Rhetoric Matters

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.  --Proverbs 15:1

There aren't a lot of gentle answers today, are there?

Our politicians, our news & entertainment media and our social media conversations and posts are filled with outrage and vilification.  People who disagree with us, aren't just wrong, they are evil.  And not evil in a Biblical sense that they have fallen short and are in need of redemption, but evil in a sense that they do not deserve the dignity or respect due their position or their humanity.

In the wake of the recent shootings in El Paso and Dayton, we find ourselves asking the question again:  "What could we have done to prevent such a tragedies?"  Maybe nothing.  Maybe there was such evil in the heart of these individuals that no matter our actions, they would have still found their way to take revenge on people they deemed worthy of death.

However, at the same time, I can't help but believe that the rhetoric of vilification and hate toward others has created an environment that has become a breeding ground for violence.  After all it was Jesus who said: 

You have heard it was said to the people long ago, "Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment."  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.  Again, anyone who says to his brother, "Raca", is answerable to the Sanhedrin.  But anyone who says, "You fool!" will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court.  Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.  I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny."  --Matthew 5:21-26

Jesus didn't just warn about murder, but the attitudes that lead to it.  The word "Raca" was equivalent to calling someone "stupid" or "empty-headed".  Calling someone a "fool" was to be considered an outcast devoid of God in their lives (see Ps. 14:1, 53:1), a serious accusation among a people whose humanity, morality and existence depended upon Him.  Jesus said that such words were accountable both to man and to God for judgment.

And we find these same attitudes consistently condemned throughout the Scriptures:

A scoundrel plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire.
A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.
A violent man entices his neighbor and leads him down a path that is not good.
He who winks with his eye is plotting perversity; he who purses his lips is bent on evil.
     --Proverbs 16:27-30

A wicked man listens to evil lips; a liar pays attention to a malicious tongue.
He who loves a quarrel loves sin; he who builds a high gate invites destruction.
     --Proverbs 17:4, 19

A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.
A fool's lips bring him strife, and his mouth invites a beating.
A fool's mouth is his undoing, and his lips are a snare to his soul.
He who answers before listening--that is his folly and his shame.
     --Proverbs 18:2, 6-7, 13

I dare say that all of us are guilty of uncharitable talk or at the very least consuming uncharitable talk toward those whom we disagree. 

Unfortunately, our news & entertainment media and our politicians do not speak kindly of those who do not share their opinions.  Tragically, the character assassination has often gone beyond the person to include anyone who follows a particular person, be they political or not, as evil for simply supporting a viewpoint on an issue.  Social media stokes those flames providing an impersonal, sometimes anonymous, venue to air our grievances or perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes based in memes that further inflame those hurt by these blatant mischaracterizations. 

How many of us can honestly say that we have lost friends over things posted that caused a rift of a once strong relationship?

The toxic culture that has been created by this environment has usually caused one of two reactions. 

First, many who have just become tired of the constant vitriol have become silent.  They may "unfriend" or "hide" or "unfollow" people or even delete their social media accounts because of the constant drumbeat that makes them feel that their view is unwanted or makes them an evil, unforgivable person.  They post non-controversial things in hopes to appease everyone and not get thrown into the fray.  I admit, I tend toward this reaction.

Second, many have decided to double down and refuse to be silent.  However, because of the nature of the content on social media, many become personal in their conversations on the passionate issues making the same error they had hoped to escape from by being part of the conversation. 

So whether feeling initially vilified or vilifying because others are doing it and we refuse to "take it lying down", we perpetuate the very feelings of animosity Jesus warns us against. 

How long do you think it will take for someone to act violently, and feel they are justified in doing so, when their news, the politicians they disagree with, their "friends" on social media constantly tell them how hateful they are for simply having an opinion?  How much more emboldened will those who already view those who disagree with them as the enemy, feel encouraged to take justice into their own hands, when these same media outlets, politicians and social media advocates seem to encourage treating those whom they disagree with as enemies who deserve no respect as human beings?

If we honestly wish to see a deescalation of the tensions that currently exist, then all of us are going to have to watch our mouths and be mindful of the things that we write on social media.

The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.
A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel.
     --Proverbs 15:4, 18

Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.
A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered.
     --Proverbs 17:14, 27

But more than simply watching out for our intent and content, we must actively listen to the other side, even if we strongly disagree, so we might understand them (Pr. 18:13) and give them the dignity they deserve as a person created in the image of God.  We must seek to be reconciled with our friends with whom we disagree and seek peace with our adversaries who disagree with us (Mat. 5:23-26).

Until we do that, I truly do not believe the atmosphere that cultivates violence in our society will subside.  As believers in Christ, we must do that so we are obedient to the One we say we serve and allow Him to bring healing to a broken people and land.


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