Mugging by speech

Our passion too frequently overtakes our compassion
November 30, 2004

How careless we seem to have become in the way we speak to one another in the church. Recently, a large liturgical electronic listserve to which I belong posted an article about the Roman Catholic bishop who had declared that a rice cracker consecrated at the Eucharist for a child who was acutely allergic to wheat gluten could not constitute a valid Communion. A heated discussion, mostly by clergy, followed this article.

Virtually all agreed that this episcopal action was unwarranted -- but a good part of the response came in the form of scorn, disparagement about the Roman Church and the ridicule of an individual held responsible for this theological stance. All this occurred on an Internet site that could be expected to attract browsers of many denominations -- including Roman Catholics! We had forgotten how public electronic speech is by nature, and how part of Christian love is the practice of civility, not to mention assuming that our opponents have beliefs and positions as sincere and as dear to them as our own.

Debates about homosexuality and marriage raise similar demons of speech among Christians, particularly clergy. I suspect that most of my sister and brother priests, bishops and deacons read Scripture daily, study it diligently and love it ardently, whether they are interpreting it in a more or a less “literal” way.

Just like me, they likely spend many hours a week poring over the Bible with devotion and prayer. Their baptismal and ordination vows are precious to them as mine are to me. Their desire to serve the church and honor God is neither more nor less than mine. Yet I have seldom participated in a debate in which some have not accused others of “abandoning Scripture and orthodox faith,” claiming that only their group loves the Bible and the tradition and reads these properly.

Is it fear, or a kind of laziness and arrogance that leads us to dismiss the authenticity of our neighbors’ faith because we disagree deeply? It is possible to argue passionately about how we interpret Scripture without accusing each other of forsaking it. In the public sphere, the same excesses and injuries of speech are exchanged, and it is becoming not only acceptable, but also considered witty and entertaining to be verbally abusive, to willfully distort and misrepresent the views of others -- from talk shows to political debates and advertising. Too much of persuasion has turned into a sort of hate speech.

Instruction about right-speaking and careful communication in conflict gets more attention in the early Christian letters than the standard translations of the Greek New Testament reveal. This is hardly surprising in a faith centered in the One who became incarnate as the Word (or discourse) of God to humanity.

Even back then, the Christian community suffered from excess of zeal, factionalism, rudeness, rage, deceit, boasting and insult swapping. The authors of several of the early Christian letters rebuke their audiences for these failures of godly speech. The psalms contain some pretty hateful speech -- and yet again and again refer human passion back to the corrective will and wisdom of God. Prayer may provide a more discerning audience for our vituperation than one another or the Internet.

Christian speech does not require that we give up our passion, or even our anger, and certainly not our differing opinions. But it does ask that we pay attention to who might be listening in (including God). It does ask that we debate without dismissing, distorting, derogating or demeaning others, and without untruth. It does require an effort at empathy, careful listening and assuming the best of one another’s efforts at truth, without a saccharine “making nice” or pretending difference or distress is not real.

It feels really gratifying to excoriate an opponent, especially in the letters to the editor or in complaints, in call-in shows or in letters to our political leaders, where we often are at our most self-righteous. But as we read these outpourings, surely most of us get knotted stomachs, raised blood pressure and sympathetic anger stirred -- whether we agree or disagree with the position.

Being stirred up this way seems to be habit-forming in our society. Perhaps it satisfies us at some inner, almost visceral place where we feel unheard, voiceless, helpless and enraged -- committing (or overhearing) a mugging-by-words. Such discourse does not lead us toward real understanding of someone else’s world; it simply confirms us in our perception of our own rightness or unhappiness and leaves us a little further away from each other and God.

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