By Jemar Tisby, The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, August 8, 2019
Christians, of all people, should care about words. Our entire faith is communicated through and founded on them.
The first verses of the first book of the Bible communicate the power of words. How did God create the heavens and the earth? The Lord spoke. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:1, 3).
When God wanted to make known the moral laws by which his followers would live, God put them into words. Moses came down the mountain with tablets on which were engraved the words of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17).
The Bible speaks often to the importance of words. One proverb teaches, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). James writes, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
All Christians hold the responsibility of telling other people about Jesus and what he offers to anyone who believes (Matthew 28:18-20). In a word, this is called the “gospel” or “good news.” News that is communicated through actions, yes, but also through words.
Scripture itself, by which we learn all these truths, is a book comprised of words. Words that have been translated into hundreds of languages because Christians recognize the centrality of reading the Bible in one’s own idiom.
Most central to the Christian faith, the Messiah himself is the Living Word.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Then, in the incarnation, the Word became flesh.
The Christian tradition has never left its followers in doubt about the importance of words.
The Words of the President
It is because of Christianity’s clear teaching about the importance of words that Christians should care about how the president of the United States uses them. When the highest political official in the land uses words to libel, slander, mislead, demean, and dehumanize, Christians should be the first to call him to account.
Followers of the Living Word should care deeply when leaders use words to diminish life.
President Trump has incessantly used words to stir up his core supporters at the expense of everyone else. He announced his candidacy for president in 2015 by accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists and criminals. He has used the word “invasion” to describe immigration from Latin American countries. He called Baltimore, full of people he is supposed to be serving, “a disgusting rat and rodent-infested mess.”
After yet another mass shooting, this time in El Paso, Texas, a manifesto that authorities believe was posted by the killer echoes the language of the president. The president’s words and rhetoric have created an environment in which White Nationalists feel emboldened in their bigotry.
Yet the president’s most faithful supporters, White Evangelical Christians, often have the least to say about the harmful words coming from their leader.
In political terms, Evangelical affirmation of the president remains high. Although the percentage has dropped, White Evangelicals still approve of the way Trump is handling his job as president at higher rates than any other religious group.
The so-called “court Evangelicals” such as Robert Jeffress, Paula White, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. among others continue to bless nearly every word and action of the president. In the midst of a slew of grievous tragedies, however, other White Evangelicals have spoken out.
After three mass shootings in a single week, a conversation about White nationalism has erupted into the mainstream. Some prominent White Evangelical leaders have taken to social media to register their opposition to the ideology.
Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist and the leader of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote on Twitter, “White nationalism is not just another ideology. It is a manifestation of an ancient evil. It is idolatry. It is Santanic [sic]. And the Bible everywhere confronts and condemns such wickedness.”
White nationalism is not just another ideology. It is a manifestation of an ancient evil. It is idolatry. It is Santanic. And the Bible everywhere confronts and condemns such wickedness. https://t.co/PClHVpNjAQ
— Russell Moore (@drmoore) August 6, 2019
Adam Greenway, the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, also expressed his opposition to White nationalism on Twitter. Writing on behalf of his institution, he said, “I want to be clear that we condemn in the strongest possible form any and all ideologies of racial/ethnic superiority/inferiority…” Although he refrained from using the term “white nationalism,” he did connect ideas of racism to the shooting in El Paso, Texas.
As president of @SWBTS, I want to be clear that we condemn in the strongest possible form any and all ideologies of racial/ethnic superiority/inferiority that fuel the kind of hate evidently motivating the #ElPaso shooter to commit such a horrific act of violence in our state.
— Adam W. Greenway (@AdamGreenway) August 4, 2019
In all their pronouncements, however, what may not be forthcoming from many White Evangelical leaders, including local pastors, is a specific denunciation of the president’s words. Perhaps they fear their supporters will interpret their criticism of the president as a criticism of all his supporters, many of whom fill their pews each week. It may also be the case that Christian leaders agree with the substance, if not the tone, of the president’s words so they keep silent.
Robert Jeffress said in an interview, “I think it is wrong to assign blame to any party or any candidate for this problem…This is the problem of evil.”
Denunciations of the President’s Words
In contrast, progressive Christians have crafted a petition calling for all presidential candidates to participate in a rally in Greenville, NC. The statement came in response to chants of “Send them back” that occurred at a Trump rally in that same city on July 17, 2020. The crowd echoed a series of tweets in which Trump called for four progressive members of Congress, all women of color who are legal U.S. citizens, to go back to their own countries.
The petition pointed to the president’s role in fomenting bigotry.
“Trump and his enablers have decided to push racist words to cover their racist works in policy. He continues to tweet the racism and sow false fear, because he has no answers to unite people who need health care, living wages, and a clean environment. He knows he cannot win, even in the South, without a divided electorate and low turnout.”
We must link up & commit to do MORE from now til next November. #PoorPeoplesCampaign pic.twitter.com/Nvu3AHJDGz
— Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II (@RevDrBarber) August 5, 2019
General denunciations against hatred without naming the role the president’s words have played in the current racial and ethnic climate fall short. Some Christians have summoned the courage to write words they’ve never used publicly–“White nationalism.” But if they fail to mention the way White nationalists have taken the president’s words as sanction for their actions, they miss a critical moment to stand against racism.
If words matter to Christians, if they are indeed the key to understanding their own faith, then followers of Jesus should care enough about words to call them out even when they come from a president they support.
The president has not been reticent to insult individuals by name. He has not stalled in verbally excoriating his opponents. Neither can Christians who understand the significance of words compromise their convictions for the sake of political expediency.
Words have the power to harm or to heal. If Christians, as believers in the power of words, unite in calling political officials to the responsible, wise, and gracious use of language, then those words would be good news indeed.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Witness: A Black Christian Collective.
Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, and culture. Jemar is the co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast and a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby.