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God and Vitriol:  For or Against?

Sermon - 1/16/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 49:1-7

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 1-7:

Listen 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] arrow,
   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.’

7 Thus 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 without consequences.

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 harmful words.

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 Isaiah:

"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 fire".

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 us".

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 of fear-mongers.

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 him.

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 matters.

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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