Two weeks ago, seeking to clarify confusion over whether Donald Trump was changing his stance on immigration, his advisor Katrina Pierson stated on CNN:: “There is not a different message. He is using different words to give the message because everyone on the news is saying that he is a bigot and that he is a racist because of the words he uses…”
This quote is striking in the way that it attempts to separate words from message, message from policy, policy from character. Politics is notorious as an arena of saying what you don’t mean and meaning what you don’t say, but rarely has the confession been so explicit. You can simply change the words you say but still intend to implement the same policy. You can make statements judged to be racist by others but not actually be racist. As Donald Trump showed starkly on a recent Wednesday, you can speak with one message in a particular tone to the president of Mexico in the morning and then speak a very different message and tone to a crowd in Arizona in the afternoon. And your loyal supporters hardly blink.
Like many in the academic world, I suffer a love-hate relationship with words. I wouldn’t be in the business if I didn’t enjoy words – analyzing them, exegeting them, finding new creative ways to use them. At the same time, I find myself fatigued at times over the endless arguments around words. The idea that academics – in this case, theologians – like to argue over minutiae of terms and their meanings is surely a stereotype. But it is a stereotype with a kernel of truth at its heart.
I tire of theologians staking their particular place based on the way they do (or do not) use particular words. I tire of (apparently) erudite discussions from every theological camp – liberal and conservative – that reveal an utter disconnect from the communities and congregations they seek to serve. Often, like so many of our 3rd year M.Div. students, I find myself longing for engagement with the “real world.”
Perhaps this fatigue is not dissimilar from the fatigue many feel over politicians who seem to say whatever will win them the most votes in the moment. Or who are so careful with their words, one is never sure what they really think – or feels certain they must be hiding something. And so they turn to Trump. This represents one of the greatest triumphs of Trump’s campaign: convincing supporters that he is the truth-telling candidate.
How has he managed to do so? As ever, with words. Brash, harsh words that are “true” precisely because they offend. Careful, calculated words that are just vague enough to be unprovable. (Trump’s famous line: “Many people are saying…. I don’t know, but I’ve heard people saying….”) Simple words and grammar that ring true precisely because they are simple.
It is no coincidence that Trump’s campaign – despite the veneer of truth-telling – has been marked by both falsehood and violence: violent speech, violent response to protesters, violent policies.
In his 1970 Nobel Banquet address, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn reminded us:
Let us not forget that violence does not exist by itself and cannot do so; it is necessarily interwoven with lies. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose falsehood as his principle.
Falsehood and violence, together. Why? Because falsehood, like violence, always exists in the context of a relationship. As does truth itself. Truth is not something in the abstract, sitting somewhere “out there,” waiting to be said. Nor is it simply whatever thoughts and feelings reside “truly” in the deepest places inside me. Such that I may say whatever I like, as long as it is “true” to how I feel. (This, incidentally, is the mistake made by Trump supporters who claim to like that he “tells it how it is.”)
We construct our lies in relation to others. We find truth in relation to others.
And so, from people in my community – from African-American students and faculty, from Latino pastors and congregations, from LGBTQ colleagues and neighbors – I learn to be careful with my words. I learn that my words do not simply mean what I want or intend them to mean, but only have any meaning as they are received, heard, understood – or not. I cannot simply speak “my truth” and let the burden for understanding fall on the hearer. At the same time, I find the grace of relationships where there is space to make mistakes. To make mistakes and be corrected, even confronted. While it is true that words can be either a wall or a bridge, it is not a simple either-or dynamic. Most of our words spoken in relationship are some unholy mix of both. With our words, we simultaneously draw people in and push them away. With our words, we both uncover and hide who we are. With our words, we both wound and heal.
In a time of violence and woundedness, may we be communities of healing, truthful words. And when we are not, may we find grace from the One True Word to uncover that which is hidden and to face our violence and deception. Truthfully.