Listen To Article
Recently my denomination of the Christian Reformed Church in North America issued a statement following the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. It has gotten a bit of attention. The statement was endorsed by the leadership of the CRCNA, including the President of the Seminary where I work. I urge you to read the statement carefully and for yourself. Some have disparaged the statement as partisan, as overtly labeling President Trump a white supremacist. In my reading of it, the statement does no such thing. The paragraph that references the President states:
“Though the U.S. President’s statement denouncing racism and white supremacy is much-needed, it does not go far enough. He has not acknowledged or taken responsibility for his own rhetoric that has undoubtedly been part of this equation, and has been going on for years.”
Calling rhetoric “part of the equation” is a far cry from applying a broad label to Mr. Trump. The statement also makes it clear that violence by whites against people of color has a long, sad history in this country, as recognized by anyone who knows about the Ku Klux Klan (especially its first virulent incarnation after the Civil War and as combatted by President Grant), Jim Crow, lynchings, the reaction to the Civil Rights movement, and the like. White supremacist activity is not a recent phenomenon nor anything created by the President or other leaders. It is a tragic legacy of our nation.
Mostly the statement is a call for all of us—starting with Christians in the church—to watch our language, which strikes me as an eminently biblical theme. It is also deeply biblical to suggest that the more authority a person has—and the more visible a position a person occupies—the more must be expected. The Apostle James was all over this.
“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:26-27, and note the connection to speech and care for the vulnerable). “. . . the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body” (James 3:5-6). And for just this reason James counsels, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check” (James 3:1-2).
James, of course, was just tearing a page out of his older brother’s playbook. ““You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22). Speech can, apparently, be tantamount to an act of murder. “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them . . . the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person’” (Matthew 15:10-11, 18).
But James and Jesus were just continuing the tradition of all the Scriptures, summed up in this well-known line from Psalm 141:3, “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.” And, of course, the Book of Proverbs has so much to say about guarding one’s speech it would take several blogs to quote them all but they mostly go like this: “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3).
Applied to our age of Facebook and Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle, all of these admonitions become magnified. I write this as one judged by these warnings, too, and I recognize that as a pastor and professor, I fit James’s category of having a higher bar in the first place. Words maim, words wound, words set whole forests ablaze. Biblically it is also clear that some of the first people hurt by careless speech are precisely the vulnerable—the widow, the orphan, the immigrant primarily (that trio known as “the anawim” is a refrain in the Old Testament as those most needing extra protections).
It was hardly a stretch for the CRCNA statement—with all this biblical material in the background—to suggest that the speech of our leaders (including the President) that describes an entire group of people as rapists, as thugs, as criminals, as an infestation, and as an invasion might just have some effect. Indeed, to suggest only that such words are “part of the equation” may be a fairly tame way to describe the situation. What’s more, when high profile leaders use such language, others take permission to do likewise.
To me the statement is a call to humility and repentance for all of us, starting with me. From that humble posture that seeks grace, we are then called to not be party to violent and racist and stereotypical speech from others and to encourage everyone likewise to repent and—as a concrete fruit of that repentance—to resolve to try to do better. “We all stumble in many ways” James wrote in the passage quoted above. I’ll say. But by grace, when we stumble, the Holy Spirit can pick us up and help us to try to do better. We should expect no less of ourselves. We should expect no less of our leaders.
And it should not be considered partisan to call our highest leaders of every party or of no party (and including those running for President, some of whom have also said things that make me cringe) to expect it of themselves so that by example they can inspire the rest of us.