From the Vault: Rhetoric Matters

On Mondays, I’m going into the vault, reworking an old post, and reposting it with some comments attached. This morning’s post comes from January 12, 2011. At the time I wrote it, I was writing about Sarah Palin and a shooting in Tucson, AZ. I’ve re-edited this post quite a bit to reflect more current realities, but I’ve kept the main point of the post the same.  I’ve added additional comments and a few questions at the end of the post.


If you ask people what they’re afraid of, public speaking is high on their lists. So apparently, I’m a freak. Almost every week I stand up in front of room full of adults and speak publicly for somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes. I’ve spoken to large crowds and to the shower wall, both having a certain allure. (My ego loves the crowds, but to the shower wall I’m brilliant and brave.) Our church podcasts my teachings every week, and so what I say is available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection. And this blog, like all others big and small, is also accessible to anyone on planet Earth with an internet connection.

Why do I make such an effort to say what I’m thinking?  Because words matter. What I say on a Sunday morning, or what I write on my blog or what I say to a friend or parishioner just might challenge someone to think or live differently for the sake of a better world. That gets me out of bed in the morning.


That’s why all the Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Donald Trump stuff that’s littered my Facebook feed these last weeks bothers me so much. Rhetoric matters; how you say something is as important as what you say; and the venom and hate spewing forth, masked as political rhetoric, is contributing to the feeling that the world is dark, scary and tense.

Most of the time – especially when it comes to political stuff – I choose to stay silent. It seems not many people are interested in civil political discourse these days. The partisans drape themselves in vague, ad hominem attacks, asserting the other side “is out to destroy America.” And they’ve retreated to their Fox News and MSNBC. (I had a friend tell me once how he stopped listening to Rush Limbaugh and found he was happier, less cynical, more open. Hmmmm. Makes me wonder about how the rhetoric we choose to let into our minds affects our outlook, but that’s another post sometime.)

But last week, I couldn’t stay silent. The politics were about religious things. And even though I got a fair amount of good feedback, both online and in conversation, I still felt conflicted. I still don’t always know the right answer to the question, “When should one speak up and when should one stay silent?”

Or to ask the question in a more Biblical fashion, when do I choose to take the advice of Proverbs 26:4: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” Or, when do I choose to take the advice of the very next verse that says exactly the opposite, “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”

How do I take seriously the idea of being a peacemaker, but at the same time say my truth, say to the world, “Jerry Falwell Jr., while he may be a godly man in a thousand ways, doesn’t represent me when it comes to how he talks about Muslims and guns in America. I don’t think we’re following the same Jesus.”

There are plenty of people out there who have written excellent articles denouncing Falwell’s or Trump’s rhetoric in a balanced way, fairly critiquing the rhetoric without impugning the person, without making sweeping generalizations about people or ideas, so I won’t spend time doing that here. (While you may not agree with his points, I think Brian McLaren modeled this well on The Huffington Post last week.) But I’ve been thinking about myself and the responsibility I have of speaking in public. And if I could have Falwell’s or Trump’s ear – or any of us who speak to a public audience – here’s what I might say:

Words are powerful things. With our words, we can make people laugh, cry, and consider what we want them to think about.  With our words, we can change people’s minds about even the biggest issues – faith, politics, and the meaning of the universe. So what you say, and the manner in which you say it, matters. It matters a lot. And at times, we’ve all erred. We’ve all over-exerted ourselves on a point we shouldn’t have pressed so hard, or we’ve done the opposite and chickened out, when the occasion called for more passion and elucidation than we gave it. And in those times, we need to use our words to put things right, to apologize and point to a better way.


Three years ago I wrote this post, and it’s still true, still relevant. And I still don’t know the best answer to when to speak up. But I’m more convinced that I ought to speak up more.

Here’s an example: Last week, someone on my Facebook asserted that Jesus is a incomplete picture of God, because he only lived 33 years. If I understood correctly, his specific point was that we should minimize Jesus’ calls to pacifism and round out Jesus’ message with a strong dose of “wipe out all the Philistines.” I think, even in my conservative, evangelical seminary, I wouldn’t have passed my orals with this kind of hermeneutic.

But I didn’t respond, because I didn’t want to have a protracted argument on Facebook.  And part of me feels like to say nothing was a failure of my own nerve, a laziness on my part, that to stay silent was wrong.

So, my friends, help a brother out: how we respond matters, of course, but when should we speak up and when should we stay silent? When, at the family Christmas dinner do you just ignore what your drunk uncle says, when do you say what you really think, and when do you just play Adele and sing together?

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