Posts Tagged culture

The violence of rhetoric in our toxic culture – Rodney W. Kennedy*

Words have wings and fly where they please. Words provide unconscious but sometimes deadly after-effects the speaker can’t control.

Most recently, Congress has censured Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., for his depiction of violent acts against other members of Congress and the president of the United States in one of his tweets. Gosar defended his depiction of violence by insisting it was not, in fact, violent, but that those who censured him were the ones inciting violence. And after being censured, he tweeted the objectionable material again.

Even if he genuinely believes his intention was not to incite violence, once the video became public and became a piece of “media,” he no longer was in charge of whether viewers saw the tweet as violent. He doesn’t have the ability to judge how his video will be received by others.

“Words have wings and fly where they please.”

Communication is not a matter of saying or depicting something and then, after the fact, claiming you didn’t say or do what others are saying about your communication. His violent depiction became another ceaseless drop of toxic water into the once clear stream of American democracy.

The violence of rhetoric has become a major component in our toxic political and religious culture — especially since the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The primary argument is that as the cultural war intensifies, culture weaponizes language with increasingly violent rhetoric that encourages, facilitates and, yes, even causes acts of physical violence.

Consider a basic model of communication. A speaker utters a message. The message enters the atmosphere, where it encounters noise or interference. This noise now operates at maximum decibels. The message undergoes all kinds of pressure. The message then arrives at the listener or viewer. The listener provides feedback, and that feedback becomes the meaning of the message.

This means the speaker can’t control the message. This happens with violent rhetoric which is then denied by people like Gosar.

We see this in other ways from all kinds of other people and media sources.

Television producers often have defended their violence-soaked programming by insisting they are mere mirrors of cultural reality. They are not inciting viewers to violence. This is the same argument now coming from Facebook. It is the same argument that former President Donald Trump consistently used when he was accused of violent rhetoric.

There is scientific evidence to refute these attempts of avoiding accountability. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports, “There have been hundreds of studies of the impact of violence on children.” These studies have concluded that children:

  • Become “immune” or numb to the horror of violence.
  • Begin to accept violence as a way to solve problems.
  • Imitate the violence they observe on television.
  • Identify with certain characters, victims or victimizers.

The producers of the violence depicted on television insist that the images are innocent, that violence in real life is not a result of their images and messages. Yet we know that a single violent video can increase aggressiveness in children. The impact of violence may show up immediately or it may manifest itself years later.

This argument mirrors the current debate about the nature of political rhetoric.

Agents of communication, therefore, have an ethical responsibility to ensure that messages do not suggest violence. This suggests that critics of Rep. Gosar’s tweet have a rhetorical responsibility to investigate his character, his meta-messages and whether or not he is supporting violence.

“What is at stake here is the idea that rhetoric (including tweets and video content) can itself be violent.”

What is at stake here is the idea that rhetoric (including tweets and video content) can itself be violent. Defenders such as former President Trump go to great lengths to deny that their rhetoric has any association with violence. Both Trump and Gosar insist they have offered harmless metaphors intended to communicate strong opposition to their political opponents.

Yet to consider rhetoric as a species of violence, as a kind of force, is to complicate the defense of those claiming rhetoric has no impact on people, no generative power, no force to be reckoned with by others. Rhetoric, in this case, turns out to be “mere rhetoric.”

There is a way to speak strongly without employing or inciting violence. Just because rhetoric is strong doesn’t mean it has to be wrong. Violent rhetoric is unethical rhetoric, and its users are unethical rhetoricians, dangerous demagogues, politicians willing to say and do anything to gain power.

In a long passage worth summarizing, Megan Foley discusses rhetoric and violence. She contrasts the first part of our nature (orexis) — which means hunger, yearning or conation — with the second part of our nature (logos) — which means speech, or more precisely, the capacity to speak.

Centuries ago, Aristotle connected orexis — hunger, yearning, grasping — to logos — speech. Orexis is a hungry, headlong rush of impulse. This at least implies violence, and this violence is connected to rhetoric.

Again, whether or not Gosar intended the violence depicted in his tweet is not the issue. Rather, our concern is with the content of the tweet, the actual images displayed and distributed to an audience. In a sense, Gosar’s intention doesn’t matter.

Note that in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, the notion of “fearing for one’s life” can be mistaken and still be a justification for self-defense. There is no way to determine motive under these auspices.

“Once Rittenhouse was out on the streets of Kenosha, carrying his rifle, and got into a confrontation with the men he shot, a legal question did come up: the doctrine of self-defense,” according to David A. Graham, writing for The Atlantic Nov. 19. “Self-defense laws are being stretched to their limits by the number of people carrying guns in the United States today. Going to a protest armed may be a stupid and provocative thing to do, but it is not (necessarily) an illegal one, and the legal parsing of self-defense does not take prior wisdom into account, but begins at the moment of conflict. Americans cannot rely on the justice system to do what the political system will not.”

“Today, our rhetoric is on trial, and our political system is on trial, and we are much closer to a guilty verdict.”

Today, our rhetoric is on trial, and our political system is on trial, and we are much closer to a guilty verdict because our rhetoric and our political system are underwriting the pretensions of violence.

While there is no way to determine whether or not Rep. Gosar intended his tweets as acts of violence, the tweets themselves were acts of violence. Once Gosar hit the send button, the interpretation of his message was beyond his control.

I am arguing that rhetoric is not merely capable of producing violence, but that there are times when rhetoric is violence. We can run, but we cannot hide from the implications that rhetoric has become as violent as our most watched television dramas of violence, mayhem and murder.

What can be done to mitigate violent rhetoric? Phillip Gelb suggests one avenue. He argues that we praise, promote and educate for alternatives to violence, alternatives to killing, alternatives to rioting, alternatives to war.

I have provided one exhibit of refuting violent rhetoric by naming it, refusing to accept the flimsy excuses for it, and criticizing it.

There lies at hand an abundance of materials for teaching an alternative to violent rhetoric. As a Christian preacher and rhetorical scholar, I recommend a turn to the compassionate, non-violent teaching of Jesus along with a revival of Socratic questioning of ourselves, our commitments, our slide into an increasing violent stratosphere, and our dogged insistence on demonizing all who disagree.

When rhetoric appears at its most forceful, it seems unethical. When rhetoric is strong, it is not wrong unless its motivation is violence. When rhetoric is filled with empathy and geared toward support, encouragement and helpfulness, it will mitigate a violent culture.

Rodney Kennedy

*Rodney W. Kennedy currently serves as interim pastor of Emmanuel Freiden Federated Church in Schenectady, N.Y., and as preaching instructor Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.


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5 things Protestant churches in the U.S. can learn from Eastern Orthodoxy

Easter has come, and the season of Eastertide has arrived.

For Western Christianity, that is. Eastern Christianity, which operates on a different liturgical calendar, observes Holy Week this week and celebrates Easter this Sunday, a week later than churches in Western Christianity.

The difference in liturgical calendars at this season of the church year provides an opportunity to consider some lessons for American Protestantism from the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christendom.

“Beauty is viewed as essential to all dimensions of Christian spirituality, and this value is reflected in Orthodox places of worship.”

In terms of demographic trends, Orthodox churches in the U.S. share similarities with Protestant denominations, but also reflect interesting contrasts. Orthodox membership is in a decline. Retention rates are low. Marriage rates are also falling. At the same time, the most recent “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” study by Pew Research Center found that Orthodox churches have the highest percentage of members ages 18 to 29 among all Christian groups. Orthodox Christianity is tied with Mormons for the highest percentage of adherents ages 30 to 59. On average, Orthodox are the most highly educated Christians. Interestingly, even though Eastern Orthodoxy is largely the antithesis to the Prosperity Gospel, America’s Orthodox are the wealthiest Christians on a per capita basis.

Here are five things Baptists and other Protestants can learn from Orthodox Christianity:

1. Tailoring worship style to popular culture is overrated.

For many American Protestant churches, it has become almost an article of faith that worship style needs to match popular culture. This is an effort to ensure that unchurched people can “relate” to Christian worship. That may be convincing for many church and denominational leaders, but does experience corroborate this widespread notion? While many Protestant congregations bend over backwards to fit their worship to popular tastes and trends, many of these churches are no longer growing. Orthodox churches do not even use any musical instruments in worship, yet they still have the highest percentage of adults under 30 among their adherents compared to other Christian groups.

2. Life is liturgical.

Liturgy, the Eastern Orthodox term for worship, has Greek origins and literally means “work of the people.” A major purpose is to form habits that facilitate a life of faith that is meaningful and good. One does not need to understand all the fine points of Orthodox liturgy to realize that our daily activities mold us. James Smith, a Calvinist theologian influenced by Eastern Orthodox thought, reminds us that even the most casual or ordinary activities, such as going to a shopping mall, attending a sporting event or just hanging out with friends, contribute to our character formation. A better awareness of this contribution can make us more selective regarding the activities we engage in and more intentional about shaping our character. This awareness can shape our spiritual formation, which, in turn, may make our churches more vital.

3. Images matter.

In its zeal to combat idolatry, much of Western Christianity removed images, statuary and art from its churches. Eastern Orthodox Christians chose a different path. Icons reflect what the Christian life is like, and one does not need to venerate them in order to realize the importance of images for worship and spiritual formation. American Christians are constantly bombarded by secular images of the “good life” on television, in magazines and on social media, not to mention shopping centers. We need to be cognizant of the power of images and look for ways to use art and other imagery in our worship and spiritual formation programs.

4. So does beauty.

Unlike Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, Protestants do not have a major female figure to venerate. Although many Protestant churches in the U.S. recognize the importance of art, aesthetics largely remains an acquired language. Often the importance of art is limited to its potential to evangelize, and that seems to lessen the value of Christian art in the eyes of the wider public. Not so in the Orthodox tradition. Beauty is viewed as essential to all dimensions of Christian spirituality, and this value is reflected in Orthodox places of worship. Orthodox Christianity understands that human nature yearns for the beautiful. An appreciation for beauty permeates Eastern cultures as well as Eastern Christianity. Many Protestant churches in the U.S. need to be more purposeful about making our spaces beautiful.

5. It’s not Jesus and me; it’s Jesus and all of us, living and dead.

“Me and Jesus got our own thing going; me and Jesus got it all worked out,” says a popular evangelical song. This individualistic mindset, which seems to reflect much of American Protestantism, relegates the church to secondary importance after individual salvation. If me and Jesus, in this order, have it all worked out, it is not clear why we need our brothers and sisters (or even our pastors and other ministers). The link between this mentality and empty pews on Sunday mornings seems apparent.

In contrast, this individualistic ethos is quite alien to Eastern Orthodox spirituality. According to Orthodox teaching, attending worship is essential for salvation, which has a robust communal dimension. In addition, liturgy is a place where not only the living are present, but the souls of the dead are also there, strengthening worshippers in their journey of faith.

One does not need to share Orthodox dogma to realize that giving due recognition to the communal dimension and other strengths of Christian faith and worship in Orthodox Christianity can have a positive influence on Protestant churches in America. Perhaps more dialogue between leaders of these two traditions could prove fruitful for both.

In the meantime, it seems we Baptists and other Protestants can affirm again the joyous refrain of “ is risen!” with our Orthodox sisters and brothers as they celebrate the resurrection this Sunday.

*Andrey Shirin

Andrey Shirin is associate professor of divinity and director of transformational leadership at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, Virginia. A native of Russia, he lives with his wife, Olga, in greater Washington, D.C.

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Religion in Global Affairs – Martin Marty

Martin Marty (The Martin Marty Center: Sightings)*

Religion in Global Affairs | Martin Marty, Sightings, Religious Freedom 

University professors of religious studies and participants in interfaith explorations in many locales had to cheer to hear Kerry, a long-time advocate of religious understandings in international affairs, Marty writes.

When in the 1980s, Scott Appleby and I were first chartered to deal with one particular public expression of religion, the complex of militant fundamentalisms, we were confronted with a global scene for which we were not prepared.

We soon found out also that very few others were equipped to monitor and highlight these and other negative and positive religious outbursts. We were well supported and soon well surrounded by the few pioneers in this field.

Domestically, two factors have forced awareness on conscientious people.

The polarization of citizens on what came to be called “social issues” revealed that most of the troubling (and promising) topics had their roots in religion.

Also, much of the ammunition in the soon-stimulated “culture wars” dealt with religion among fighting factions.

Whether or not publics are more ready now than they were decades ago to deal with this new world is up for debate.

Meanwhile, the searches for and promotion of the understandings of religion in domestic affairs was eclipsed by the urgent signals tabbed “global.”

Appleby has gone on to head work on these subjects at the University of Notre Dame.

He and his scholarly companions are not focused on military affairs, on what can explode louder and kill more, but on the underlying informing and motivating elements in conflict and peace-making.

Often, “religion in global affairs” gets exploited by those who are absolutist about one religion versus others, that is, Christianity versus Islam and vice versa.

Exploiters profit when ignorance rules. It is therefore cheering when the public hears cautionary words from leaders, comments on misused religion or celebratory words when someone gets something right.

Tuesday, April 26, we on the sidelines had reason to applaud when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made international news with an address at the James Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, an agency which regularly provides a forum for those who would go deep in their explorations.

Kerry went deep. University professors of religious studies and participants in interfaith explorations in many locales had to cheer to hear Kerry, a long-time advocate of religious understandings in international affairs.

His words countered those of partisans at home and abroad who use religion to advance causes of hate and distortion.

Thus, Mr. Kerry, “It is up to us to recognize that we can’t lead a world that we don’t understand, and that we can’t understand the world if we fail to comprehend and honor the central role that religion plays in the lives of billions of people.”

Kerry returned to some of his familiar themes including, first, that those who suppress religious freedom feed angers that make people more susceptible to recruiting by terrorists.

Second, religious groups, because when they are demonstrably concerned with “stewardship of the Earth” may have many positive contributions to make.

And, third, religions are mandated to help the poor and the marginalized. So their interest in job creation globally makes them vital.

Some who read or hear Kerry (parts of whose speech are available online) will think he lives in a dream world if he thinks religions are ready to make such contributions.

Some will resent his praise of religion because they see religions by definition opposed to human good.

But the majority, if they tune in and are turned on by the secretary of state’s words, can be readied to get back to the sources of their faith, heed the community-building (as opposed to terrorist-feeding) uses of religious mandates and promises, and offer hope for a better future.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. A version of this article first appeared on Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and is used with permission. You can follow Sightings on Twitter @DivSightings. He was a speaker at the Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston, SC.

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As for Me and My House, Call Me a Thug – Connie Stinson – ABP


As for me and my house, call me a thug

It is past time to realize that division only brings more division.

By Connie Stinson

I pastor a racially mixed church in a densely populated Maryland suburb of Washington. We accurately call ourselves diverse.

One month ago, one of our young adults, a particularly gifted 20-year-old, preached “Judge Not” from my pulpit and further exclaimed, “As a young black male, I am often followed through a store by a suspicious security guard. It’s my life.” The parents of color in the congregation didn’t blink an eye. They understood this young man’s painful reality. The message that we should judge not hit home that day.

While I sorely grieve the violence in Ferguson, I also recognize it as one of many indications that our country is being shredded into factions of hate and deep-seated prejudice. That is why we are joining our District of Columbia Baptist Convention on Sunday mornings to pray to end violence in a nation that needs peace.

I was in Missouri last week, less than seven days after the shooting of Michael Brown. My first full day there was the Sunday after. The Ferguson-focused reports saturated local media, local pulpits and local conversations. My Sunday afternoon dinner with extended family from southern Missouri represented three churches they attended that morning.

“What did your pastor say about Ferguson this morning?” I asked. I was wondering how (or if) Christian compassion might express itself in the politically and theologically conservative, whiter, geographically-closer context. I was told, and I personally witnessed as I sat beside my mother in her church that morning, that “all sides were prayed for.” Another said, “We prayed for the family of Michael Brown as well as for the safety of the police officer. We also prayed for all the thugs there.”

Thugs? That was a word I hadn’t heard in a while. What exactly is a thug? The next day, I heard the word used repeatedly by TV newscasters. Wow, apparently it was a popularly understood term, whatever its meaning. My insides grimaced. It was yet another label that we human beings thoughtlessly use to judge and divide, but here it was being used as a regular noun like “boy” or “girl.” I looked it up. Its textbook definition is a person of violence, especially a criminal. Its street slang meaning is one who wanders, looking for meaning in life.

In my view, David True’s words ring painfully true, especially, “The equation black = criminal is built into our culture’s deepest sinews.” We are a country divided by our own fear and our own sick efforts to maintain law and order. It is past time to realize that we are all human beings with the same needs. It is past time to realize that division only brings more division. It is past time to realize that human connection, brought by compassionate listening, is the only way to break down the barrier wall that divides us.

As for me, call me a thug. Never mind that I’m a 58-year old white woman pastor. For that matter, call my whole church a bunch of thugs. I reject the old-school definition; we are not violent criminals. I am claiming the truth in that slang version of the word. Though we do not do it well a lot of the time, we aim at meaning, especially when it comes to seeking unity in diversity. Sometimes we wander, sometimes we go backwards, and sometimes we attempt to march boldly into the future. But the goal is to be meaningful and make a difference in the name of love.

Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about? May God forgive us all, including our own country, for being much less most of the time.

“For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14)


Connie Stinson

Connie Stinson is pastor of Luther Rice Memorial Baptist Church in Silver Spring, Md.



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