A man in a bright orange jump suit has picketed our church several times over the past two years.
First, I found him mildly amusing because he was protesting government policies that, while our church does not take an official stance, many in the congregation were against (OK, I also laughed at the grammatical errors on his signs and his outfits!). Then one spring morning his protest took a different tone. One side of his sign equated expansion of health care with the end of the nation. The other side of the sign simply said‘ “Load ‘Em.”
After getting the OK from my boss (And telling the security team!), I took a cup of coffee out to the Sign Guy. I was a little afraid, but it seemed like the right thing to do. Sign Guy was thrilled – clearly equating the coffee with support. I did not tell him my views. I simply asked him questions. We had a long conversation, more like a monologue by him, that taught me a few things.
1. He was calling people to arms. Sign Guy really wanted people to rise up in a violent revolt, killing those who disagreed with him. He believed this was God’s calling for the “faithful” – to cleanse the land of the “sinners.” He defined those terms entirely on political positions. He was sure that our church was full of people who God wanted executed!
2. He was crazy. There was something off with Sign Guy’s grip on reality. He created outrageous conspiracy theories, such as the communists, British banks, and Anglican church planted our church to destroy God’s real America. He believed that his insights were infallible – coming from inside sources, his own brilliant research, and God.
3. He was influenced by toxic political rhetoric. This man was deeply influenced by public statements of politicians and commentators. He quoted them eagerly … especially the militant language. He even used voice tones and patterns of a radio talk show host.
This experience increased my conviction that much of the contemporary political tenor is too extreme and militant.
I have a number of friends who listen to such politicians and commentators, and to be fair they do not react like the Sign Guy. The reality is that his mental state did not allow for him to see the nuance in the rhetoric.
At some point, people who have been given the privilege of a public voice must look beyond the power and profit that comes from working people into a frenzy and take seriously the responsibility of the public good. Words matter. Public voices must weigh the impact of their words, and images, upon the public – even the mentally unstable.
Last weekend in Tuscon we saw a person, presumably with some mental illness and surrounded by a culture of toxic political rhetoric, move beyond holding up signs and literally take up arms against others. It was a tragic event.
I believe that violent political rhetoric, especially the blatant militaristic language in recent years, was a clear influence on the shooter in Tuscan as it was on the Sign Guy outside of our church. While violent political language does not drive everyone to physical violence, it will be taken literally by some who are on the edge of mental health and it has an undeniable impact on the soul of a nation.
We would do well to stop and remember the teachings of Jesus:
You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell. (Matthew 5:21-22)
There is a connection between our hearts, our words, and acts of violence.