The Common Good

It's Time to Tame the Tongue

Sojomail - August 15, 2013

GUEST COMMENTARY: It's Time to Tame the Tongue

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In the New Testament book of James, we are cautioned about the power of our tongues. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (3:9-10).

This is a lesson that Iowa Congressman Steve King apparently needs to learn. On Sunday, Rep. King appeared on Meet the Press and stood by his outrageous assertion that:

“For every [undocumented immigrant eligible for the DREAM Act] who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

Given the absurd and offensive nature of his statements, strong criticism swiftly followed. The Washington Post’s fact checker awarded it “Four Pinocchios,” which is a rating that is only applied to “whoppers.” House Speaker John Boehner previously denounced the comments as “offensive” and out of line with our society’s values.

Rep. King is known as an ardent opponent of immigration reform and has made controversial statements in the past, so his latest remarks are neither shocking nor a surprise.

But they should be.

Steve King is a sitting member of the U.S. Congress. He is elected to serve and represent his constituents in Washington by writing, advocating for, and voting on laws that advance the common good. In making rash and ridiculous statements, King accomplishes little beyond drawing attention to himself and distracting attention away from the myriad challenges facing our nation and globe.

But more significantly, Rep. King’s statements represent a failure in moral leadership. His objectively false claims demean millions of people whose lives are caught up in a broken system that Washington has thus far refused to fix. Such harsh words should trouble people of faith — including King, who is Catholic — given our shared belief that every person is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Indeed, the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Sioux City, which is in King’s district, specifically criticized the congressman’s words because they “speak of migrants in a way that undermines their human dignity and the respect owed them as children of God.”

As the debate on immigration reform has heated up, the attacks on immigrants from individuals and groups opposed to reform have risen as well. This should give pause to those of us following a Jesus who called us to “welcome the stranger” and care for “the least of these.”

We need to ask ourselves a basic question: Why does debating immigration reform require the vilification of immigrants, especially those who are undocumented?

The answer, of course, is that it does not and it should not. But it is hard to end the attacks when it is our own elected officials making them.

Speaker Boehner was right to quickly condemn Rep. King’s ignorant remarks, and every other member of Congress should do the same. Those elected to lead our nation should be responsible enough to engage in serious policy debates without resorting to false attacks. We send people to Congress to solve problems, not create them.

Christian leaders and other people of faith also must speak out when our representatives fail in their responsibilities. That is why Sojourners is asking Rep. Steve King that he end his attacks on immigrants and apologize for the harm he has already inflicted. I hope you’ll join me in signing this petition to the congressman.

When such ridiculous claims are left unanswered, the silence only serves as permission for repeat performances. Just as words can tear down, they can also build up. Our tongues are powerful tools for creating accountability, expressing disapproval, and urging repentance. They can speak life to those under attack and bring hope to those caught up in systems that foster despair.

Immigration reform will continue to be a hot topic for weeks, and even months, to come. Sadly, as the debate unfolds, there will undoubtedly be new attacks on immigrants and their families. Such moments are opportunities for leaders in both Congress and the church to remind us of the “the better angels of our nature.”

Rev. Beau Underwood is Director of Campaigns and Advocacy at Sojourners. He also works part-time at a Washington, D.C., congregation.

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