People are getting less interested in the rantings of our politicians all the time because the thin veil of their manipulative mendacity is worn so thin. The expensive ads by campaigns and superpacs do not move most of us anymore. It makes me wonder whether anything can move us. Since I am in the being moved “business” that’s an important question.
Unfortunately for Jesus, politicians practice the same kind of speechifying that churches have practiced for generations. The politicians get up in a pulpit and relate ideas in hope of convincing people to share their point of view and vote them into power. Their point of view does not necessarily need to have any relation to who they are or even what they actually do — they are making a point, not a relationship. A politician might hound Al Franken out of the Senate while protecting the serial groper-in-chief. Obama talked like a populist while being funded by the banks he bailed out. In like manner, professional ministers are regularly exposed as not much different. They don’t win the right to be heard by actually relating as humans; they win the battle for power by appearing solidly, consistently beyond normal discourse.
Winning the right to be heard
By now, I think we are all accustomed to demanding our right to be heard and have forgotten the prerequisites for getting heard. We rely on our protected free speech even though people can’t rely on our moral behavior, that’s in our protected privacy. It is a recipe for miscommunication. The new rules seem to be: “I can be as mean as I want and others should not take that personally, since we’re just talking.” I hope you have not witnessed a Twitter war or had some Facebook opponent try to take you out. But it happens. They exercise their right to divide people up in honor of their quest for a moment of empowering assertion; but it isn’t personal.
Everything is personal. We’re all related at some level. I still think I need to “win the right to be heard.” No one trusts what we say before they trust who we are. We often talk about “incarnational mission” around Circle of Hope. “Incarnational” has become a a buzz word among Christians these days, but incarnation has been God’s missional methodology from the moment Jesus was born of a woman. A purposeful life that is, by nature, incarnational is not difficult to imagine, if one is looking at what Jesus does and not just what he says. God got a hearing by becoming one of us, and continues to guide us as one who “comes alongside” in the Holy Spirit.
I learned about winning the right to be heard as a freshman in college. I kind of bumped in to Jesus humbly trying to get me to listen to him as I was discovering the need to win the right to be heard by my new friends. I had basically deserted my pulpit-centered Baptist church as a senior in high school as I wandered around in the wilderness of depression and doubt. I came out on the other side having met God in significant ways. I was so motivated that I decided to introduce myself to my dorm hall as a Christian. I did this in ways that make me cringe a bit now, but they turned out to be strangely effective methods. People became Christians. I was not a good missionary, but the fact that I existed was weird enough to get some attention. I had no method but to be who I was; that was all I really knew how to do.
I had no pulpit, and what I did say was not particularly impressive. But I did exist. I did not hide who I was. I was an incarnation, which is the essence of evangelism. This experience at an impressionable age solidified a truth in me that has stuck with me my whole life: God can use anyone. It also helped me understand that being relatively normal is the best way to deliver the extraordinary. God became a regular human in Jesus, born of a wonderful, but relatively typical woman and the impact was extraordinary.
We don’t need word power
Tony Morrison is famous for saying in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
“The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.”
Some Christians may have practiced such oppressive speech in the name of their sovereign God, but we are trying to outlive their bad influence and convince people, person by person, that the Lord Jesus is still the dying and rising God beside us in our dying and rising.
The politicians and other power hungry people foist incessant word-warfare on us, and many of us are willing to learn their craft. We also try to demand or buy the right to be heard. I think Jesus followers should resist that temptation and, instead, win the right to be heard by being regular people who come up alongside others and persistently exist. We enter human dialogue as ourselves in Christ, not as bodiless proponents of some ideology beyond us. We have the relationship with God we have as who we are and we reveal that connection in the same way we tell any other story that allows someone who cares to understand us. If we ever gain a sympathetic ear for who we are and for Whom we have come to know, it will probably be less about how powerfully we communicate or manipulate than it will be because we are real.
Our faith does not need millions dollars behind it to make it real. Jesus’ life, and Martin Luther King’s for that matter, were powerful because of who they were and what they did, not merely because of what they said. In an era in which most public language can be justly suspected as lies, we need a renewed devotion for incarnational mission. It is a new era full of a new variation of people who seem to be turning off the powerful manipulators beaming down on them. According to Ad Age, “in the last quarter of 2017, time spent on Facebook every day declined by 5 percent, or 50 million hours, a drop the company attributed to its intentional efforts to prioritize more meaningful content. But it also saw the number of North Americans on the platform fall for the first time, to 184 million from 185 million in the third quarter.” I hope for more people to wake up and live real lives.
Unfortunately, a lot of people think Jesus is beaming down on them in a similar coercive way. They don’t want Christians to follow them around with notifications, either. Jesus has, for so long, been associated with the establishment in Eurocentric countries, that is is hard to get Him separated. But he isn’t one and the same with Trump and Zuckerberg, manipulating huge communication platforms to dominate us or profit from us. Jesus is still like the baby, now crucified and risen. Like Jesus, I want to win the right to be heard, so people can see that I am not some ideological parrot and so they can better see Jesus alive and alive in me. Whether I am effective at that mission or not is important to me. But I think Jesus will manage to be real, regardless of my ability, as I have always experienced him to be.