How To Do Things Better With Words In An Era Of Political Polarization (Jake Myers)

Current Events

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.

One thought on “How To Do Things Better With Words In An Era Of Political Polarization (Jake Myers)

  1. I come here as my most innermost desire is to learn. I am not a political/educated person, but I need to know where do I begin to understand? Where do I begin to understand about Politics? M

    I voted for Hillary, but if my neighbor voted for Trump I would still be their good neighbor and friend.

    People I see around me no longer want to be friends and neighbors. I love the Packers, and you love the Steelers. So what?

    Many I speak to, love Trump, many love Hillary or someone else. When I try to engage, and ask question from my heart, and the “whys” I am written off as a liberal. What? I honestly don’t even know the “checklist” as to what a liberal is. What is a conservative?

    Don’t laugh, but I have never had cable tv in my entire life! I can only imagine what the news shows after what friends and family quote to me!

    I am a believer in Christ but stopped going to church years ago after I noticed the words of hate about ethnic groups and peoples views other than their own.

    I once saw a lady stomp on a magazine photo of Bill Clinton. I was shocked. Why would anyone get upset over a magazine photo in a parking lot? Stomping on a photo? It was almost comical in an awful, awful way.

    Eventually I learned that many people’s hearts are so hateful. No matter what you believe. Most of my family are agnostics but I love them!!

    I just am so saddened by people, yet really want to understand more about the political process, ethics, and how to carry on a logical conversation.

    This may sound dumb, but where do I begin to learn? Thank you kindly!

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