Thursday, August 28, 2014

Getting Our Political Speech Right


This summer, my congregation has been studying the book of James on Sunday morning.  In James 3:9-10, James diagnoses one of our greatest inconsistencies as Christians.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
As several church members have admitted, nowhere is this inconsistency of speech more apparent than in our political discourse. One of our problems is that we fail to remember that our politicians are actual people. Most of us don’t personally know our politicians so verbally attacking them feels more like attacking an idea than a person.

While any particular politician may function as a symbol of his or her party’s platform, that politician is first and foremost, a person. A person who, as James reminds us, is made in the image of God. If we are to take James’s word seriously, we must recognize that God takes our speech about other people seriously, even our speech about politicians.

What are we to do, then, in political discussions about politicians with whom we disagree, often vehemently? Here are some basic suggestions.
  1. Avoid personal, ad hominem attacks. None of us know the motivations of another person. While it is easy to assume that our political opponents have nefarious reasons for their actions, the far more likely explanation of their deeds is that they believe their party’s platform is the best course of action for the country. There’s no need to label a person as evil for simply holding a different political position than you do. Remember, James calls that kind speech evil!
  2. Take time to listen to the other person’s point of view. Recall James’s admonition earlier in the letter: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:19). This applies to politics! When we understand another person’s point of view, we still may not agree with their policy decisions, but we will tend to see them as actual people with legitimate concerns. This alone will help lessen the temptation to verbally assault our political opponents.
  3. Focus the discussion on policies not personalities. Slandering people is easy. It is the political discourse of the lazy. It’s also 100% unhelpful. Life is complicated. The problems our country and this world face are multifaceted. We actually need good discussion about solutions. Good discussion focuses upon policies and not people. What policies do you disagree with? Why do you disagree with them? What policies do you think would be better? Where are points of agreement?
  4. Pray for your political opponents. Few actions help us remember that others are made in God’s image better than praying for them. If Jesus commanded us to pray for our enemies, then it makes sense that we should pray for our political opponents, as well. And as one wise woman noted last night at Prayer Meeting, “What a difference it might make if we replaced all the mean spirited words we say about our political opponents with prayers!” I say a hearty “Amen” to that!
Looking over this list, I realize that living this out would not only help us take James’s words seriously, but also Jesus’s, who commanded us “In everything, do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

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