The first full week of 2011 ended with a pop of automatic gunfire in Tucson. An enraged, mentally disturbed young ideologue went violent—literally “ballistic” leaving six persons dead and many wounded, including Congress Woman Gabrielle Giffords. This is a sad and telling reflection on our times and the state of public discourse.
I agree with those who say it would be wrong to blame the rhetoric of a political perspective and its proponents. I also agree with those who do. And I disagree with both. Those who want to cast blame will need to accept some as well. It does take two to tango. Words can be lethal, especially a barrage of words, and one can never be sure what they will trigger and the trajectories launched. Still, most often even a barrage of words does not have to trigger anything. It depends on how the other side responds. It depends on whether the response is “in kind.” It depends. But make no mistake, it takes at least two.
But what if … a barrage of verbal buckshot could find no one willing to respond in kind? What if “the others” found another way? What if … ?
I am advocating for a campaign of “Love Speech,” better an outbreak of Love-Speech. Hang on though; it’s probably not what you think.
Love-Speech would be the polar opposite of Hate-Speech. Please, now, hold on. I know the very mention of “Hate-Speech,” which inevitably makes one think of “hate crimes” and the like, triggers all sorts of things for some. It’s hard not to think of the clever tactics of those who want to deny the legitimacy of claiming that some things are right and some things are wrong, and that we can affirm our opposition to ideas, perspectives and practices without hating people or inciting their harm. I know about that and I understand how it rankles. But the Love-Speech I’m championing is not a weak acquiescence to whatever anyone thinks, says, or does.
I’m advocating for the Love-Speech we observe and hear in Jesus. Our gospel names him, “The Word.” So, “speech” applies. And we affirm Jesus as the revelation of God, the very God who is love. Hence, Jesus embodied and practiced Love-Speech.
Followers of Jesus will pay attention to what Jesus said and how Jesus said it. Thus, followers will get a clue for understanding and practicing Love-Speech.
Jesus’ speech was about the kingdom or the governing of God. He announced God’s presence and rule. God is here and God’s way is on display, on its way to becoming the new way humanity and all of reality will be. Love-Speech, therefore, will be a different way of speaking—different both in manner and content.
Jesus began his ministry with good news. His message and ministry were about good news. GOOD. Of course, God’s idea of good may differ from many human ideas. Even so, Jesus’ message and ministry were enough like those other ideas that most people recognized and called them “good!” So much so that people were amazed, stymied, at a loss for words of their own. What Jesus said and how he said it, struck people as good.
Jesus pronounces blessing. His famous sermon began with a series of blessings, and blessing for most of the people usually left out or overlooked, like the poor and those who’ve suffered loss. Jesus’ talk of blessing takes us all the way back to the beginning when God creates, blesses all he creates, and then calls it “very good.” And Jesus’ talk of blessing also takes us forward to a new beginning when it will be very good once again. Jesus relentlessly identified the good and called followers to embrace it—recognize the good, practice the good, nurture what is good until the good flourishes.
Clearly, the first followers of Jesus, who were filled with his Spirit and then fanned out across the world, became practitioners of Jesus’ Love-Speech. They called one another to give thanks at all times, to bless all people, even those who cursed them, to respond to slander and attack first by praying for their attackers (and then by responding in ways that showed the slander was a lie). They exhorted each other to speak things that are helpful to the listeners, things that build them up—and to do so as the alternative to the unwholesome things that might seem more natural to say in the heat of the moment. In matters of speech as well as action, they covenanted never to return evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good.
What if Christ followers today were often guilty of Love-Speech? What if they insisted on speaking mostly about what is or could be good, about what serves the well-being of all, especially those usually overlooked or under-served? What if they spoke only in ways that expressed grace and built others up, even if not always winning the argument? What if winning the argument fell to a distant second compared to clarifying and encouraging what is good?
Well, we can’t be sure about all that would happen, except this: Love-Speech Jesus’ style will make some uncomfortable and some angry. Love-Speech will even make some violent and murderous. That is, in fact, what happened with Jesus and his Love-Speech. He himself never acted with violence toward others. But he did speak the truth in love. We could say Jesus told it like it was. Only in Jesus’ case it really was the way he told it. (Often when we tell it like it is, we’re really just telling others how we feel and what we want) According to Jesus, how was it? Jesus pointed to the heart as the source for many things that defile and destroy the individual and community. Out of the heart comes much that obscures the light and feeds evil. In fact, from the heart people say much that is not good and much that curses instead of blesses others. From the heart fear, anger, and threat rush out and flood the places where people must live.
Jesus told it like it was, only to announce that it can be better; it can be good. Jesus spoke in love for love. Because love can lodge in and flow from the human heart as well. Jesus said it, Jesus demonstrated it, and Jesus invites followers who will take him at his word, who will join him as practitioners of Love-Speech.
I mentioned that Jesus’ Love-Speech made some mad and even murderous. Jesus Love-Speech incited some to violence. But note this: Jesus’ Love-Speech made people mad at him, not others and Jesus’ Love-Speech incited his own murder, not that of others.
So, what if followers of Jesus became guilty of Love-Speech? What if they focused almost exclusively on good news, on what would bring blessing to people, especially the worst off? What if, they wouldn’t return the verbal barbs and barrages in kind? What if, the most hurtful and hateful things others said only encouraged them (us) to insist that there is a better way? What if we were the only people who suffered because of what we said? What if the kind and gentle way we spoke the truth—as we see it reflected in Jesus—was the primary or only contribution we made to the important discussions of our day? What if we were guilty like that?