The following is the sixth of a series of articles under a general symposium title of “Being Church in the Age of Trump,” which will appear in hard copy in January as part of the fall/winter edition of the journal @ this point: theological investigations in church and culture. The journal, published by Columbia Theological Seminary and oriented toward laity, offers CTS faculty and others a chance to engage our wider constituencies around a particular issue/idea. The title for this edition of @ this point will be “Reflections After the Election.”
I try to talk to my family, my old high school classmates, my former congregants. I try to find the words to address the moral injury Donald Trump’s election to the presidency has wrought upon our society. Regretfully, these attempts have yielded nothing. Sometimes it feels like we are speaking different languages, them and I.
But that’s not quite right. Our communicative challenges run deeper. We speak the same language, but our words don’t mean the same thing. How do we find the words to advocate for the most vulnerable in our society in ways that resist these insidious connotations?
We seek the right words, but do we ever find the right words? How do we know? Behind every word is a desire, an intention to say something. If your experience is anything like mine, the more desperately we desire to say the right thing, the harder it is to say anything. And how do I, with my degrees and my titles and my GRE vocabulary, speak to Trump supporters? Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone sums up this dilemma very well. He writes,
There was a great deal of talk in this campaign about the inability of the “low-information” voter to understand the rhetoric of candidates who spoke above a sixth-grade language level. We were told by academics and analysts that Trump’s public addresses rated among the most simplistic political rhetoric ever recorded. But that story cut in both directions, in a way few of us silver-tongued media types ever thought about. The People didn’t speak our language, true. But that also meant we didn’t speak theirs.
How may I find the words to communicate just how problematic I find the prospect of Trump’s presidency when I no long speak the same language as many of my family and friends?
What is more, I have been lazy with my words. Facebook memes and viral hashtags have sidled so inconspicuously into my consciousness that I rarely felt the need to find words to express how I was feeling, what I was thinking. I convinced myself that my shares and retweets—and my clicks on that increasingly ubiquitous thumbs-up emoji—were more sacrosanct than my conservative family members because they came from The Atlantic, The New Yorker, or Slate.
As a scholar, I’ve been trained to interrogate sources. The problem is that Trump supporters have been trained to do the same thing, and so they post quotes from Chuck Norris, Sean Hannity, and that guy from Duck Dynasty. Haven’t they studied source criticism?
The more I think about it the more I’m convinced that finding the words to provoke transformation or compassion is not really our problem. Words find us. They are drawn to us like metal to a magnet. For many on the left and the right, words are no longer about signification. They function as emotional echo chambers. They have no specific destination beyond their sender.
And the Bible isn’t much help. Finding the right words in the Bible is just as fraught. For every Micah 6:8, Amos 5:11, and Luke 4:16-21 there’s a Genesis 19, a Romans 1, a 1 Timothy 2:12. It doesn’t really matter what scripture says because we each wear our ideological safety vests and have our hermeneutical escape hatches to employ in a pinch.
The Bible is words. And lest we forget, these are words wielded by the victors of history. We do not find in scripture words from the Canaanites’ perspective or those who stood for tradition against Paul’s call for inclusion of the Gentiles in Acts 15. We don’t get King Saul’s side of the story. The wordiness I find in scripture provides me with hope, with resources for enunciating the truth I desperately need. But it is that same wordiness that gives me pause, that confounds my speaking.
Where do we find words? Do we even believe in the power of words anymore? When words can be twisted and mutilated to spew venom, incite fear and violence, and demonize those different from us, are there words?
I’m reminded of that incident in John 8 when the religious authorities bring before Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery, for which the punishment was death by stoning. John tells us that they brought this case to Jesus to trap him rhetorically. Instead of responding, Jesus begins to write in the sand. Finally, he says, “Let the sinless one among you throw the first stone.”
Why does Jesus write in the ground? What does he write? The history of interpretation on this text is vast and varied. These questions concern me less than what the act of Jesus’ writing in the sand teaches me about finding the words to respond to injustices today.
What I take away from Jesus’ response to his religious and political antagonists is that words are promiscuous and their meanings are as evanescent as letters in the dirt. This teaches me that the move toward justice is less about finding the right words than it is about making the right words for particular times and places. This gives me hope that we have the power to structure words to challenge the tyrannies of sexism, racism, heterosexism, and xenophobia. When we nurture this power in community, we leave the enemies of God’s grace, forgiveness, and inclusion speechless.
Jake Myers is Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Columbia Theological Seminary. His first book, Making Love With Scripture: Why The Bible Doesn’t Mean How You Think It Means, is forthcoming with Fortress Press. He blogs at http://www.pomoletics.net.