It’s hard to know what words are left to say about recent events—it’s difficult to begin writing, not knowing what might happen mere hours from now. I’m sure there are many good and necessary words, but I am less confident about what I can contribute that hasn’t already been said better somewhere else.
That said, I will make one observation: I was struck by the report of former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s remark on a weekend news show: “People took him literally. I never thought I’d see that.”
The surprise that is evinced in the statement, “People took him literally”! As if to say, “we all know that politicians don’t mean what they say. We all know this is a game, an abstraction, a cynical exercise of power. Even if the lies have been escalating in recent months, even if conspiracy theories have been wildly encouraged, even if no evidence exists—why, we’ve been saying stuff like this for years. Surely no one would actually believe it. C’mon, it’s a game.” It says a lot about this Age of Irony—where nothing is in earnest—and about a political system where rhetoric is so often detached from reality. Irresponsible and cynical, indeed.
Except, it turns out, words do matter. Stories (including the most ludicrous and seemingly unbelievable of conspiracy theories) do have incredible power. Particularly when they are repeated again and again over years and years. People are persuaded. The way we use words, the stories we tell are ways we disciple our minds—and the consequences when we misuse them are very real. Language may have no materiality, but that does not mean that it has no material effect. The consequences, in fact, put me in mind of one of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems from 2001:
A mind that has confronted ruin for years
Is half or more a ruined mind. Nightmares
Inhabit it, and daily evidence
Of the clean country smeared for want of sense,
Of freedom slack and dull among the free,
Of faith subsumed in idiot luxury,
And beauty beggared in the marketplace
And clear-eyed wisdom bleary with dispraise.
Berry’s point: more than the mind is “ruined” by the narrative of devastation and destruction. Everything is disfigured and uglified by it.
It feels like I am stating the obvious: words are more powerful than sticks and stones. Speaking out, saying the right words, matter. But do we act like it? And perhaps more importantly, what are the things we are willing to admit we take literally ourselves? Is there anything? Or are we creatures of abstraction, too sophisticated to be in earnest about anything or too timid to admit it? So much of what seems to pass for Christianity these days often appears like performative abstraction, cultural allegiance, social club. Our faith commitments can seem as hollow (and as self-interested) as our political ones. Surely, no one really believes that anything we say really matters. Isn’t vague assent to a checklist of “right” thinking (however that may be defined in one’s theological camp) enough?
Inadequate, inarticulate, and overwhelmed we may feel. But the time for embodiment—in word and deed together–is every day, not just when crisis forces it upon us. The challenge: to ask ourselves, “Would anyone feel surprised if you acted on what you say you literally believe?” Whatever the areas are where the answer is yes, we must commit, God helping us, to begin to bring right thinking and right action into ever greater accord, joining our voices with others already bravely speaking out. Our witness demands no less.