Current Affairs

Words Matter - Justice, Misquotes, and Tweets

I might as well weigh in on the whole Bin Laden thing. If you'd like to read the opinions of smarter people let me know and I'll send you some links. Of course, if you wanted to read the opinions of smart people, you probably wouldn't be here. I guess what I really want to write about is not the event, but the words that have generated since the event. 

During his press conference after OBL had been killed, President Obama claimed that justice had been served. My immediate reaction was "no it has not. Revenge has been taken, but justice has not been served." I said those things aloud, I posted them on facebook. A healthy discussion was had about "what is justice?" My tune has changed a bit. A degree of justice was served. Actions have consequences. That's one of my favorite lines to throw around. OBL was a mass murderer. There's no getting around it. He gleefully took credit for numerous heinous acts across the globe. He considered himself outside of the bounds of normal laws and, most importantly, he had designs of doing the same kinds of actions again. He had to be stopped. His crimes had consequences. A modicum of justice was achieved. 

And yet, I use a pretty simplistic definition of justice. Justice is when things that were wrong are made right. I still can't adequately answer the question of what was made right. But the problem here may be the limits of my perspective. For me, 9/11 was a scary thing I watched on TV. I don't say that callously. To the extent that I am effected by larger geo-political realities, it effected me, but I didn't lose anything, except for maybe a naive and false sense of security in the fact that things like that don't happen to the United States. My point is, I wasn't a victim. I was an observer. The question of whether justice was done shouldn't be answered by observers, but by victims. For some, something significantly wrong was made right on Sunday night. They can't recoup their losses, but they may be resting easier. 

As a theologian, I say justice wasn't done because I believe that God's great end is creating community. Justice would have been done if in someway we could have managed to restore OBL into the human community. That's a solution that was impossible on this side of eternity. So in world of brokenness, we make the most of imperfect solutions and with an understanding that God's grace can bring out good out of any situation and that human sin can bring evil out of any situation. Amen and yuck! 

"Justice" is fun because it's one of those million dollar words. God is a God of justice. We work for justice. We pray for justice. We talk about social justice. Some of us get criticized for talking about social justice too much. Words like that have great meaning. I'm constantly reminded of the power of words, even when it feels like my own words have little to no power at all. 

On Monday a quote was floating around the internet that was being attributed to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The funny thing was that half of the quote was an actual quote, the other was just someone else's thoughts that got blended with the quote. The quote got attacked as if it was invalidated by the source. The words themselves were powerful, powerful enough that we wanted to attribute them to a man that many of us consider a hero. That fact they were actually the words of a random anonymous make them less powerful? 

During Lent my church did a thought provoking Bible study on discipleship from The Thoughtful Christian. The author made some claims about which were the "authentic" letters of Paul. See, there's a dirty little secret that many of seminary grads keep to ourselves in order to keep our jobs: The Bible wasn't written by the people you think wrote it (gasp!!!!). He talked about the seven undisputed letters then showed how the unauthentic ones give a different version of discipleship. See, putting Paul's name on your letter back then was about the equivalent of attributing a quote to MLK. It added validity. The danger of that in biblical studies is that we attribute some things to Paul and the early Christians (such as hierarchical governance and male domination) that may not have been apart of the early church's life together. Words matter and who says those words matter. Apparently, who we think said words matters just as much as who said them. 

Words can get you into trouble. Interesting commentary on the OBL situation came from one of my beloved Steelers. Running back Rashard Mendenhall questioned people celebrating the death of another person, particularly a person they didn't know. Fair enough. Lots of people made that assessment. Then he went on. He talked about not being sure that OBL was behind 9/11 and doubting whether planes could really take down a building. It smacked of conspiracy theory. The Steelers president responded quickly, noting how proud the organization was of the President and our armed forces. Lets not forget that former Steeler president Dan Rooney is an ambassador for the White House. Let's also not forget that Mendenhall had come to the defense of Adrian Peterson (running back for the Minnesota Vikings) when he compared the NFL players to slaves and the NFL owners to slaveholders. Mendenhall claimed that anyone who knew the business would see parallels. So this may have been strike two for Rashard in a game that might only require two strikes. We'll see. In an age where any yahoo can put words out into the atmosphere for public consumption (as this yahoo is currently doing) what is the responsibility involved in how we use our words? Should we self censor? We have a right to free speech, but our employers have a right to relieve us of employment. 

Howard Thurman once said that there is no real freedom without discipline. As I understood it, he was saying we are only as free as we are disciplined. And yes, you should value that statement more because I paraphrased Howard Thurman. If that is true, then our freedom to use words is only a freedom if we are willing to use our words in a disciplined way. It's difficult to self discipline when we now have so many ways to get our words out there. Technology has developed more quickly than our etiquette on how to use it. 

This afternoon I misread a website and tweeted that today was Miles Davis' birthday. That seemed wrong, so I fact checked myself AFTER the fact and realized that Miles' birthday isn't for a couple of weeks. You would have thought I was in CIA the way I backtracked on that tweet. Not saying that CIA covers things up. (Paging, Mr. Mendenhall). I didn't want wrong information to be associated with me. I speak publicly at least once a week. That has made me want to be very careful with the words I use. I want people to hear from me the best approximation of truth that I have. I want to communicate love and grace in my words. And ultimately, I want my words to help bring about justice, real justice where relationships are restored and wrongs are righted. 

from what I do to who I am

I just had a week off. It was one of those really good breaks where you feel like the work of rest and restoration has taken place and you're actually excited to return to work. I haven't had many of those in my life and I'm grateful that I had this opportunity. 

Part of what made it meaningful was some time I spent alone in a monastery praying, writing, and reading. I had been doing this once a month with some friends before I moved and it was good to have that time again. I took the time to read Paul's pastoral letters: I and II TImothy and Titus. Paul gives some advice to his young apprentices who are carrying his torch in leadership of the church. I was struck as I read these letters as a whole that so little of what Paul asks from these young leaders or the leaders they will train are actual activities. Paul seems much more interested in the kinds of people that these leaders are than what they are involved in. Perhaps a better way of putting that is that Paul is convinced that what they do will flow naturally out of who they are. Their character will determine their work. 

Having recently completed the pastoral search process, I'm struck by the fact that no one really asked me who I was. I'm not really sure I would have known how to answer that question, but it would have been good for them to ask. Instead I was asked what have I done and what would I do if I were hired. Those seem like fairly good questions if you're hiring an accountant. But for a pastor, it seems inadequate. I think the assumption is that I have to be a "good person" or I wouldn't be in this line of work to begin with. Oh, but we all know what happens when you assume. Don't get me wrong, I think most of us in this work pursue what we experience as a call from God. That doesn't mean we don't have some rough edges, some wrong motives, some unpacked baggage. I think those things would be important for our congregations to know. Usually congregations don't find those things out until something blows up. Again, I don't know how you go about evaluating someone's moral character in an interview process, but when you are seeking a spiritual leader, shouldn't something be in place to determine where the leader's potential failings might manifest themselves? 

Part of what is making me think about all of this is the saga of Mr. Roethlisberger. As a Steelers fan, I look at him as a big part of what got us over the hump from being a team with a great defense to being a championship team with a complimentary offense. His resume in his field is impressive: two Super Bowl rings, a pro bowl appearance, offensive rookie of the year, youngest qb to win a Super Bowl. All of those accomplishments have created quite a fan base for him. But now we get numerous demonstrations that he has some real problems with women. Two accusations of rape with a potential third on the horizon? Come on! I know that for many sports are just a superficial diversion. And I know that we give athletes way too much attention and too many accolades in our culture. But a team has a way of representing a whole city and lifting the spirits of said city. That has, since the 70's, been the kind of relationship that the Steelers have with Pittsburgh. It may not be right, but it is what it is. For me to think about rooting for a guy who has done this kind of stuff... it's unconscionable. Maybe all that will change if he comes back and starts winning... 

... and that's the funny thing. It will all change if comes back and starts winning. Tiger Woods came back to golf after the discovery of his numerous moral indiscretions and his fan base has returned en masse. Kobe Bryant, also on the hot seat for rape a few years ago. No one remembers that because he's a winner. This is the standard. Win and all sins are forgiven. There is grace for champions. Of course, that's not grace. You can't earn grace. 

Sports and ministry are obviously different, but it's worth spelling this one out. It doesn't matter what I do if I'm not working on who I am. Now I don't personally know Ben, Kobe, or Tiger. Maybe they are all working on themselves. I hope they are. But their standard can't be mine. If I grow my church to a thousand members while letting my inner demons have free reign in my life, that is failure. What I do must emanate from who I am and that means keeping the focus on who I am when nobody's looking. 

But there is one more component to this. In my life, the worst things I have done have happened in moments when I felt morally superior to others. I look down my nose from high horse and then I am immediately knocked off. In fact, there have been times where I have intentionally let my focus on my own character lapse in order to avoid my own hypocrisy. Can my character building be a silent project? Can I work on me and still show love and grace for you? Or will I always say, why can't people be as good as I am? Ah, the tension of having standards for myself and grace for others. I tend to live in the reverse of that. Love the sinner and hate the sin my own life. Lord, teach me how.