Peter Gomes, the former minister of Memorial Church, said in a 2004 convocation address to the Harvard Divinity School, “Silence is death, and we with our skills and talents have never been more needed than now.”
His words were never more appropriate than now for those of us who strive for a more civil national and personal dialogue.
Some may question why pursue such lofty goals. Others proclaim that we must strengthen our resolve and our efforts to reclaim the high ground.
During Lenten Services at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Mayor John Tecklenburg of Charleston, South Carolina, said, “We should have a day of repentance for all of our racial sins of the past and then we should move on to right those wrongs.”
In a conversation with him later, I suggested that one of the ways to move on to righting those wrongs was to guard the language we use in speaking to and about each other. Our words have consequences because they represent what is in our heart.
The annual celebrations of Say Something Nice Day on June 1 and Say Something Nice Sunday on June 4 offer great opportunities for us to join in the task of creating a more civil dialogue in the public square.
The mayor, a devout Catholic, is a major supporter of these efforts.
As Gomes said, we have the skills necessary to change the tone.
For those of us who claim to be Christians, our obligation is much stronger. We are to represent Christ with our language. This is not an easy task.
Recently, I found myself apologizing for un-Christlike verbal behavior. I was not apologizing for my opinion; I was apologizing for how I expressed that opinion. There was a more Christlike way available to me.
“In the New Testament book of James, the rhetorical question is asked, “Who can control the tongue?’ The implication of the question is that mastering one’s own speech is nearly impossible,” Marshall Blalock said in his sermon titled “Watch Your Words: The Power of Speech.”
“Today we recover the idea that we need to choose our words carefully and turn them into a powerful force for good. Today we will discover how to routinely choose wise words that build others up rather than tear them down.”
Gomes makes it clear that silence is not an option when we are confronted with verbal outpourings that are outside the bounds of respect for the other. It is possible to refuse to repay an insult with an insult.
Scripture tells us, “Let no one repay evil with evil.”
Michael Curry, bishop of the National Episcopal Church, says, “The truth is we are not the Republican Party at prayer and we are not the Democratic Party at prayer. We are the Jesus Movement and that makes a difference.”
Each Monday, I meet for lunch with a group that is out of step with the political persuasion of our area; however, we have made friends with a delightful couple who sit at the table next to ours.
Although their political opinions are worlds apart from ours, we have become friends. We look forward to their arrival. They could sit at a table away from us, but they choose to sit next to us and sometimes even join us.
This is how it should be. We have even learned to laugh at our differences. What a blessing.
A statue was recently erected in Charleston of 95-year-old former governor and senator Ernest Fritz Hollings and features him with an outstretched hand.
According to the sculptor, Richard Weaver, “This is to capture his defining asset – his ability to make friends.”
What an ability to have and what a tribute.
There is no one who does not need a word of encouragement. The late Arthur Caliandro, pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, said, “Be kinder than you think it necessary to be. The other person needs it more than you know.”
In these troubled times when hostile rhetoric fills the airwaves, let us strive to make friends out of potential enemies.
We can turn down the rhetoric and discover or rediscover more productive ways to communicate with each other. We can change the national dialogue.
Mitch Carnell is a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of “Our Father: Discovering Family.” His writings can also be found at MitchCarnell.com and ChristianCivility.com.