Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Friday, August 08, 2008

When Free Speech Becomes Hate Speech


The Rev. Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, spoke to reporters on Wednesday. He reflected upon the shooting at his congregation last week.



He asks the question we all ask. Why? What made the shooter, Jim Adkisson, do such a thing? This is from the news article:










He is curious to know whether any clues might be gleaned from the words of right-wing radio talkshow host Michael Savage and Fox News personalities Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, whose books later were seized as evidence from Adkisson’s residence by police.

He is curious whether the authors prayerfully consider their words.

“The words you choose may be the difference between war and peace,” Buice said. “Every diplomat knows that.”

He noted that, in the run-up to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority Tutsis and political moderates died, the country’s Hutu-majority-controlled radio broadcast hate-fueled propaganda encouraging listeners to exterminate the “cockroaches.”

“I believe in rigorous debate,” Buice said, speaking to his belief in the danger of dehumanizing language that can label and categorize one person from another. “But what’s the difference between a political opponent and a cockroach? You stomp a cockroach. You debate a political opponent. I believe, if you truly listen to your opponent, it will make you better.”

Language that dehumanizes other groups of people because of their ethnicity, gender, religion, political views, sexual orientation or whatever, can result in actual violence against particular groups of people. It is called hate speech. I am becoming convinced that a culture of hate speech, which is what we have today, will lead to increased violence.

I was thinking about this in light of Dr. Robert Jensen's article the other day: Few of us are guilty, but all are responsible. We all are responsible for the language that we use and the language we accept as normative.

There is a line between free speech (rigorous debate, humor, satire) and hate speech that demonizes or dehumanizes others. Perhaps that line is not always easy to define and recognize. Those of us who cross it are the last to realize and to admit it.

As citizens, we all have a responsibility to work together to define that line and to call ourselves and others to account when it is crossed. Those who are in a position of public speech whether it be on the radio or from the pulpit are especially responsible for the words we use. That line is not a matter simply of style. It is crossed most perniciously with sophisticated, academic, and even holy sounding words.

We watched a film recently at our church, Theologians Under Hitler. The film featured prominent theologians such as Gerhard Kittel who was a Nazi to his death. He supported the Nazi policies against Jews and others for theological reasons. His language wasn't vulgar, but it was hate speech nonetheless. The clergy of the German Christian movement bore serious responsibility for the policies of the Nazis because from their pulpits they claimed that Jews were outside God's covenant.

Once you can convince people that a certain group is outside of God's will for humanity or is somehow a danger or threat to society, you set these people up as a target for violence and oppression. No matter how holy or flowery the actual words used may be, it is hate speech. It dehumanizes and demonizes.

One of the most significant actions of the recent Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly was to remove a 1978 statement regarding the place of gay people in the church. It would be a mistake to think this is only about internal church politics or ordination questions. This is an official statement of a major church body in our country. It has effects far beyond the denomination.

That statement includes such proclamations as:


…homosexuality is not God’s wish for humanity.

...Even where the homosexual orientation has not been consciously sought or chosen, it is neither a gift from God nor a state nor a condition like race; it is a result of our living in a fallen world.

...we find that homosexuality is a contradiction of God’s wise and beautiful pattern for human sexual relationships...

…the New Testament declares that all homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith and life.

...On the basis of our understanding that the practice of homosexuality is sin, we are concerned that homosexual believers and the observing world should not be left in doubt about the church’s mind on this issue during any further period of study.

Obviously, those who drafted that statement, the commissioners who originally passed it, and those who wish to bring it back, are not hateful people nor do they wish violence upon gay people. They are convinced they are doing the will of God. The statement sounds reasoned and calm. It is theological and claims to base its views on authorities such as the Bible.

Nevertheless, in my view, this statement qualifies as hate speech. Why? Because no matter how carefully it is nuanced, its effect is to classify an entire group of human beings as outside the will of God. Once the church declares that a group of people are outside the will of God, then silencing, denying equal rights, and even exterminating these people becomes, for some, the will of God.

Jim Adkisson had something against gay people. Where did he get the idea that gay people and those who advocate for them deserve death? Who knows in his case. But each and every Sunday all over this land preachers declare from their pulpits that gay people deserve God's condemnation. Sadly, too many people take that to heart and far too many people sit in silence when these false and hateful claims are made.

We are responsible. We are responsible for discussing and debating sexual ethics. We are responsible that those debates do not turn into condemnation, especially holy condemnation, of real people. Unfortunately, that is exactly what it has become.

The miracle of Resurrection is that good can come from evil. Perhaps this tragedy in Knoxville will open a few eyes to how hateful speech can lead to violent action. Perhaps more of us will take responsibility for it.


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