The Politics of Cheap Speech and Taming the Tongue

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Tragically, elected leaders—and Christian people—across our nation readily opt for cheap speech when engaging in public discourse.  Cheap speech is only possible when we drain our neighbor of their value. We confess to believe in each person’s value and dignity, but only if we do not find them disagreeable or disgusting.  In that case, we look for an alliance such as a political party or a national allegiance or a racial prejudice around which to rally and to fortify our chanting.

If our president’s tweets last weekend about “the Squad” (i.e. the informal group of first-term congresswomen including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib) were not offensive enough, the smiling and presumably broadly Christian crowd chanting “Send her back!” was even more alarming.  Wherever we are on the political spectrum, we need to remember that degrading our political opponents is not the same as disagreeing with them. Falling prey to tropes that carry racist and misogynist messaging is not the same as disagreeing over immigration policies or religion.

Cheering and fanning disdain has become a national pastime.  Our enflamed political rhetoric these days cuts deep and wide—exposing the speaker even as our speech also flays our target.   On any, if not every, given day, it has become permissible to let our rhetorical brutality flow, resulting in harm to the target of our words as well as to ourselves.

To get a grip on the problem, let’s remember this: “. . . no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:8–10).  The tongue is small but mighty in its potent destruction.

No one is free from this danger.  If the tongue is not enough of a challenge, Jesus underscores the still greater difficulty: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, . . . this is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person . . . .” (Matthew 15:18–20). Our defiled tongue exposes our defiling heart.

Much of our political speech, from the right or from the left, exposes the guilt in our hearts revealed by the venom on our tongues.  In attempting to truthfully name what is wrong with “them,” we easily expose what is wrong in “us.” Jesus’ teaching and example command and indict us, especially if we want to call ourselves his disciples.  He puts it like this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43–48).

If, as disciples, we care about our nation and seek God’s best for our future, then may we as Christians admit and condemn any and all of our complicity in misogyny, racism, and disdain towards those whom God has “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).  Reordering power is a fundamental assumption of the Bible, so by all means, let’s engage in public issues and debates over things that matter to us. As we do so, let’s recommit to the Jesus way of walking in truth, of stewarding the power of our heart and tongue in order to love our neighbors—especially our enemies.  Again, Jesus was right: this is the harder way, but it is the only way to follow an enemy-loving God.

Mark Labberton
President, Fuller Theological Seminary