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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.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

13 Comments

  • Rick Theule says:

    Amen!
    Thank you for articulating what many of us have been struggling to do

  • Ed Starkenburg says:

    Words are one of the most powerful tools God gives us. The Bible helps us understand that power and explains the responsibility we have in how we use them. To pretend otherwise is an offense to the creator of language and to all of us who are affected by this powerful gift. Thanks for articulating this so clearly.

  • mstair says:

    “… the speech of our leaders (including the President) that describes an entire group of people as rapists, as thugs, as criminals, … “

    Causal reductionism: a logical fallacy of assuming a single cause or reason when there were actually multiple causes or reasons.

    Twenty First century life (for The President and many people in our country) has become too complex to understand without some mental exertion and information gathering. Sadly, many of us are just too intellectually lazy to put in the effort – settling for one information source possessing a “loud confident voice.” Twenty First Century technology provides many to choose from. It is a sure bet to find a favorite that presents no challenges to our biases or current thinking patterns.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      I’m not sure what you are alleging is actually going on in this blog. A few paragraphs earlier than your quote, Scott quotes the CRCNA paper, “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.” If I could highlight, “part of this equation,” from that quote, Scott makes a point of digging a little deeper into our history of violence and White Supremacy in the very next paragraph. Is it possible for Scott to acknowledge a larger, complex equation, while writing a blog that deals with “part of the equation?” It might be that a well researched and argued paper would address the whole “equation,” and that paper is desperately needed in our world, and we should search that work out in our information gathering … But do we really think that the Reformed Journal: The Twelve is the place for offering that sort of paper? Do we need to find voices and arguments that “challenge our biases or current thinking patterns?” Absolutely! But I wonder if that is exactly what Scott is doing in this blog or offering the beginnings of. Surely we can agree that there are a variety of biases and thinking patterns among the readers of the Twelve, and maybe … just maybe some of them were presented with a challenge.

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    Thank you for this essay, Pastor Scott. The church’s lay people are so hungry to see their pastors take social risks like Jesus did in public and religious spaces to confront bias and abusive behavior. We need pastors who model self-accountability and self-assessment, and who support accountability for other leaders when it comes to thoughtless or intentional behavior that disrespects or dehumanizes a community’s more vulnerable people.

    https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/education-outreach/Personal-Self-Assessment-of-Anti-Bias-Behavior.pdf

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Scott, excellent.

  • William Harris says:

    The call for rhetorical humility is certainly needed, however the actual steps recommended to the members of the CRC omit this lament. More troubling was the downplaying of the actual shooting, of the twenty-plus lives lost where this tragedy was made the occasion for other social concerns. That shift of attention erases. On this note that concern for the actual impact comes third on the action list; a general concern has replaced the specific concern, we are not really seeing our neighbor.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      I guess I cannot quite see this in the statement, William. After describing the recent events factually in the first two paragraphs, the third paragraph is all about grief for the loss of life (“As Christian Reformed people, we grieve this loss of life. We grieve the hatred and extremism behind these acts of violence. We, as God’s church and society, grieve that we’ve been unable to put a stop to mass shootings”) even as the recommendations at the end include second on the list praying for those who are grieving the loss of loved ones. The shooting is by no means downplayed. How could something so heinously awful be downplayed? And the fourth paragraph likewise notes that the false narratives that were part of the motivation for especially the El Paso shooting are false PRECISELY because they cause some to view other people as less than human, as less worthy. How is that “not really seeing our neighbor” when the whole statement is premised on seeing our neighbors aright as God’s image bearers by resisting false narratives that undercut seeing God’s image in all people? If there is a general concern here on toxic rhetoric, it is of grave concern exactly because it issues in specific incidents of violence all too often. To claim a focus on the general is diminishing the specifics of the recent shootings is setting up a very false dichotomy and detracts from the urgency stated here that although there is much we cannot do as ordinary Christians folks about such mass shootings, one thing we can do is watch our language and call to account others whose language contributes to a larger toxic atmosphere of hatred toward those deemed “other.”

      • William Harris says:

        I would like to push back on this, particularly on the question of erasure. It begins with the clumsy construction of the piece.

        As I expressed in a letter to the denomination, the rhetoric and construction of this statement is a bit “shaggy”. And that’s understandable, as there are so many issues at stake: the response to the suffering, as a response to the white supremacy energizing this killings, as the cause generally of equity in our society, and (left unsaid) as a response to the lives of young men who find in ideology and killing a sense of identity, even purpose (see the wonderful opinion piece from from Tara Isabella Burton in the NYT, “The Religious Hunger of the Radical Right, Aug 13). Specificity, a clear rhetorical purpose, yields impact. Yet does such a purpose exist in the statement? Something like it does emerge towards the end, in the penultimate paragraph, “we must make a choice…;” it’s either/or.

        What’s missing? Rhetorically, it is the return to the beginning, the recapitulation, applying the point to the initial incident. But this doesn’t happen. Note that Hispanic or Latinx are mentioned only three times: once in the first paragraph, twice in the applications. They disappear, subsumed in either terms like “people of color” or “racism” or “immigrants.” And as the Banner points out, the CRC actually has a church in El Paso, so the prayer for pastors “who may feel overwhelmed…” seems again, a little shy.

        The statement would be far better with a clear rhetorical point in the first sentence, setting up the argument; it likewise be better if we can see the impact of rhetoric that attacks what we confess and practice with our Hispanic brothers and sisters; and it would definitely be better had the right words about rhetoric been applied not to a “them” but to us and to our own participation in the dismissive language that harms our neighbor. Your essay on the words is indeed valuable in this regard.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Scott, I agree with everything you say but wonder about our hearts. We will not say evil things about others if we don’t think them. So our first business is the change our hearts to be compassionate to everyone whom God has created.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Yes, as Jesus said, what comes out of the mouth comes straight from the heart. Change your internal attitude and you can’t spew out harmful speech about others.

  • Randy Buist says:

    Thank you Scott. I remain saddened these days for how so many within our reformed denominations have given their political party priority over the gospel of Jesus. I’m certain it has been the case since the life of Jesus, but the reality often hits me hard. Grace & peace.

  • Hi Scott, would you agree that Scripture teaches us that a falsehood told in a “measured” and “civil” way is far worse than a truth told in a “harsh” or “politically incorrect” way?

    You stated, “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.”

    Could you please tell us when & where President Trump referred to an entire group this way, and what group that was?

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