offer a few words about words.
The Good News. I see good news within this media firestorm. Words still matter. In an age where we are inundated with information, an individual phrase and the impact of a few small words still hold enormous power. We would do well to remember this, even celebrate this, as we seek public justice. Even when the examples are negative. Christians have traditionally upheld this power within their own theological traditions – ours is a faith centered on the Word, on cultural contextualization, and the verbal story of the gospel. Words matter. So we should not shy away from our calling to embrace and respect the influence of words in our own civil discourse – whether that is the witness we give in private or in public. I think we should find some comfort that words are still a spark on dry kindling in this country.
The Bad News. The bad news is that there seems always to be more than enough kindling to ignite. Each of these stories reveals a lot of ugly things about us and about our culture. These ill-fated words and our reactions to them demonstrate so clearly that there are so many raw spots in our public discourse. There are so many wrongs regarding race that need justice. There is a (sinful?) desire within us to create and tear down heroes. The pampered rich. The culture of rampant violence that greets waterboarding with hearty cheers. The unaddressed anger about so many divisive topics that seethes just under the surface of our national conscious. The swift and emotional reaction to these words tells us that these are not isolated instances. They are representative of what we cheer or fear.
Beyond Cheering and Jeering. Sarah Palin uses sacramental language to promote torture and is met with cheers, then backlash. Cliven Bundy is met with cheers by some, then backlash by most. Donald Sterling’s comments are met with backlash, his punishment with cheering. Cheering and Jeering. I want to propose that we set both of those responses aside. Let’s try confessing. Let us confess that we still fail to talk (and listen!) constructively about everything from state’s rights to race. Let us repent of our culture of violence. Let us repent that we only cared about Donald Sterling’s views when a titillating private conversation was leaked to the media, instead of being outraged at his previous public record. Let us repent that we allow a latent racism to thrive in our culture. Let us confess that we abuse words and use words to abuse. Confession is the more appropriate response for Christians seeking public justice. It is too easy to topple individuals. But these individuals are only symptoms of underlying problems. And so we, as a nation, have repenting to do. So let us be outraged at a deeper level. At ourselves – for being part of a culture that celebrates and tolerates the wrong things so many times. This is not so much a time for cheering that these public figures got their just desserts. It is a time for confession that we allow it to get this far. A time for mourning over the violence, racism, and general incivility that permeates our language.
Be Stewards of Good Words: Let’s do something about it. Let’s take the lead in how we use our words. As a Christian, it pained me to see Ms. Palin’s uncivil Facebook response to her critics, “we do whatever we can to prevent [terrorists] from killing innocent people. And for that, we should NEVER apologize.” Whatever? NEVER? Let’s upgrade the level of discourse. Let’s be the first to listen and the first to ask for forgiveness. Let’s not miss that chance to witness to God’s grace. We need to be defenders of good words. And we should be thoughtful about to whom we give attention and to whom we give the microphone.
Be Stewards of Good Works. Words matter. But they are not a replacement for action. Public justice desires individual repercussions for destructive language – consequences. But public justice also desires something even deeper. It desires structures and cultures and an ethos where beautiful words and civil discourse flourish. Where dialogues are valued over demagogues. Where we care about the hiring practices of Mr. Sterling as much as his horrible private comments. Where we confess and repent that we live in a culture that seems always on the verge of going ablaze in words. And where we desperately work for something better.
-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI. www.calvaryreformedholland.org