Vitriol: For or Against?
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
The text for this
second Sunday of the epiphany season comes from the prophet Isaiah, the
49th chapter, I invite you to follow along in your pew Bible. I'm going
to make one slight change in the translation, you may notice, verses
to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished [sharpened]
in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’
4 But I said, ‘I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.’
5 And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
6 he says,
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’
says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
‘Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’
In case you missed it, there's been a little
issue of vitriol in the public discourse these days. Anyone notice that?
Slight discussion going on.
And it all began, of course, with that terrible tragedy in Arizona a
week ago Saturday that left six people dead, including a federal judge,
three senior citizens, a congressional staff member, and most tragically
a nine-year-old girl.
Miraculously, the target of the assassination attempt, Representative
Gabrielle Giffords, not only survived, but improves each and every day.
In the press conference on Saturday afternoon, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik,
who was there to explain what they had learned so far, put part of the
blame on the public discourse. He said: "When you look at unbalanced
people, how they are, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of
certain mouths, about tearing down government, the anger and hatred and
bigotry that goes on in this country, is getting to be outrageous". And
then the next day, in a follow-up interview, he said (without naming any
names): "To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day,
seven days a week, has an impact on people, especially on those who are
unbalanced personalities to begin with".
And simultaneously, if you're on the Internet at all, you're probably
aware of all the postings portraying a photo of the map that Sarah Palin
used during the campaign targeting key congressional districts with
crosshairs from a hunting scope, including Representative Giffords'
district, and it went viral on the web. A tactic that Representative
Giffords herself vigorously protested as beneath the belt, and not
Subsequently, it has become increasingly clear that the accused shooter,
Jared Loughner, was a deeply disturbed individual and the extent to
which he was influenced by this political rhetoric--if at all--is just
not clear. It may very well be that mental illness, and not politics or
vitriolic discourse, is the primary factor in this tragedy. Kathy
Myers-Wirt, our Regional Minister, served for a time in Arizona, and on
a conference call this week on another topic, she shared her own
experience -- she said she knows all too that services for those with
mental health issues in Arizona are seriously insufficient. As they are
in our state, as my own family is too painfully aware.
In his eulogy for the victims on Wednesday in
Tucson, President Obama warned against casting blame on others, when we
do not truly know what was going on in the mind of this disturbed young
man. And he said: "Now is the time to speak in a way that heals, not in
a way that wounds". And that's exactly right. And I thought his eulogy
did precisely that. If you have not seen it, it is well worth watching
-- it's probably one of the best eulogies I have ever seen. I'm sure you
can find it on the web.
The President went on to note that a lack of civility did not cause this
tragedy. "Only a more simple and honest public discourse can help us
face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them
(referring to the victims) proud". So even if it turns out that this
particular act of violence was not directly motivated by the extreme
rhetoric, that does not absolve those who use inflammatory language and
violent metaphors in the public square of their responsibility for
As local author John Daniel noted in his excellent guest editorial on
January 11: "Metaphors matter. The language of public discourse matters.
You cannot use violent language against government and government
officials, and then claim that you have no responsibility when two
police officers are killed by a bomb built by a father and son team with
strong anti-government beliefs".
Sheriff Dupnik hit a nerve in this country, precisely because millions
of people believe that the vitriolic rhetoric of public discourse has
gone too far. And it has a dangerous influence in more than just a few
mentally unstable individuals. I noted that Associate Professor of
Communication at Northwest Christian University had a letter in the
paper on Friday, in which he made this point: that if public rhetoric
has no bearing on such public massacres, then Adolf Hitler could have
gone scot-free after World War II. Because, you know, all he did was
give speeches. May be a little over-stated, but you get the point.
My brother, who is a retired City Manager, has
spent his career in Albany, our hometown. He published his own
reflections as a public servant in the online edition of the Oregonian.
And he notes that on top of the escalating verbal abuse and even death
threats heaped on public officials these days, the Arizona attack is
part of a disturbing pattern of a "ongoing assault against those who
have answered the call of public service".
Well, he took some lumps for having a cushy job and a bloated pension
(people claimed in their responses and the comments on the Oregonian's
web site), but when one responder said it was time to the deliver
Herod's head on a platter (a reverse, of course, of the story of John
the Baptist), my brother said 'enough is enough', and he flagged the
comment -- hit that little button to flag it as an inappropriate
comment, and the editors of the Oregonian agreed with him and they took
it off the web site.
Now, wouldn't it be nice if we had a little button we could hit, you
know, to flag every public comment that's inappropriate. When Rush
Limbaugh calls Sheriff Dupnik a "fool", as he did on his radio show,
even though the Sheriff has spent a career protecting the public
(deserves just as much respect as those serving in harm's way in Iraq
and Afghanistan), wouldn't it be nice if you could just hit a button and
say 'inappropriate', and take it off the air.
Or, let's say if someone were to use a term like 'blood libel', a term
used to refer to the malicious claim against Jews, that they used the
blood of Christian children in ritual sacrifice, as a way of suggesting
that people are making malicious claims about them, well, you know, if
we could hit that button. If 10 million people responded and said that
was inappropriate, maybe that person would say 'Ah, well, maybe that
wasn't the best way to get my point across'.
On the other side, wouldn't it also be nice if we had a "like" button,
like on FaceBook. When Speaker of the House John Boehner made his first
public statement, and he said: "An attack on any member of Congress is
an attack on every member of Congress", yes, that's right, that was
precisely the right thing to say and the right time to say it.
When President Obama announced for the first time in that memorial
service on Wednesday that Representative Giffords had opened her eyes,
to the thunderous applause of that audience, and the camera showed
Michelle Obama clenching tight the hand of shuttle commander and
Representative Giffords husband. I have to tell you, I had tears coming
down my cheek. I wanted to hit that button. This is what America
stands for -- standing together, with hope.
Well, I've been reflecting on all this, and thinking I've got to find
something to say about this. And I thought, gee, I wonder if there's any
scripture that makes some reference to vitriolic language, that uses
violent imagery, and then I read the text from the lectionary from
"He made my mouth like a sharp sword. He made me a sharpened arrow"
(that's the point of the polished arrow). And I thought, well, that
wasn't the point I wanted to make. And then I read the text from Matthew
that you heard, John the Baptist speaking about the Pharisees and
Sadducees: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath
to come? Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree, every tree
therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the
Well, is God for vitriol, or against it? What's the difference between
sharp words and violent words?
And I thought this would be a good topic for 'Theology on Tap' (Tuesday
evening meeting at Cosmic Pizza in Eugene). So I thought of people I
know, and I called a good friend and former Mayor, former Pastor of this
congregation, Jeff Miller. Some people have accused him of vitriolic
things, I know some people have said vitriolic things about him in his
political career. So I invited Jeff to come to Theology on Tap -- he
will come next week.
In the course of our conversation, Jeff said "You know, I'm someone
who's read the Federalist Papers of our founding fathers, and if you
want vitriolic comments, read those documents". Those gentlemen had very
sharp things to say about one another.
And I realize that we have some deep soul-searching to do. For vitriol
is something that runs through our tradition that we all share as
Christians and Americans. Doesn't necessarily mean it is a good thing,
or it is what God desires, but it's part of our history, it's part of
the human condition.
The question is, is this who we are? Is this who we we want to be? Or
can we do better?
Ever the master of elegance and rhetoric, the President said in that
eulogy, rightly described by commentators as very 'sermonesque' (I take
that as a good thing :), "What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one
more occasion to turn on each other". And he challenged the nation to
use this as an opportunity to expand our moral imagination. To listen
more carefully, to sharpen our instinct for empathy, to remind ourselves
of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together. "The forces
that divide us", he said, "are not as strong as the forces that unite
I'd like to play a clip towards the closing of that address, because I
know a lot of people didn't see the whole thing:
Here is a link to the full speech
So what can we do to make sure that this country
lives up to our children's expectations?
That we act and behave like adults. Living up not only to our children's
expectations but our Lord's expectations. When we look deeper into our
tradition, we see not only the reflection of the dark side of humanity,
we see the reflection of the image of God in which we are all made. And
the call of God to rise up above the anger, to rise up above the hatred,
to rise up above the bigotry and prejudice and vitriol.
We see the call of God to be a humble servant to the people. Bringing
God's way of redemption and hope -- not just for some, not just for the
people of Israel -- but for all people, all nations to the ends of the
earth, the prophet says.
We see the call of God in Jesus, who was baptized by John the Baptist
and heard his vitriolic language, and did not repeat it. To the
contrary, the ways and words of Jesus were so opposite of the ways the
words of John, that once Jesus started his public ministry, John did not
recognize him as the Messiah that he had been expecting.
We see the call of God in the way of Martin Luther King Jr., who
responded time and time again to violence against him and the other
marchers and workers of the civil rights movement with nothing but
non-violence, dignity, and love. And who defined the dream for this
nation, of a better way to be one nation under God, defined by our
character, not the color of our skin. United by our hopes, not the fears
There have been many ironies noted about this particular tragedy. The
birth of Christina Green on September 11, 2001. The shooter stopped for
a traffic violation -- and let go with a warning. Compassion shown to
One of the ironies largely lost was the reading
of the Constitution in the House in its first public session this last
week. And the Representative chosen to read the First Amendment was
Gabrielle Giffords. That amendment states: "Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
exercise thereof, or abridging the free speech, or of the press, or of
the right of people peaceably to assemble".
In many ways, this attack was an attack on the freedoms that we all hold
dear. And now we must ask ourselves: what have we gained that the
sacrifice of those lives will not be in vain?
Do we have the maturity to protect the right of free speech without
sacrificing the decency of fair speech?
Will we build a democracy by tearing down our government with vitriol,
or by renouncing all violence in deed and word?
We will be more safe and secure when all are armed with personal
weapons, or when all are safe and secure from the weapons of others?
Will we get to the kind of world we want for our children through words
of anger and hate, or will we build that world through acts of
compassion, kindness and love?
Do we reflect more of the world's darkness, or do we have that light to
offer to the nation of God's hope and peace and goodness?
I was struck by an idea that Senator Udall put forward this morning on
the news, as I was coming to church. He suggested that when they come
into Congress, instead of Democrats on one side and Republicans on the
other, that they ought to be interspersed. That they ought to be sitting
next to their political opponents. As a way of symbolizing that we are
one nation that stands together, united, for a better way of living and
working together in peace.
It's just a symbol, but symbols matter. Metaphors matter. Language
And that's who we are and what we are about as a
people of God, here in the heart of Eugene.
It's why we serve breakfast to the homeless on Sunday morning.
It's why we do not discriminate by race or creed or class or status or
gender or sexual orientation. That's what the open and affirming process
is all about.
That's why we welcome all people at this table,
regardless of their beliefs, regardless of who they are and what they
bring. All are welcome.
That's why we work for peace.
That's why we are not ashamed to be called a social justice church.
That's why we seek to act out God's love, transforming lives,
transforming Christianity, transforming the world.
May it be. [Applause from the congregation]
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