Words matter. Words have the power to hurt or to heal, divide or to unite, to shed truth or to spread falsehood. Words matter, particularly when you are the President of the United States and possess both a bully pulpit and a magnified microphone.
Demeaning and denigrating his opponents is nothing new for President Trump, but he crossed into ever more alarming and dangerous territory this past week when he sought to demonize and dehumanize an entire city with his tweet storm assault on Congressman Elijah Cummings, calling his district in West Baltimore a “dangerous and filthy place” and a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
This is not the first time Trump has used references to rats, vermin, and infestation. As Ben Zimmer documented in Politico, Trump has attacked Rep. John Lewis’ Atlanta district, called it “crime infested,” has said that Democrats want “illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country,” and has said that sanctuary cities involve a “ridiculous, crime infested & breeding concept.” He has also said that we have an “infestation of MS-13 gangs in certain parts of our country.”
Yet, Trump has offered no serious plans or prescriptions for how to improve blighted and struggling neighborhoods or communities such as West Baltimore — only to exploit their struggles to promote his own dystopian, fear-mongering agenda. And indeed, the brutal irony is that to the extent there are struggling neighborhoods in Baltimore, they are largely a result of more than a century of racist and unjust policies explicitly designed to segregate and marginalize people of color.
While we shouldn’t be sucked into Trump’s sinister game of getting distracted by and responding to every outrageous and egregious tweet or statement, there is also a corrosive and malignant danger of remaining silent. If we are silent, the cancer of racism will become more and more acceptable and normalized, emboldening white nationalists and supremacists and leaving already vulnerable communities even more vulnerable.
Regardless of one’s party loyalty, political leaning or persuasion, at what point is it a duty of every Christian, particularly church leaders, to speak publicly against such overt bigotry and fear-mongering? I’m deeply grateful that many Christian leaders have refused to remain silent in the face of this dehumanizing, hateful rhetoric. Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory said this week that, “We must all take responsibility to reject language that ridicules, condemns, or vilifies another person because of their race, religion, gender, age, culture or ethnic background. Such discourse has no place on the lips of those who confess Christ or who claim to be civilized members of society.”
The leadership of the National Cathedral was equally prophetic, calling the president’s words “violent and dehumanizing.”
And I agree. I fear that Trump’s use of such dehumanizing language echoes the words and tactics of some Hutus in Rwanda, who referred to the Tutsi as “cockroaches” as they conducted one of the most gruesome and vicious genocides in modern history. His language echoes the language and tactics of the Nazis, who infamously compared Jews to rats in propaganda films, pro-Nazi tabloids, and countless propaganda posters. Trump continues to take us further down an evil path, and far too few people of faith and conscience are willing to speak plainly about what’s going on — especially Christian conservatives.
The silence among the vast majority of Christian conservatives has been deafening. Two weeks ago, Jim Wallis called on Christian leaders who have been ardent and vocal supporters of the president to publicly challenge his deeply racist tweets calling on four congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from. This latest eruption makes we wonder — what it will take for Christian leaders of all stripes and persuasions to condemn and repudiate Trump’s overt racism and xenophobia?
Yes, this moment and increasingly the upcoming election is becoming a referendum on what we will tolerate as a nation, who we believe ourselves to be, and what we will stand for and stand against. It is increasingly a test of whether we will allow the fear, hate, and hypocrisy that Trump is fueling and exploiting, which the great theologian and mystic Howard Thurman refers to as the three hounds of hell that track the disinherited, to have the upper hand. Or will Christ’s example and call to embrace love, truth, and justice be triumphant because we courageously led and spoke out?
Christ was not shy or tepid in speaking out against injustice, including when he confronted religious leaders in his time saying “woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23)
I realize that it is often difficult and risky for many Christian leaders to speak out, often because they don’t want to further divide and be overly political. But if pastors and Christian leaders don’t define and speak out to maintain moral boundaries and norms that should be moral lines in the sand, are we truly being faithful as followers of Christ? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. captured this challenge best, “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right.”
Jesus spoke words of truth in love, ultimately costing him his life, crucified by the Roman Empire for the crime of treason. Our words matter. It is time to use them courageously to speak out against racism, a crime that assaults our individual and collective conscience.