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.