Why Christians Do Not Know How to Speak About Politics

This is a photo of the truck I had to follow all the way down College Ave. today in traffic. If annoying people by displaying these little gems was the desired effect, then it was a highly successful endeavor. But something tells me that one does not put “Buck Ofama” or “Spay & Neuter Liberals” on their truck window merely to be annoying.

These drive-by snipes are evidence that we have no idea how to speak about politics in our country. Having half of a conversation  via a bumper sticker is much worse than having no conversation at all, and hateful speech is never successful. The impact is analogous to terrorism in that it doesn’t accomplish the goal toward which it strives, and nearly always serves to strengthen the resolve of the ones who are attacked. Christians are not immune. In fact, I’ve seen many a hateful bumper sticker similar to these on cars who also proudly display Christian symbols.

The reason Christians do not know how to speak about politics because we do not know how to speak as Christians. We can easily speak as Republicans, Democrats, or Americans, but we don’t know how to speak as Christians. Stanley Hauerwas has a new book out called Working With Words: On Learning to Speak Christian. In it Hauerwas makes a similar analogy to the one Brent Strawn worked with in his recent lectures in Kansas City (Here are links to my lecture notes for parts 01, 02, & 03). The Christian faith is a language which must be learned. What we think we are speaking when we speak as a Christian is really just faintly Christian accent on the language of our culture. Hauerwas writes,

“The accommodated character of the church is at least partly due to the failure of the clergy to help those they serve know how to speak Christian. To learn to be a Christian, to learn the discipline of the faith, is not just similar to learning another language. It is learning another language.” (p.87)

Christians are meant to speak in a particular way about God, our lives, and about the world we live in. Unless we learn to speak about God, we cannot know how to rightly speak about our lives and the world – politics by extension. This is one of the major tasks of the pastor, and those who are trusted to teach in the context of the church. Not only to teach people how to speak Christian, but to continue to learn how to speak Christian even as we are teaching others and shaping the language of our congregations.

Learning to speak any language is a time consuming task. That Christianity is language we all think we already know means that most people will never take the time to speak it fluently. As a result most Christians only learn a warped, debased, and distorted version of the language; something which ends up sounding like curses from the mouths of children. Nearly everyone who hears it spoken – except other cursing children of course – can tell that something has gone terribly wrong.

My admonition to myself and all of my brothers and sisters is to remember that we are not fluent in the language of Christianity. Most of can barely manage to speak a kind of Christian baby-talk. Those who have moved beyond the baby-talk stage typically speak with a severe dialect or accent, like someone who is learning English as a second language. This is why Christians must be very careful in terms of how we engage in political speech. The Christian witness to the state is exceedingly important, but if the best we can do is baby-talk (which is often just curses from the mouths of babes), then we should do our best to keep our voices down. Better to keep our mouths shut and risk looking like a fool than to open our mouths and remove all doubt.

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  • Ok, Tim, you've got my attention. Now let's talk about what this looks like? I haven't read the book, and maybe that's where I should go next? My first thought is that speaking "Christian" means learning the language of love. The music teacher Sinichi Suzuki based teaching music on how we learn language – by hearing and immersing ourselves in the hearing. If this and my first thought are on target then my question is, how do we learn the language of love when there are so few places where it is spoken?

  • Yes, what's next after you realize you don't know how to speak the language? Good question, and there is no short answer.

    I think the most simple prescription I can think of would be immersion in a community (church), that is trying to learn to speak Christian. In community we learn a language of love to be sure, but also the language of fidelity, self-sacrifice, peace, justice, and mercy. This community must endeavor to avoid certain unhealthy & distorted voices – they usually sound like fear and blame – and refuse to let them shape the way we speak.

    There is a healthy dialectic which occurs between the scriptures – a sort of grammatical text – and the interpretive community. As we immerse ourselves in the text while attempting to live in faithfulness to it in the midst of community, we are forced to begin to embody those virtues – love, fidelity, self-sacrifice, peace, justice, and mercy – so we don't kill each other or live in constant pain. Christianity is like any language, much of its meaning is derived from non-verbal communication. Thus it requires a context to be spoken & understood.

    Walter Brueggemann says that the job of ministry is the patient articulation of an alternative narrative (alternative to things like consumerism, nationalism, and individualism). I think the one thing we have to embrace is that it will take a lifetime to learn to speak this language. The most important parts of the language will be spoken not with our lips but with our lives.

  • I agree that the level of communication on the bumper stickers is uncivil. But I would point out that when the Left does it, they are applauded and that a double standard exists. If conservatives or moderates dare to speak or complain (even in the most solicitous and civil tones), they are labeled "Racists, bigots, homophobes, greedy, evil, and fascists."

    Perhaps the question should be: Why is there one set of rules for one side but a different set of rules for the other?

  • Tim Suttle Greg, Both are wrong – there aren't 2 sets of rules. However, I'm issuing you a challenge: I'm trying to think of a snarky left-wing bumper sticker. My challenge is to find me one or two & send me a picture. I just spent 5 minutes trying to find one on Google & found mountains of Right Wing bumper sticker hate speech, not any left-wing. There's the "coexist" stuff or the "pro-choice" sticker. But by and large, the snarky stuff comes from the right. The right needs to own it. Here's an example of a page titled "left-wing bumer stickers" that is basically right wing hate speech: http://www.zazzle.com/left+wing+bumperstickers // I can think of one, in Kansas we sometimes see a sticker that says, "Kansas: as bigoted as you think." Others?