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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Why Pope Francis Wasted His Time in America

Well, at the time of writing, Pope Francis is flying back to the Vatican after a week visiting Washington D.C., New York and Philadelphia.

I’ll confess, I may have gotten a little caught up in all the hoopla and, despite being a decidedly “low church” guy, who regularly wears ripped jeans and tshirts to preach, I watched the pope mobile make its way up Fifth Avenue as he waved to the faithful. And I may have also gotten caught up in some of the commentary surrounding his remarks to Congress and the U.N. I genuinely like this pope and his message. I admire how he graciously speaks truth to power.

But there was one particular conversation that I was most interested in and it’s this question: “What will be the lasting impact of the pope’s visit to America?”

My answer: none. Zero. Zip. Nada. Besides perhaps inspiring John Boehner to step down prematurely (which I admire), the news has already moved on to exploding manhole covers and Matt Damon’s new movie The Martian. (Watching The Today Show makes me sad about America. Maybe I should quit.)

The reason for my cynicism is based on a simple observation. Unless we make extraordinary effort, we humans tend to filter out what conflicts with our preexisting notions. Listening to NPR’s On the Media podcast yesterday, they talked about how Republicans can identify with the pope’s pro-life stance while Democrats can rally around his concern for the poor and the environment. Meanwhile both groups simply ignore that with which they disagree.

It happens all the time. For example, there’s been this shift in the last year or so where Republicans say, in response to new studies that at least show a strong correlation between human activity and the warming environment, “Well, I’m no scientist… but they’re wrong,” or “I have no knowledge of the specifics of said study, but it’s arrogant to come to the conclusion they came to.” In other words, “I don’t care what you say, what evidence you present, I simply refuse to acknowledge it.”

Yes, I know, I’m probably ruffling some feathers here because I’m getting “political,” but it isn’t just Republicans; it’s all of us about everything. And it’s fine, I suppose, to be stubborn and inflexible in terms of one’s beliefs and the host of social and economic views that divide America these days (although it probably makes you a not-so-pleasant conversationalist).  But it’s dangerous to have the same fortress mentality when it comes to the self.

And perhaps the self, the fragile ego, is the place where we are most resistant to new ideas. I wrote last week of owning our stories, but this is brave, difficult work. It’s much easier to simply believe what one believes about oneself and ignore all evidence to the contrary. It’s easier to believe I’m a “good guy” and ignore the wake of employees who keep quitting the organization I lead. Biographically speaking, there was a time when it was much easier to believe that I was “fit” despite the evidence of the scale that said I was obese. (“Well, you know the BMI is rigged for people with a smaller bone structure…blah, blah, blah,” I’d say. It’s amazing the bullshit we can sell ourselves to keep affirming our story, huh?)

And so we keep our walls up, keeping at bay any evidence that threatens our fragile facades. But it’s dangerous to the formation of our soul, of our psyche to have such a fortress mentality. It endangers our relationships when a spouse or friend points out a behavior or attitude and we refuse, ignore or excuse the observation. It endangers our careers when our boss or coworker points out how we continually rub people the wrong way, and we choose to ignore their insight. It endangers our social spheres when we keep finding ourselves in the same messy, dramatic situations, and we refuse to examine what part we have to play.

Until we cultivate the habit of careful listening, of curiosity about ourselves and of humility, we are doomed to be stuck as the person we are right now. No growth, no learning, no becoming. In short, we are on the pathway of George Castanza. And no one aspires to be George Castanza.

So, the next time someone says something that you disagree with, before you rush off and write a witty, dismissive response, what if you took a moment to explore the alternative idea? What if Republicans actually looked at the science of environmental warming? What if Democrats would consider the arguments of the pro-life crowd? What if I believed my wife and changed my behavior? What if I believed the BMI and changed my habits?

When I listen, it doesn’t always mean I’ll change. In fact, sometimes listening carefully reinforces what I already believe. For example, when I read a conservative blog post – which I do from time to time – I’m generally more convinced of what I believe. But I usually come away with a clearer understanding of the nuances of our disagreement. Which, frankly, just makes me a kinder, gentler, better human being.

So, yes, I’m skeptical about the impact of Pope Francis’ visit. Our current national character is not one that invites dissenting views or changing one’s mind. We’re rather stuck in our political camps and can’t seem to hear anything but the voices that affirm what we already believe. But I’m optimistic for myself, and for you, that we really can become something more, something that looks more reflective of the Imago Dei today, than I was yesterday.

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