A few weeks ago I stopped posting on social media about the presidential campaign. I had not taken sides. I stopped posting because I didn’t trust myself. I was beginning to get angry and wanting to say mean things, to use unkind labels, to disrespect.
It’s been hard to not comment, but I’m glad I refrained. My anger and meanness would not have been of any help to my family, friends, or me.
Now we near the end, and I wonder how the vitriolic language of this campaign will affect us as a people going forward. (I'm not speaking of policy disagreements and discussion of facts; I'm speaking of the name-calling, fear-mongering, and lying on both sides.) Can we unite behind an imperfect president? None of our presidents have been perfect, and we did not always unite.
The South seceded when the nation elected Lincoln, who opposed the expansion of slavery. The folly of the secessionist course revealed itself, so now groups are tempted to secede in less formal ways, but division cannot build a vibrant and effective nation. By division, I’m not talking about disagreement; I’m talking about a refusal to work with those with whom we disagree for the common good of the society.
From our nation’s earliest days, lies and misrepresentations have been used to discredit opponents. It is a despicable practice, which makes one wonder how we have survived. So now we stand at a new place in history shaped by lies and misrepresentations.
How do we move forward? Care with our language is a good place to start. Despite the example set by candidates, political partisans, and media screamers, regular people can do better. Followers of Christ can do much better.
Mitch Carnell contributed an excellent chapter for the book he edited, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Smyth & Helwys, 2009). The essay is called “The Power of Words.”
Words have a way of making themselves part of the fabric of our lives. . . .
Our language is a sacred trust. With it we can join God in the act of creating a world fit to dwell in. We can lift people up and help them become what God intended for them to be. With our words we can also be a mighty force for evil, destroying other people's lives as well as our own. . . . Words once spoken can never be recalled. Their sword can never be resheathed. God has trusted us with a powerful force to be used for good or evil.
It seems our first step in moving forward as a nation is to recognize that we all have been affected by the words we have heard from the candidates, the commentators, our friends, and ourselves. There are some real scars there because harsh words always leave a memory.
In recognizing those scars, we now have a chance to help change the pattern of language that has dominated the public square.
A second step is to recognize that words have consequences. We have all said words we wish we could take back. We can’t go back, but we can give attention to the words we are yet to speak.
Words do not simply leave behind good or bad feelings; they affect behavior. Carnell says:
. . . words inspire behavior. Mark Twain understood this when he said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
The words of the Declaration of Independence inspired people to give their lives in pursuit of the ideas embodied in it. Abraham Lincoln changed the course of history when he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. Martin Luther King’s oratory inspired the nation finally to live up to the ideals of its founding. Edward R. Murrow, in lionizing Winston Churchill, said he “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
Words are not empty vessels. They are pregnant with meaning and laden with content. They evoke images and transmit feelings. They can hurt or heal and cause anger or heartache or comfort.
A third step is to be inspired by Christ and the words of Scripture, to seek wisdom there when it is not being spoken through people in the spotlight -- elected or unelected. Jesus said:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another (John 13:34, NRSV).
We are to love Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump; they are our neighbors, and they each are more in need than either may realize. Power, money, and fame should not distract us from the human reality that is expressed in these two lives. They each need Christ and His followers -- the one elected and the one not elected.
And we need our neighbors who voted differently from us; we need each other. All wisdom and all folly are not grouped on one side or the other. Fallen souls voted for each of these candidates.
One final thought: No matter what happens with the United States, I pray Christians will stick together under the lordship of Christ. We may disagree on political solutions, but we remain united by the eternal love and power of God. No earthly conflict should separate us, even when we disagree. We are bound by blood not our own. We dare not take that bond lightly.
So, let’s speak with love to one another. As Carnell says:
Words are far too powerful to be thrown about casually. They are the building blocks of all our relationships. We can use them to build a bridge between one another or to erect walls that none of us can penetrate. My prayer is for the bridges.