Dark and Dangerous Words Hurt Us All

Dark and Dangerous Words Hurt Us All December 14, 2023

Dark and Dangerous Words Hurt Us All

The preachers and politicians who proclaim gloom and doom, darkness and fear and anger are bringing about darkness, fear, and anger. They call it into existence first with words and the dark words become dark attitudes, dark deeds, dark moments. Words are seeds planted in fertile minds. If we sow seeds of doubt, dissension, anger, fear, violence, we will harvest a full crop, not of words, but of actions. The words are the seeds; the actions are the crop.

Rhetoric never lands on a flat plain. Instead, the rhetoric of hate lands in hearts already riddled with insecurity and fear. The hate speech may be called free speech, but when you factor in the cost to those at whom such speech is directed, it is anything but free. President Reagan said once, “It’s morning in America.” For six years now, Donald Trump has been saying, “It’s midnight in America. He sounds like a rapture preacher predicting the end.

Photo by Bruno Scramgnon Sunrise
Photo by Brett Sayles Midnight

To proclaim dark, bitter rhetoric is to summon it into existence or bring it about. What the speaker is saying, if the ethos and the power of an office backs his presence, can become reality. The toxic tropes of secular politics are poisoning our democracy.

Lament Our National Language

Our culture produces a lot of anger, despair, fear, and violence. People feel left out, lost, like losers. There’s a biblical word for the rhetoric of loss – lament. In the psalms, lament leads to praise of God. Our culture has gotten stuck in the middle of lamenting. Now there’s a monotonous flood of accusations, conspiracy theories, anger, grumbling, complaining, and attacking. The result has been a loss of faith because American lament has no goal in sight. It is an endless cycle of resentment and revenge. New enemies are created by our demagogic leaders and the cycle of anger starts all over again.

American Christians are stuck in unresolved lament. They articulate hurt, anger, and loss with unrelenting fury, but instead of submitting them to God, they internalize their lament and feed on its poison daily.

Evangelicals are attempting to silence and eliminate the speech forms that redress power in our culture. The result is theological monopoly is reinforced, docility and submissiveness are engendered, and the outcome in social practice is to reinforce the political-religious monopoly of the status quo. For instance, evangelical howls about “political correctness” and “wokeness” attempt this very kind of monopoly.

Evangelicals are caught in a sticky place. They are lamenting what God has declared acceptable. They are lamenting the loss of the right to shame people for being gay. They are lamenting the loss of the right to make fun of African Americans and publicly declare their racism.

The lament has become bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice. Instead of reacting to shame with repentance, evangelicals have created a rhetoric of dignity and rebellion. “Who are you to tell me how to treat gays?”

Some of our politicians have mastered a circuit of shame and dignity. When supporters feel shamed by racism, for example, the politician teaches them to repudiate the shame and rally together to deny racism while practicing racism. This circuit of shame and dignity plays out in American politics every day.

Shame is the affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression, and of alienation. Silvan S. Tomkins says, “Shame strikes deepest into the heart of man.”

A Tsunami of Shame

Photo by Pablo Melo
A Tsunami

A tsunami of shame washes over “the fruited plains.” We know something about shame. Parents form the behavior of children by shaming them. The chisel that is used to sculpt civilized subjects is shame, which chips away at some desires and produces disciplined bodies.

The pedagogy of shame isn’t only for kids. Adults are always being taught by people around us. The politics of antiracism shames racists, the politics of gender emancipation shames patriarchal, toxic males, the shame of queer emancipation shames homophobic Christians. There is shame involved in teaching evangelicals that they have been wrong, and they should be ashamed.

Donovan O. Schaefer says, “Shame saturates contemporary politics. Bodies that once felt like the unchallenged masters of their space—white bodies, male bodies, cis bodies, straight bodies, rich bodies, citizen bodies—are being confronted, more and more, with a demand to respond to the violence trailing in the wake of the comforts and pleasures they enjoy. This effect is amplified by the increasing mediation of society, that is, the way in which the density of social interactions is steadily increasing, underwritten by technological shifts. The pedagogical sphere is condensing. More interactions with more people means more chances to be shamed. We live in an increasingly saturated shame panopticon. This has led some of the former masters to a state of shame-exhaustion, in which it becomes easier to repudiate shame altogether than respond to the moral demands placed on them.”

Evangelicals, determined to regain the title of “masters of shame” have bet the church house on a clinging to the words of Scripture – the poured-in-concrete, literal words. They use Scripture to block the ordination of women and to condemn gays.

I believe they have made this rhetorical move because they are afraid of “critical traditioning,” afraid of “ethical consciousness.” Evangelicals would be most uncomfortable at the beach house of Simon, the tanner, in Joppa. They would not hear willingly the words of God, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Photo by John Nail

Peter protested the new word from God. Refusing to eat, Peter says, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Luke reminds us that this act was repeated three times. God told Peter to get up and eat three times. Peter told God “No” three times. And still, after all this, “Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision.” You would have thought that by now, Peter, who denied Jesus 3 times, was forgiven by Jesus 3 times, and now gets a new command, 3 times, would have caught on earlier. But the dogmas of what is clean and unclean are deep in Peter’s mind. I believe this rhymes with the struggle of evangelicals over women and gays.

The previous masters of shame are in a bind. They are being shamed by a growing majority that supports women in ministry and gays as part of the community.

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