Sunday, March 06, 2011

Questions about a Tragedy

During the days following the massacre in Arizona, I spent hours at my computer, searching a number of websites for news, commentary, analysis; trying to make some sense of this most recent national tragedy.  While it is still too soon to know all the details of the accused shooter’s mental state and motivation – and indeed, perhaps we never will – several larger questions about the kind of society we have created for ourselves have clearly emerged.  In this column I propose to explore what Scripture can teach us about several of those questions.
First is the question of what power words have.  Do words matter?  Can the speech of one person affect the actions of another?  And, more specifically, can a widespread use of violent language create a society in which violent actions are more likely to occur?  As for the power of words, scripture is unequivocal.  The very act of creation is accomplished by words: God spoke, and it was so.  In the beautiful hymn which opens the Gospel of John, Jesus is identified with the word of God.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14a)
So we know that God’s words have great power, but what about the words of humans?  Matthew records how Jesus addressed this question on several different occasions.  During a discussion about dietary laws, and whether or not eating a food deemed “unclean” can make the eater unclean also, he observed, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:11)
At another time, while speaking very strongly against the self-righteous Pharisees who had been preaching against his ministry, Jesus declared, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.  I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  (Matthew 12:34b-37)  From this and similar passages in the other gospels we can understand that our words reflect our character.  We are accountable for the words we speak. 
I have read two primary defenses for the continued use of violent and inflammatory language in our social and political discourse.  The first is an appeal to the free speech rights guaranteed in the First Amendment.  This points up a deep division in our national understanding of “freedom,” one that cannot be resolved simply by passing more laws.  For some, freedom equals license – speech and action without restraint, with no regard for its impact on one’s surroundings.  Any distress or harm caused by the speaker’s language is disregarded; the right of free speech overrides any other consideration.
For others, freedom is the space which allows right relationship.  As Dr. Martin Luther King expressed it, “No one is free, until everyone is free.”  Mutual care and concern create an environment in which all may flourish.  In such an atmosphere speakers understand that not everything that is permitted is wise or beneficial.  As St. Paul cautioned the church at Corinth, “…take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”  (I Corinthians 8:9)
The other defense is the assertion that language of violence is merely metaphorical.  The speaker cannot be held responsible for the actions of someone who, because of diminished understanding or capacity, takes the words to be a literal call to violent deeds.  This argument raises the broader question of how we as a society regard figurative language.  There is a strong movement in our country toward a literal reading of foundational texts, particularly the Bible and the Constitution of the United States. 
Prominent voices in our popular culture call for adherence to the “clear sense” or “original construction” of these texts, and denounce those who apply nuanced interpretation and historical-critical methods to expand and deepen understanding.  Ironically, some of those same voices are the ones who presently insist that such violence-laden phrases as “lock and load,” “don’t retreat, reload,” “shoot a Liberal,” and “Second Amendment solutions” are mere figures of speech.  The question remains whether or not this insistence on literalism in regard to the Bible and the Constitution has led to a citizenry inclined to hear all public speech as literal rather than metaphorical.
We can say that, at root, the question now is the same one that Cain asked after murdering Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Are we a collection of individual human beings, each focused primarily on personal aggrandizement?  Or are we a community, mutually interdependent and mutually responsible for the good of the whole?  We live in a nation where the loudest political voices say the first.  From health care to education to gun ownership to care for the planet and beyond, what matters most is what is Mine.  The Gospel answers the second.  Christ is the vine and we are the branches, all part of an interwoven community.  How we treat the least able among us is regarded as action for or against God.
More than three-quarters of the U.S. population identifies as Christian.  That means that at least three out of every four people we encounter should have a knowledge of what Jesus requires of his followers, the way of peacemaking and non-violence.  If each of us who calls on the name of Christ would commit to speaking and living in accordance with what the Gospels teach us, we could go far toward creating a more just and peaceful society.

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