“The language of left versus right isn’t sufficient to challenge extremism. We need the language of right versus wrong.“– Rev. Dr. William Barber, II
Following the events in Charlottesville, VA, and a rally for free speech in Boston that was eclipsed by roughly 40,000 counter-protesters, it has become apparent to me that our nation is at a critical moment. A moment when we as a country must wrestle with the truth of our traditions in order that we may carve out a clearer path for our future. A moment when, in the words of Reinhold Neibuhr, we must grapple with the truth known as the “Irony of American History.”
Part of the irony of our history is revealed in the fact that this critical moment of protest is not anything new. Rather, it is a continuation of a freedom and justice struggle that dates way back and beyond the erection of Confederate statues and the inscription of the first amendment.
This moment dates back and beyond the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson which spawned the black lives matter movement. This moment dates back and beyond the killing of Trayvon Martin which brought national attention to injustices of racial profiling and prejudice endemic to black male existence.
This moment dates back and beyond moments of countless black bodies being beaten, bludgeoned, and killed while fighting for enfranchisement, desegregation, and their God-given inclusion into the mosaic of American society. Lastly, this is a moment which dates back long before our nation was ever engaged in a two-sided, bi-partisan war for the soul of American democracy.
America has been in a centuries long justice movement which has worked to illuminate the hypocrisy, fallacy, and duplicity of its professed moral values against its staunchest communal traditions. Moreover, this movement as been paramount to highlight the language America has codified into its laws and customs which have purposely erased the existence of women, black and native bodies, gay and lesbian bodies, non-landowning and poor bodies from the nation’s analysis of the American democratic project.
As a baptist preacher, I am compelled to glean a deeper and fuller understanding of the times we are in. Therefore, I look to the scriptures in search of lessons regarding the importance of language and its miscegenation with custom. Moreover, how the role of language can reveal the true nature of customs as an affront to the commandments and desires of God that we live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
In Matthew 15:1-20, we find Jesus being confronted by the Pharisees and scribes as they are inquiring of him why his disciples, and presumably even Jesus himself, do not adhere to the purity and hand washing traditions of the Jewish people before eating. The issue at hand (no pun intended) was not some innocuous, innocent, and harmless First Century issue about hygiene in the Jewish community. Instead, the question about hand washing was about ritual purity. It was about a tradition of perceived Godliness. It was about a tradition passed down from generation to generation which the Pharisees believed held equal authority with the dictates of Torah to determine one’s sanctification and integration within the overall Jewish community (Obery Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus).
However, Jesus is not unaware of the intent of the Pharisee’s question. Thus, Jesus makes it clear that impurity does not come from eating with unwashed hands; rather, defilement is rooted in the heart which manifests itself in the language we speak used to hold up godless traditions as equal to God (15:15-20).
Jesus points to the irony in the way these professed people of God claim to honor God with their words, but their hearts and their traditions are far from the commandments of God. Jesus highlights that their speech, which proceeds from their heart, reveals all manner of “evil intentions” that do not advance God’s demands for mercy and steadfast love.
Speech that seeks to reinforce traditions rooted in the marginalization of others. Speech which spreads lies and fear through a facade of religious conservatism. Speech which celebrates a nationalist heritage as divinely inspired and equal to the commandments of God. Lastly, speech used in the coded language to justify neglect of the vulnerable, greed, and the truth of systematic exploitation. These are the things that defile!
Thus, there is a lesson we can glean from Jesus in our time, and it is a lesson of the continued need to examine closely the protests and proclamations which reinforce traditions that move our nation further away from justice and the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a lesson to examine the tradition of “free speech” as having the desired effect of regressing our nation to a time when freedom and justice for all came at the expense of slave labor, Native American genocide, and women’s marginalization.
However, it is the irony of our speech which also reveals the truth of the presence of God in our hearts so that when we proclaim love, justice, compassion, and forgiveness in this world we are continuing the Jesus movement started long ago so that the Kingdom of Heaven may return near.
Free Speech: the true Irony of our time.