Monday, April 19, 2010

Words Have Consequences

"Sanctify your ears from the idle talk of them that are the symbols of denial and the exponents of violence and anger." (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 72)

I just got finished reading President Clinton's comments in the New York Times about the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Like many Americans, I still remember that heartbreaking photo of the fireman holding the body of a dead child in the aftermath of that horrible day. As a father that image is even more chilling as I recall it now. What President Clinton says about political and social discourse is especially worth reading:

"Criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy. No one is right all the time. But we should remember that there is a big difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who enforce our laws.

We are again dealing with difficulties in a contentious, partisan time. We are more connected than ever before, more able to spread our ideas and beliefs, our anger and fears. As we exercise the right to advocate our views, and as we animate our supporters, we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged."(Read the whole thing here)

I'm grateful to President Clinton for reminding us of the consequences of the discourse of disunity. How quickly we seem to forget. Have we completely unlearned the lessons of Oklahoma City? Will it take another tragedy to help us grasp that the way we talk to and about our fellow Americans matters?

Thankfully, voices are being raised above the din of overheated partisan rhetoric encouraging Americans to embrace the civic virtue of civility. Among these are Christian leaders who recently crafted a Covenant for Civility. A selection from this document is included below:

How good and pleasant it is when the people of God live together in unity.—Psalm 133:1

As Christian pastors and leaders with diverse theological and political beliefs, we have come together to make this covenant with each other, and to commend it to the church, faith-based organizations, and individuals, so that together we can contribute to a more civil national discourse. The church in the United States can offer a message of hope and reconciliation to a nation that is deeply divided by political and cultural differences. Too often, however, we have reflected the political divisions of our culture rather than the unity we have in the body of Christ. We come together to urge those who claim the name of Christ to “ put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). (Read the whole thing here)

The Covenant for Civility and similar efforts such as the Charter for Compassion are examples of what the Baha'i Writings describe as the constructive role faith can play in public life:

"Religious teachers should not invade the realm of politics; they should concern themselves with the spiritual education of the people; they should ever give good counsel to men, trying to serve God and human kind; they should endeavour to awaken spiritual aspiration, and strive to enlarge the understanding and knowledge of humanity, to improve morals, and to increase the love for justice." (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 158)

Ultimately, when a bomb goes off it does not discriminate among believers or non-believers, black or white, male or female, Republican or Democrat. We all have a stake in the consequences of what we say to and about each other. I pray more of us will recognize this before it's too late.

As Baha'u'llah has warned, "...the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century."(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 264)