The Common Good

Brian McLaren: The Need for a New Rhetoric

A number of my friends have given up blogging, either temporarily or permanently. The reason? The blogosphere seems to indulge a certain kind of rhetoric that they don't want to be associated with anymore.

Although I continue to post here at the God's Politics blog on occasion, and I believe in the power and potential of the blogosphere, I share my friends' frustration with the kind of disrespectful dialogue that frequently ensues in the comments section of so many blogs. The majority want to have substantive and respectful dialogue, and they tolerate the static because they believe in the level playing field of the blogosphere. But the ambivalence is real.

Our struggles online, I think, are a microcosm of a global problem, a problem that a friend recognized in a recent trip to the Middle East. My friend, a leader in his church, wrote,

While we were there I had the privilege of meeting a Muslim university professor. He works with college students who are volunteer mentors for children in Jordan. I spent a couple of hours with him and his students as they shared with me different things they are learning as they work with children. I was deeply moved and inspired by their stories of life change both in themselves and in the kids they work with. As we were getting ready to leave the meeting the professor approached me and asked me what I thought about the things I had heard.

My friend said he had experienced something very moving that day. He was acutely aware of the differences between their two religions, yet he sensed in their stories of service a kind of common and transcendent connection that he couldn't find language to describe.

All of this poured out of my friend in a kind of jumble, but the professor seemed to understand:

Immediately, he said, "Friend, we know that language. It's a secret language." After a moment of feeling a little uncomfortable because I didn't know what he was talking about, he moved closer and quietly said, "The secret language is love." Surprised, I spontaneously yelled out, "YES! You are right! Love is the secret language!"

Misleading labels, name-calling, innuendo, insult, cynicism, deception, even flattery can find their way into any of our communication and add another straw to the overweighted camel of civility and mutual respect. (I've already edited out some of my own rhetorical descents in this piece, and I imagine I've still failed to live up to the ideal I'm espousing.)

But my friend's story about his experience with the Muslim professor reminds me that there is another language hidden in all our language.

Without it, the apostle Paul said, we're nothing. With it, even the way we disagree can lead us to a better place, whether in the blogosphere or in the world of domestic politics and international relations.

Brian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) serves as board chair for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. His next book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, will be released in October.

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