Since the tragic shooting last week in Tucson, a lot of debate has been thrown around about the connection between it and the increasingly inflammatory political rhetoric that has characterized public discourse in the Information Age. Personally, I don’t make much of the connection, at least directly. The shooter is mentally unstable and, according to the news, doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular political ideology. And the fact of the matter is that inflammatory political rhetoric isn’t anything new; it’s as old as politics. Have you ever read some of the things that were said about George Washington in the papers while he was president? As bad as it can get, today’s rhetoric doesn’t touch some of the outlandish things that were printed in the early days of the republic.
Of course, in order to read those things you had to a) be able to read, b) buy a newspaper, and c) read the inflammatory article. Today, not only can most people in the country read, but political rhetoric is not limited to newspapers, pamphlets, and speeches. Blogs, books, Tweets, texts, YouTube, email, radio, television, online newpapers and magazines all make information—or disinformation—widely and instantly available.
So whether or not there is a direct connection between a particular event and the rhetoric being flung around, words matter more than ever. Sticks and stone can only break bones, but words can sully a reputation, destroy a career, lead innocent people to believe falsehoods, and grind to a halt the forward progress of an organization—or a nation.
All people of faith must remember this when entering into the realm of politics. Unfortunately, too often people of faith get sucked into lowering themselves to the often rancid level of political discourse when in fact we are supposed to bring something different to the discussion—if not new ideas, at least a new way of discussing the old ideas.
My friend Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, recently wrote the following:
Our public debate has moral fiber for all of us -- people of faith and non-believers alike. In our pluralistic political culture we will seldom all agree on much of anything, and it is a sign of a vital democracy to debate our differences with passion and intensity. But we must always speak the truth, and do it lovingly and with a touch of humility.
The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures enjoin us to tell the truth, speak from the heart, avoid slander and keep our word. For the Psalmist it was a condition of entry to the Tent of Meeting in the temple. In his first letter, St. Peter says to be ready to make a strong defense of the hope that is within us, but to do it with "gentleness and respect."
Unfortunately, rather than raise the level of debate in the public arena, all too often we bring the low level of political debate into our churches. As you might imagine, I know a lot of pastors and church leaders, and few can say that they have never witnessed this in their churches. Whether in the open at business meetings or through the grapevine where the gossip occurs, most have not only seen it, they have been the target of it. All have been hurt by it. Some have left their churches because of it; other have left the ministry because of it. And that’s just pastors. How many have left the church because of it?
This is not a new issue for the church, just as it’s not a new issue in politics. As Brent noted above, the ancient Israelites dealt with it, Peter wrote about it, as did James, who called the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
Words matter. They have the capacity to wound or to heal, to bring people together or keep them apart, to build the Kingdom of God or to forestall it.
In our speech we can be followers of Jesus, or we can be followers of Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olberman.
But we can’t be both.