A couple of years ago, I was at a conference on social justice. The final speaker was a very impassioned young man and after his talk several of us gathered near the podium to engage him in some further questions. He expressed how frustrated and disappointed he was that so few people ever took up his challenge.
“Why?” he asked, “are people who are sincere so reluctant to get involved in justice issues?” One man present responded by saying: “Maybe I would be tempted to get involved if people like you didn’t always insult me with your rhetoric!”
I use this story not to accuse particularly the orators of social justice. I hope to make a wider accusation, with this story serving only as one kind of illustration: One of the biggest factors working against community and against our ability to work together as a church or world is abrasive rhetoric. Simply put, too often the language that tries to promote truth and justice is insulting to others, judgmental, arrogant,
patronizing, self-righteous, and more apt to drive persons still further away from the truth it is trying to promote than to invite them to embrace that truth.
This style of language, full of both truth and disrespect, is characteristic of groups both on the left and on the right in the church and world today. We see it in liberals and conservatives, feminists and antifeminists, pro-life and pro-choice persons, social justice advocates and the defenders of privilege. We see it in those who push for the universal against the particular and in those who push for the particular against the universal. We see it in those who push religion and in those who push against it. Invariably the language that tries to defend and promote the truth carries not just passion for the truth but a good amount of hatred, judgment, and arrogance as well.
The sad consequence is that rather than unite and rally others around the truth (which is the object of the discourse) it divides … and it divides not just the sincere from the insincere, and the committed from the non-committed, but it also divides the sincere from the sincere. In the end, it divides the truth from itself.
In doing this, it hardens positions and it creates illicit dichotomies that force people to choose between two positions which, ideally, they should both support.
To offer just a couple of illustrations: The rhetoric of feminism often alienates others (particularly other women) who, rightly or wrongly, feel trapped in choosing between feminism and pro-life, feminism and a contented staying at home, and between feminism and obedient service in the church. Conversely, the rhetoric of antifeminism often alienates others (again, particularly other women) by suggesting that if you are unwilling to say that “abortion is murder”, if you are not uncritically supportive of the status quo in the church, and if you dare suggest that a woman’s true place can also be outside the home then you are insincere and warped by contemporary ideology.
The rhetoric of conservatives often forces you to choose: “Either you are loyal and a defender of the status quo or you are irresponsible and helping to bring down values and morals.” The rhetoric of liberals suggests: “Either you are dissatisfied with the status quo or you backward and need your consciousness raised!” The rhetoric of pro-choice says: “If you defend the rights of the unborn, you are anti-woman.” Pro-life suggests: “You can only defend abortion if contemporary ideology has warped your morals.”
Rhetoric of this kind is not the truth that Christ promised will set us free. It neither unites nor invites. It doesn’t lead to community because it doesn’t melt hearts. Instead it polarizes us into camps, spreads paranoia, narrows our sympathies, and freezes us all more deeply within our immaturities and biases because, within it, there is too much that insults and tries to intimidate.
If we are to promote peace and justice, truth and charity, then peace and justice, truth and charity, must also characterize our language. Scripture tells us that the spirit of God is recognized by charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long suffering, constancy, mildness, and chastity. Sadly, it is these qualities which are normally absent from most discourse in the areas of religion and justice. This is often defended with the idea that the demands of justice, truth, and charity call us beyond the simplistic idea that somehow we always have to be “nice” to each other. Not infrequently too there is a reference made to Jesus’ anger and his driving the moneychangers from the temple.
Again, in this rhetoric there is some truth. The demands of truth, justice, and charity, if taken seriously, eventually shatter the idea that we must, at all costs, be nice to each other. However, the demands of charity and justice never ask that we let go of charity and justice themselves in our discourse (even as we claim for ourselves a higher charity and justice.) The kingdom is not built through insults and disrespect. Our language must take that seriously.
Today, at many levels, community is disintegrating. It’s becoming every harder to unite and rally people around anything. There are many reasons for this … not the least of which is our failure, in our rhetoric, to properly respect and love each other.