Saturday, July 4, 2015

Censoring Vocabulary, But Not Virtue

During my boyhood years in the mid-20th century, I quickly learned that the English vocabulary could be sorted into two major groups -- “acceptable words” and “bad words.”  I encountered an unending stream of acceptable words on spelling lists, and I received many positive incentives to use them in polite conversation. I am now thankful for both the spelling lessons and the positive incentives.

I was also allured into using certain “bad words” that were expressed by unseemly characters who apparently felt bigger or more masculine when they spewed them out.  Fortunately, the positive examples and high expectations of men and women of godly character in my life won out over the more limited influence of “bad characters.”

Since the days of my boyhood, we have witnessed a major change in the realm of acceptable and unacceptable words.  For example, the code phrase for “sex” during my adolescence was “the birds and the bees.”  Although in retrospect, it would have been helpful to have had more instruction on sexuality as an adolescent; today we are exposed to a broad vocabulary complete with visual “aids” on the subject of sexuality including all manner of sexual perversions and classifications.  One would think that there are no longer any “bad words.”  But that is not true.  Instead we have a whole new class of “bad words” that represent the forbidden vocabulary in secular American culture.

Dylann Roof
Today, when anyone uses a “new bad word,” our secular culture is at least twice as perturbed as our mothers and grandmothers were when we let “bad words” slip out as adolescents.  Witness the current media discussion of what would lead Dylann Roof to burst into a South Carolina church and murder nine people meeting together for a Bible study.  “Acceptable words” in the current discussion of causation include gun access, drugs, video games, racism, negative talk radio, and Fox News.  These words have become code words for political agendas including the passage of gun control legislation, increased role of the federal government in local law enforcement, retaining support of minority voters, and the censorship of conservative media.  Taking the politics of gun control, for example, in an earlier article, No Gun Control Without Self-Control (March 30, 2013), I posited that violent crime is not simply a result of access to firearms.  Rather,
Whatever "weapon" Cain used, murder started in his heart.
"Our protection from both tongue and gun is rooted not in civil law but in the moral code.    The moral law is grounded in Jesus’ teaching that it is out of the heart [that] come evil     thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders (Matthew 15:19).  Therefore, the answer to a safe and civil society is not found alone in “tighter controls” on guns and speech.  Instead, there must be a revival within institutions that nurture a godly disposition of the heart; namely, the family and the local church, both within the context of caring communities."

Many who reject “band-aid approaches” to reducing gun violence may wish not to hear the vocabulary of this argument-- “new bad words” like moral, evil, revival, heart, self-control, and church.  Add the words, sin and forgiveness, and the liberal media often turns a deaf ear or cries “foul!”  In fact, the word evil was already headed for “bad” in the 1980’s when President Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”  Today, liberal progressive culture includes sin in the vocabulary of “hate speech.”

But occasionally, liberal media and the progressive culture are caught off guard as for example, at the events on June 17, in Charleston, SC.  On that Wednesday night, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old allegedly entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, attended a Bible Study for an hour, and then opened fire on those who had welcomed him.  Even before all the gruesome details were reported, the mantra began—the sour lamenting of “white-on-black” crime with all the expected vocabulary--
gun access, racism, negative talk radio, and the Confederate flag permeating the airwaves.  President Obama challenged the nation to confront the “terrible toll of gun violence.”

The AME church in Charleston, SC has had a long and troubled history beginning before the Civil War.  In the 1820’s, it survived its building being burned.  After the Civil War and during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, AME church members worshipped in secret because all-black churches were outlawed.  But the June 17 shooting was not just another violent event in a region having a long history of racial unrest.  This time the media was faced with reporting a different message, complete with a vocabulary of “new bad words” like mercy, forgiveness, and enduring love.  Yes, in Charleston, SC, under the Confederate flag, and near historic Sullivan’s Island, the location where nearly half of the enslaved African people were brought ashore and auctioned to slave owners, came an eruption of an entirely different sort.

According to the
Washington Post, “There was no yelling. There were no accusations. Instead, people who had lost the loves of their lives blessed the accused murderer.” Felicia Sanders, a hair stylist whose son Tywanza was allegedly killed by Roof, expressed this unexpected tone with a different vocabulary.  As we stared at Roof’s face filling much of our TV screens, she spoke directly to Dylann saying,

Tywanza Sanders
We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with welcome arms.  You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know.  Every fiber in my body hurts, and I’ll never be the same. . . . But as we say in Bible study, ‘We enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.’ “Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero,’’ she said, her voice trembling. “May God have mercy on you.”

The vocabulary of love, mercy, and forgiveness of Christians is seldom applauded in our secular culture. However, the words of the Charleston believers were powerful because their virtuous behavior affirmed their words sacrificial love, mercy, and forgiveness to Dylann Roof.  The same open arms that welcomed young Dylann Roof before he unleashed his violent hatred were now open to him in Christian forgiveness and in prayers for God’s mercy upon him.

From where does this kind of strength and forgiveness come?   The prophet Isaiah uses the word strength over twenty times.  His words may resonate with the hearts of many black Americans, and all of us who are weary because of the curse of sin and its manifestations—selfishness, pride, divisiveness, anger, and violence.

You were tired out by the length of your road,
Yet you did not say, 'It is hopeless.'
You found renewed strength,
Therefore you did not faint.
– Isaiah 57: 10

Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary.  
– Isaiah 40: 31

As America celebrates another 4th of July, instead of saying “God Bless America” many of us
want to say, “God Help America” or “God Bring Repentance, Humility, and Revival to America.”  Again, these “prayers” are filled with the “new bad words” in the view of many in our secular progressive culture.  But, until we individually acknowledge our sin and repent, and then pursue mercy, forgiveness, revival, and holiness, neither we nor our nation will be blessed by God and experience His forgiveness and blessing.  Only then will be able to love our neighbor regardless of his or her race or beliefs.  Only then will we respect authority and realize that violation of civil and moral laws begins with the pride-filled heart, not with weapons or even our words.   And finally, only then will Americans be able to do what black Christians in Charleston, SC did—look into the cold face of an alleged murderer and say words we so seldom hear, May God have mercy on you.

Perhaps America will soon enter a time when “word police” will prohibit the use of “the new bad words,” labeling them as “hate speech.”  Given prohibition of words like sin, repentance, Jesus, salvation, mercy, and forgiveness we may be left with no other recourse but to show the loving, forgiving, regenerated life that is possible in Christ.  Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth (1 John 3: 18).  Indeed, many Christians today have a powerful and transformative witness in very oppressive Muslim and other authoritarian countries.  There is much we can learn from Christians under more severe restrictions as we pray for them and become prepared for likely hard times ahead.

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