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Words Matter

By July 8, 2013 2 Comments

There is far less traffic on The 12 about this year’s RCA General Synod than last year’s, most probably because peace and unity reigned this year.  Where’s the story in that?  “Nothing happened” at General Synod, which of course isn’t true, but headlines weren’t generated and most (but not all) came home from Pella breathing a sigh of relief. (I know RCA General Secretary Tom DeVries would say the passing of a new 15-year strategic vision for the denomination is big news, but there wasn’t any hand-wringing and open-mouthed gaping attached to it.)  It is a marvelous thing to watch the machinery of church government operate, and thanks to the leadership of President Tom Smith, this Synod operated well.

That’s the macro view.  Allow me to give you a micro view, inside one short debate at Synod, a debate that illustrates the singular importance of language and what happens when language is misused and abused.  I care about words and have recorded this small exchange to illustrate the point that words matter. 

The Synod had a few overtures come to it about gun violence, written in the wake of the Newtown shootings.  As the debate about these overtures went on, one delegate rose to the microphone and made this convoluted statement:  “I am against gun violence.  That’s why I own a gun. So it won’t happen to me.” 

What confusing logic!  What would you think if you heard someone say, “I’m against pornography.  That’s why I keep it in my home.  To protect myself from it”?

I wished at that moment we were in the British Parliament instead of the General Synod, so the delegate could have heard the response his statement deserved.  Synod is bound by rules of decorum that prevent booing, hissing, knee-slapping and falling out of chairs. The President can’t even roll his eyes.  I noticed a few wry smiles and an elbow poke here and there, but nothing more. 

One of the many problems with this delegate’s bizarre choice of words is that it is an abuse of language.  It is self-contradictory and disingenuous.  I wanted to say, “This is the church. Don’t talk that way here.”  Unfortunately, it got worse.

 Someone trotted out the old NRA standby, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  Using language in this way is problematic because it erodes our ability to recognize truth. Guns were invented because they were more efficient and effective at killing than other means. Yes, a gun is an inanimate object that does not choose where it is pointed.  But people are killed by guns every day. If saying “guns don’t kill people” isn’t lying, at least it is not telling the whole truth, and half-truths should not be tolerated, especially in church.    

Several delegates rose to say they were “against gun violence” (which takes the same amount of moral courage as speaking against pollution or torturing household pets or genocide. Who would ever stand on the floor of Synod and say they are “for gun violence”?).  Each speaker who began by saying he (I don’t recall any women speaking in favor of this) was against gun violence argued for owning guns. One of them urged Synod not to take action because doing so would put us “in the crosshairs” of a controversy.  The speaker of that remark said these words without self-consciousness, seemingly unaware of the irony of his choice of words.    

The Synod didn’t have much stomach for this issue, and after a short while a resolution was passed to kick it to a commission for further study.  An interesting thing happened, though, before the final vote to send it on.  The resolution originally was to study “gun violence.”  Because of the pushback by the gun guys, the new instruction was to study “violence.”  Really?  They want us to study and start a denomination-wide conversation about violence?  They should have stuck to their guns.

They tricked themselves. 

If we are going to talk about violence, we will need to talk about video games, Hollywood blockbusters, and the alphabet soup of things like MMA, UFC, WWE and the NFL.  Dare I say we might even talk about hunting?  We have a societal addiction to violence as entertainment.

By their choice of language, the portion of the NRA in the RCA opened Pandora’s Box.  My sense is the gun guys think of “violence” as something done by bad people.  It’s the same line of the reasoning the NRA trotted out as the solution to school shootings – saying every school needs an armed good guy in it to protect the school from armed bad guys. But the world is not divided into good guys and bad guys.  Calvinists, of all people, ought to recognize this.  There is only us. This is going to be interesting.     

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 


  • Al Janssen says:

    Synods have their moments of utter absurdity. My favorites include the time a delegate wished that Muslims and Jews could get along "like good Christian gentlemen." Or the time a delegate suggested that we "embrace our gay brothers in love." All without a smidgeon of irony.

  • Lee Delp says:

    With divorce rates between two Christians right at 50% is it any wonder why denominations have trouble working together!

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