Rhetoric is language designed to have a persuasive impact on it’s audience but is often regarded as being insincere and lacking in meaningful content. We hear it all the time – particularly during election seasons as politicians become desperate enough to say anything in order to get us to vote for them. Christians also have to be aware of their rhetoric as well, especially when it comes to Christians in positions of leadership.
In an episode of Deep Space Nine called “In the Hands of the Prophets”, a religious leader challenges a science teacher to either include her philosophy or just not teach on the origins of life. She speaks to her people, calling them action. The parents begin to withdraw their students from school. The workers fail to report to their posts the next day. Even shop-owners refuse to sell their goods to certain people. The tension boils as an explosion rocks the station and destroys the school. Fortunately no one was harmed.
Vedek Winn: The Prophets have been kind today.
Commander Sisko: The Prophets had nothing to do with what happened here today. This was the work of a disturbed and violent mind, who listened to your voice, not the Prophets’.
Vedek Winn: Is the Emissary holding *me* responsible for this act of terrorism?
Commander Sisko: The Commander of this station is.
Vedek Winn: May the Prophets forgive you for abandoning them.
Ultimately, a young woman tried to assassinate another religious figure who arrived in an attempt to broker a peace … she was caught, and she yelled as she was dragged to a cell: “The prophets spoke! I answered their call!”
Over the weekend, a pastor’s rhetoric got him some national attention. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last. It’s a free country and he has the right to say anything he wants. Should anyone listen to him as he speaks for God and acts upon his statements in a rather violent fashion, it’s the pastor who will get away with stirring up trouble so he can keep on doing it. Words really do have power. We can use our power to stir up anger and hatred or we can use our power to inspire love and compassion. There’s a point when an ill-chosen word or an emphasis on a certain thing is something somebody else will understand as a call to action.
I know a lot of Christians have this fierce desire to call sin ‘sin’ and to speak the truth in love – but all too often it turns into an excuse to fall back upon degrading, hateful language. When people hear that – they don’t always think: “Sign me up for that!” I know of no one whose testimony includes: “After watching Westboro picket the umpteenth funeral, holding up signs it really hit me that they were speaking on behalf of God and I cleaned up my act and got right with God.”
Jesus put it this way – the mouth speaks what the heart is full of; so if a Christian says more hateful things than loving things, he or she has lost their way. Another Star Trek episode, from Voyager, called Nemesis, features this line: “I wish it were as easy to stop hating as it was to start.” Christians have a history where hatred came easily, not as something that’s a primary part of our belief, but secondary. Christians used the bible explain why institutional racism was okay. Even today, the Bible has been used to clobber people who aren’t on the same page about morality. This kind of hatred comes as second nature – I know because I learned it early on. It might have been the rhetoric as Marriage Equality bills were being pushed through congress, or from various sermons about the correct biblical lifestyle – but I learned how to hate far easier than how to love. The crazy thing is – I thought I was being loving. I thought I was rebuking sin when I was being an offensive jerk. Some might say: “Good! That’s how you know you’re getting the message across.” To which I’d point out that Jesus never insulted the woman at the well, called out the woman caught in adultery, criticized Zaccheus or berated Mary Magdalene in the name of righteously calling sin ‘sin’. Such things he reserved for the religious leaders of his day. We have it backwards – usually saying “touch not the Lord’s anointed” for their failures and leaving the harshest words for the worst of sinners. That means that each of us as Christians are backwards, too – loving only those like us and hating those who are not like us. I can’t say I’ve completely defeated that hatred, but I refuse to feed it anything that gives it any more power. And that means recognizing that rhetoric does a lot more harm than good, stirs up a lot more hate than love, and it’s not something I want to latch onto or to subject myself to. Be it a politician who will say anything or a pastor whose zeal for righteousness cancels out any capability to be compassionate – I just don’t need their words having that power over me.