Thursday, October 24, 2013

Creating reality…

Some words don’t just describe the world. They change the world. Simply saying something can make something new happen.

This isn’t news, right? You’ve witnessed this dynamic before. When a couple utters “I do,” something previously unknown arises. These people are now married! Their words created. Some call this “performative speech” or “speech acts,” i.e. utterances that do something, and don’t simply communicate. “Let there be light…”

I thought about speech acts recently, as Washington politicians debated the national budget and debt limit. Congresspersons and the president attempt speech acts often, through their public appearances. For instance, many say something like, “The American people believe…” followed by a demand for their party’s preferred position. In some ways, this is arrogant speech; the “American people” have diverse beliefs. But at a deeper level, the politician’s trying to create the support she desires by convincing listeners- us- we’re part of her vision for “the American people”.

But during this recent shutdown, I listened to many words besides what politicians said; those of voters, neighbors, church members, us. And many weren’t intended as speech acts, I think. They were declarations of annoyance. If the “American people” agree on anything, it seems to be, “(Insert politician’s name here) is an idiot!”

Full confession: I said those words. I wasn’t happy with the shutdown. And when I spoke with others about it, I was quick to insult elected officials too. Perhaps that’s simply a way to discuss politics while not offending others. If you’re bashing politicians, you don’t risk upsetting your neighbor with political beliefs he doesn’t share. But I’ve begun worrying that these speech patterns have potentially dangerous consequences. The more we complain about our leaders, after all, the greater our anger becomes. Which could move these conversations from communication into performance. I’m concerned it’s creating a culture so distrusting of political leadership it’s impossible to accept anything they do. Then, we complain more. Leaders lose more trust to make decisions. Negative, destructive feedback loop ensues.

The Bible advocates for good leadership and governance. It’s a necessary condition for God’s Kingdom come on earth. Scripture’s often critical about bad governance, calling us to agitate for justice, freedom and peace. But it accepts the need for government and wants it to work well for everyone. Which isn’t to say it clearly commands a certain type of government. Large, small, democratic, republican, Scripture’s silent on such things. So Biblical people can be politically diverse; it’s healthy, in fact, that we don’t all vote the same. But one thing we shouldn’t do, as Biblical people, is bash “government” per se, or treat politicians as scapegoats, even when we justly feel let down by them. Partly, that’s about performative speech. The more we toxify the political environment, the worse it gets and the more disillusioned we become. Then, the only people who engage are selfish interest groups or extreme “true believers,” which rarely appears to help government behave more holy. But it’s also about the basic spiritual principle that Christ followers “love kindness.” Even if we’re upset with politicians, we still need to be kind. That’s something Christians do.

So here’s my “takeaway” from the recent shutdown debate: I want to stop insulting politicians, and instead engage in speech acts of gratitude for government. Not that I love every decision elected officials make, but theirs is a tough job, and even those I wouldn’t vote for, I’m convinced, are usually good people trying their best. Plus, because my Christian responsibility is to use my power- at the ballot box, with donations, my speech- to make life better, I feel a need to subvert this emerging culture of political disgust. Our nation faces many challenges from climate change to staggering government debt that it can’t tackle if those charged to lead us can’t ever earn our trust. But achieving that trust isn’t just about them. It’s also about our willingness to engage, to hope, God forbid, we can do good things together. I believe that starts with us, with me, with my desire to follow Christ’s ways by loving kindness and creating a world of grateful encouragement through what I say.

Grace and Peace,
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