Post Author: Amber Inscore Essick
Monastic rules of life have drawn Christians through the ages to the spiritual disciplines. New monastics often look to one of the most well-known – the Rule of Benedict – and then write their own rule of life to order their lives in community. I have never been terribly successful at thinking of the Christian path in terms of discipline. In fact, at the mention of living the spiritual life “by the rules,” my inner self goes running for cover.
However, the fraught reality of public discourse in our time demands more discipline and less venting, more intentional, measured speech and less passion. In fact, it requires every bit of spiritual discipline the Christian can muster (and then it pleads for more from the Holy Spirit). Amidst the ever-widening crisis of public discourse, I have found it necessary to set down a rule for myself about speaking to and around my children. We all have steam to let off these days, but heaven knows we all need to speak with a little more care.
I have found three motivations for this care-filled speech at work in me, nudging me to speak with intention. First, I understand the pastoral office to be a listening office. This is ironic, I know, since few other professions boast 15 to 30 minutes of public speaking to a more-or-less willing audience every week. Even as I must preach the audaciously good news of Jesus without apology, I must also use language that does not blindly parrot phrases from political parties, denominational in-fighting, or other popular influences. And yet, to pastor is to move people along the path toward God and the Kin-dom of Heaven (the place where, in Christ, we are all kin to one another). The pastor is always inviting and always listening, so she must choose her words with care.
Second, I confess that I deeply want to avoid alienating people. This internal motivation is possibly the least important of the three, but nonetheless the most pressing to me. It is a desire for everyone to continue belonging to one another, especially when and where I am in charge. As a natural-born mediator (conflict avoider), I have little capacity for conflict when it might lead to alienation. I am not the first minister who likes to be liked, but this is a character trait which must be examined daily to be transformed from approval-seeking to the truer virtues of kindness and gentleness.
The third motivation involves my children, and to some degree, older generations of my extended family: I want to maintain open dialogue with my children and my family’s elders. One day my children will disagree with me on some of life’s most important issues. At that point, it might be too late to begin trying to mind my manners in discourse. I hope to have spoken in such a way while they were young that dialogue will still be possible when I am old.
Given these motivations, I would like to share with you my commitments for participating in public discourse, particularly related to political speech:
I will be kind. I will speak with sympathy for others.
I will refer to people, even those with whom I disagree, by their names, and if possible, by their titles.
I will refrain from using dehumanizing language in the form of numbers (#45), abbreviations, acronyms (POTUS or SCOTUS), or derisive nicknames.
I will try to understand why someone believes differently from me, and I will try to help my children understand how important this is.
I will try to offer my children a sense of the complexity of the big issues and problems they may hear about on the news or at school.
I will not assume that I know everything about a problem or its best solution.
I will not rely on political solutions for all problems, even as I pursue political solutions to many problems.
I will listen to the stories and situations of others in order to understand the complex issues around healthcare, immigration, economics, women’s rights, and other topics that tend to be politicized.
I will seek deeper connections with my extended family, especially as political ruptures sow seeds of mistrust among family members who claim different political affiliations. I can choose what seeds I tend; I will choose deeper kindness. (I will understand that there are others who have been too deeply hurt by their families to do the same.)
I will not be silent when someone is dehumanizing someone else, especially when my kids are witness to it.
I will turn off the news, be it on a screen or radio, when I feel myself becoming agitated. In doing so, I will guard against rage and numbness. I will look through other windows (than electronic screens) to see and attend to the world.
When I am outraged, I will sort through my own outrage until I can act out of knowledge and conviction, but I will try not to spend all day sorting what could well take a lifetime.
I will not be complacent.
I will try to remember that any good I do should spring from a firm belief in Jesus’ good news for all people.
I will strive to see, acknowledge, and speak to the humanity in others, including those with whom I disagree and those whose humanity is denied or diminished by harmful public speech.
I will not vilify groups, establishments or institutions such as “the media,” “the military,” “the government,” or “the administration,” and I will try to remember that each of these groups are composed of humans, some of whom I know and love.
I will assume that my children will grow up to be or to love someone who is privileged.
I will teach them how to use their power and privilege in order to amplify the voices of others with less privilege.
I will assume that my kids might grow up to be or to love someone who is marginalized.
I will work through my own opinions, beliefs, and prejudices now in order to better support them as they grow into their privileged and/or marginalized positions and identities.
I will not attempt to make the world safer by angling to increase my own power, influence, or security. I will not accept a vision of the world made safe through fortification.
I will make the world safer by being a safe person for others. This includes a deepening commitment to non-violence.
I will remember that my political opinions and the way I share them are a witness to my faith in Jesus Christ.
I will assume that my words will be repeated to people I do not know, and to people I do know and love.
I will take responsibility for my words.
I will listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit in the speech of others.
Most importantly: I will make mistakes. I will try to own up to those mistakes and learn from them.
Rev. Amber Inscore Essick is a plant vulture, bird watcher, and seed collector. She co-pastors Port Royal Baptist Church, a rural Baptist congregation along the Kentucky River. She is the Adjunct Professor of Christian Worship at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. Her three kids are awesome, her husband is infinitely patient, and she has piles of papers from 2016 still waiting for her attention.
Image by: Amber Inscore Essick
Used with permission