The Power of Life and Death
A nation caught in a vicious cycle of hateful words and violent deeds needs Christian leaders to model a better way.
The tongue has the power of life and death,” Proverbs 18:21 says, “and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
This proverb came to my mind yesterday when I learned that a gunman had shot and wounded Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La., 1st District) and four congressional staff members in the early morning near Washington D.C. The shooter later died from wounds sustained in a gun battle with Capitol Police, who were protecting Rep. Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives.
The shooter evidently supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Sen. Sanders immediately denounced the violent act. Regardless, some right-wing pundits quickly tied the incident to anti-Trump and anti-Republican rhetoric by some left-wing pundits and Democratic politicians. They claimed that rhetoric had created the “climate of hate” in which the shooter acted.
This is not the first time partisans blamed violence against them on the other side’s rhetoric. Democrats, for example, pointed to Republicans’ “climate of hate” in 2011 when a gunman shot then-Rep. Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords (D-Ariz., 13th District) and 17 others. Giffords suffered brain injuries, and six people died.
Our tongue has power. Let’s use it in a way that brings life, not death, to ourselves, our churches and our communities.
I’m not interested in assessing whether the Left’s rhetoric is more hateful than the Right’s or whether the Right’s actions are more violent than the Left’s. As far as I have seen, the answer to those questions generally lines up with the respondent’s ideology. A person on the Right thinks the Left bears the blame, and vice versa. This suggests that we’re not coming at the answer from an objective, statistical point of view
Instead of assessing blame, I want to make an obvious point and a less obvious point and then offer an explanation and several suggestions:
Points Obvious and Less Obvious
The obvious point is this: Both sides think climates of hate are capable of producing violent action. Nobody thinks there’s zero connection between words and deeds. Everybody acknowledges some connection.
The less obvious point is this: Regardless of that acknowledgment, neither side changes its rhetoric in a significant or enduring way. Oh sure, after a tragedy, right-wingers and left-wingers will come together, pray for the victims, sing “Kumbaya” and pledge to work together. A few days later, however, they’re back at each other’s throats, using the same nasty rhetoric they used before the violence that temporarily brought them together.
Explaining Why Our Rhetoric Doesn’t Change
Why? How can people who acknowledge the connection between words and deeds go on to think their hateful rhetoric doesn’t generate violence on their side? The explanation, it seems to me, is that they think their rhetoric is true. Partisans and ideologues don’t merely disagree with the policies of the other side; in other words, they think the other side and its policies are objectively evil. That’s why both sides in political debates are tempted — and too often succumb to the temptation — to compare the other side to Hitler and the Nazis, which all sides agree to be symbols of perfect evil.
But here’s the deal: In American politics today, if you really think that people on the other side are like Hitler and their policies are like the Nazis’, then the obvious response is to go to war — to engage in more violence, not less.
Nobody in their right mind thinks that way, though. After a tragedy like yesterday’s shooting, we all get together and pledge to talk kindlier and work together more constructively. That implies — and you need to pay attention to this point! — that the other side in current American politics doesn’t deserve the hateful rhetoric your own side sometimes throws its way.
Three Practical Suggestions
Once you and I realize this point, several suggestions come quickly to mind.
First, repent! We constantly tell people on the other side of an issue from us to cease and desist from their climate of hate, but Jesus told us to take our own advice first: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? ... You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3,5).
Applied to political rhetoric, this means we need to police our own words — and the words of those on our own side — first.
Second, follow the Golden Rule! How do we know which of our words are hateful? The answer to that question is as simple as the Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
If you want people to ascribe good motives to your actions, ascribe good motives to their actions. If you want people to characterize your statements accurately and in context, do the same for them. If you want people to acknowledge your right to speak and act, acknowledge their similar right.
Third, don’t retaliate! In my experience, I practice self-criticism and the Golden Rule as long as the other side does so. The moment they deviate from those two standards, though, I am tempted to ditch those standards and start throwing mud. That’s a bad idea, for as some wag once pointed out, when you wrestle with a pig in the mud, you both get dirty … and the pig likes it. Responding to bad rhetoric with more bad rhetoric creates a vicious cycle of bad rhetoric.
Once again, Jesus points the way: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39).
The best way to stop a vicious cycle is to stop being vicious, and turning the other cheek does that. It stings, of course, but it also stops things from escalating to violence.
What I’ve written here applies to politicians and citizens, to leaders and followers. It applies most of all to Christians, however, and especially Christians leaders. We lead our congregations, and we represent them in the public square. It is incumbent on us especially — as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ — to do what He said to do.
As our nation wrestles with a vicious cycle of hateful words and violent deeds, let’s make sure we model a better way. Our tongue has power. Let’s use it in a way that brings life, not death, to ourselves, our churches and our communities.