From “It’s Just Words” to Just Words: Speech Ethics in the Time of Trump

As a Christian pastor and professor, I make my living with words.

When Donald Trump dismisses his own violent and regressive speech with the slogan “it’s just words,” as he did during last night’s depressing civic spectacle, my own concern about the deterioration of our public conversation deepens. This week’s revelations of Trump’s self-described “locker-room talk” (in fact, a conversation conducted in his workplace) come after months of mean-spirited discourse from the GOP candidate.

It is time for people of faith and moral conscience to insist on a more noble speech ethics for the public square.

Where to begin?

My understanding of ethics is informed by womanist theology,  a spiritually-rooted school of thought, set of moral convictions, and assemblage of social change strategies emerging from the distinctive experiences of black women. According to womanist scholar Emilie Townes, ethical investigation raises poignant questions such as: “What is the society we are trying to create? What does it look like?  Is there a common vision? Have we become so overwhelmed by the process that we have lost sight of the end?”

Townes further contends that the ethical task is to work toward “a society that respects the rights and humanity of all peoples….a society that is uncompromisingly rooted in justice and fueled by people who use their hope to construct and enact meaningful and significant social change.”

Christian scriptures also inform my thoughts about speech ethics.  The New Testament Book of James, for example, warns believers, and especially leaders, about the lethal consequences of an unbridled tongue:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness….The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire….and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:1, 5-6)

Too many communities are smoldering from the fires of violence, economic injustice, and psychological trauma for leaders to be rhetorical flamethrowers in the public square.

We need more reflection on the process of public conversation, especially in the age of social media.  I am passionately concerned about the impact of public rhetoric on personal and communal change. We must teach and learn better ways of talking with one another in order to repair the world and reconcile diverse groups of people.

To repeat Emilie Townes’ powerful question: When we talk in public, “what is the society we are trying to create?”

Rules of Engagement: Promoting “Public Safety”

When I speak to my fellow Christians, urging public engagement, I stress that the goal is not to invade the public square with Christian imperialism disguised as evangelism.

Diverse people with different perspectives who seek, and compete for, seemingly dwindling resources can be a formula for discord. Our media provide striking examples of public incivility. Inflammatory rhetoric heats up ratings but does little to illumine a path toward the transformation of public values and public policies.

Spirited debate and disagreement are signs of healthy public life, but when public arguments become arsenals for dehumanization, a “public safety” crisis emerges. As a society we have witnessed a spate of horrific mass shootings: the moral outrage at such events is swift and insistent. We must become equally adamant about the safety of public conversations, refusing to tolerate character assassinations by the tongues of rhetorical snipers.

Whether we are talking about immigration reform, the mass incarceration crisis, the moral and civic equality of LGBTQ persons, or national security strategies, we need an enhanced ability to air legitimate differences of opinion without the divisiveness that diminishes a sense of the common good.

I propose three “rules of engagement.” Typically, such rules refer to the principles governing the use of violent force by the military or police. I redeploy the term to describe principles for unleashing nonviolent “soul force” that triggers the retreat of hostility and the advancement of mutual understanding, even if genuine differences remain.

In large public conversations, congregational discussion groups, and small academic seminars, I have employed these rules, and they have kept me and others safe as we sought to speak the hard truths that can lead to more tender hearts.

Rule #1: Demonstrate Intellectual Charity

The word “charity” is a synonym for unconditional love or agape. When expressing the demanding morality needed to foster inclusive community, Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”  In this verse, the Greek verb “to love” (agapaō) is used; hence the term agape.

The true test of unconditional love is our ability to treat well those who are opposed to us. Removing love from the sphere of emotions and placing it in the sphere of the will, Jesus suggested that love for opponents requires thinking—an intellectual form of love. This kind of love will neither come naturally, nor will it necessarily feel good. It is a love that we must will into existence. Intellectual charity requires a toughness of mind and a dogged determination that allow us to bestow goodwill on people without discrimination.

Furthermore, by intellectual charity, I also mean a generous attempt to understand and represent the perspectives of our opponents. Too often in public conversations, we listen to the opinions of others just long enough to create a caricature.  The philosopher Iris Murdoch suggested that love is the “nonviolent apprehension of difference.” We approach different perspectives not to do violence, but to honor difference as a moral demonstration that something other than our perspective is also real.

Rule #2: Show Compassion

The word “passion”—a significant part of the word “compassion—is related to the Greek verb paschō, which means “to suffer” or “to endure.” Compassion involves a willingness to endure vulnerability and risk in order to enter imaginatively into the experiences of other people. Compassion often begins with a simple question: Why does this person or group hold certain perspectives?

Compassion may not produce kindred spirits, but it will produce kinder speech as people wrestle with difficult topics.

In the Christian scriptures, kindness is referred to as a “fruit of the Spirit,” a virtue arising in people who humbly seek God’s guidance (Galatians 5:22).  Like other spiritual fruit, kindness infuses individual bodies and the body politic with a sweetness that enables us to endure the bitterness of social inequities, even as we struggle for a more equitable society.  Compassion is the root that supports kindness, which is the fruit.

If kindness is supported by compassion, what then supports compassion? Patience is the fertile soil that nourishes compassion. We will not be consistently compassionate until we subdue the knee-jerk, psychological reflex to aggressively defend ourselves when we are offended by what someone has said or done, or failed to say or do.

My wife and I are the parents of a beautiful, eleven-year-old daughter, Karis.  Parenting is the equivalent of a Ph.D. course in patience. When there is tension or miscommunication between Karis and me, it typically is the result of impatience on my part, her part, or our part.  Occasionally, our hurried pace causes us to assume that the other person possessed vital information that was never shared.

As my progeny, Karis possesses some of my genetic code. Furthermore, since we live in the same house and share daily experience, I also have contributed to her cultural DNA. Even as relatives who share so much, Karis and I must exercise patience if we are to genuinely hear, and be heard by, the other. If an abiding commitment to patience is necessary for healthy communication between blood relatives, how much more patience will be required for healing communication with our more distant “kinfolk” in local and global communities?

My Buddhist and Jewish friends and other practitioners of mindfulness meditation are deepening my understanding of patience and its link to compassion.  As Jon Kabat-Zinn observes, to be patient is to “’die on purpose’ to the rush of time while you are still living….By ‘dying’ now in this way, you actually become more alive now.”

We must “bury” impatience in the soil of patience: this fertile soil nourishes and irrigates the hard shell of that seed, thereby allowing the root of compassion to break forth. Eventually, compassion becomes the sturdy stalk that gives life to the fruit of kindness.

Rule #3: Practice Hospitality

Hospitality is the gracious honoring of one’s neighbors, especially strangers. A compelling gesture of hospitality is contained in the Sanskrit greeting: “Namaste,” or “the sacred in me greets the sacred in you.” Even as people stand firm on their differences of opinion, their spirits can bow with reverent hospitality. When we encounter others, we host the sacred significance of every life.

What prevents us from demonstrating hospitality? The short answer is fear. In the United States, the body politic is suffering from an acute case of xenophobia, fanatical fear of the stranger or the “other.”  Sometimes this fear drives people to homicidal and suicidal mania or to hateful, divisive speech that violates people’s emotional and psychological wellness.

In the New Testament, an early Christian writer explored the ethical consequences of hospitality:

Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:1-2).

In this passage, the Greek word translated “mutual love” is philadelphia (the word used to name various ancient and contemporary cities).  This word connotes the bond that people share in a community.

The Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, means “love of strangers.”  In the cosmology of ancient Christianity, a porous boundary was thought to exist between the worlds of humans and divine beings. Consequently, believers were instructed to practice hospitality enthusiastically, since at any time they might unwittingly be hosting angelic visitors disguised as humans.

According to Hebrews 13, every person we encounter is potentially an “angel.” It is not necessary to conjure images of otherworldly beings for this teaching to have real world ethical impact.

In this biblical text, the word translated “angels” (aggelos) literally means “messenger.”  We grow in moral stature when we consider strangers  “messengers” and even “friends” who have something to teach us. This discussion brings to mind a poignant aphorism from an unknown source, which I adapt slightly for the sake of gender inclusion:

Three people are my friends: the one who loves me, the one who hates me, and the one who is indifferent to me.  The one who loves me teaches me tenderness.  The one who hates me teaches me caution.  The one who is indifferent to me teaches me self-reliance.  Three people are my friends.

Hospitality is the gracious acknowledgment of the sacredness of another person’s humanity.  The persons to whom we offer hospitality are “messengers,” and even “friends,” with lessons to teach us, if we are humble enough to listen and learn.

“Death and Life”

So yes, “just words.”

Womanist scholars Rosemarie Harding and Rachel Harding rightly assert that we “need to create a larger atmosphere of healing and wellness at the level of human relations and social structures.” As a nation of laws, we have pronounced legal statutes prohibiting people from using their hands to harm other people. If we also want to be a nation of love, we must be equally concerned about the use of the tongue when speaking, especially in the public square.

A sage in ancient Israel conveyed the urgent and ultimate significance of speech ethics: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”