“The Soul of a Nation”
The Matter of Words, Language and Rhetoric
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, we find a charicature of just about any human society susceptible to the misrepresentation of truth. As the old saying goes, “Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes the truth.” Even as the pigs in the story roll out their political platforms for all the world to see, we find a very playful and truthful satire on the value of words. In as much as it is a human responsibility to tell the truth, it is also incumbent upon us to confirm it in so far as we can.
Many of us watched in dismay as rioters stormed the nation’s capital, fueled by words, language and rhetoric that implied the election was stolen.
While it may be debatable where such rhetoric began, there is no question that by believing lies as truth many of the rioters became an angry mob that attempted to assault the very democracy they purported to protect.
“The Words of a President Matter.” -Joe Biden
As president-elect, Joe Biden asserted at that time,
“The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.”
If the signs the rioters upheld were any indication of what rhetoric served as a motivation for their actions, Biden could not have been closer to the truth. Words matter.
In her book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre reflects on the capacity of words to shape our lives for better. As she writes, “Caring for language is a moral issue. Caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words.”
“If language is to retain its power to nourish and sustain our common life, we have to care for it something like the way good farmers care for the life of the soil, knowing nothing worth eating can be grown in soil that has been used up, overfertilized or exposed to too many toxic chemicals. …Stewardship of such riches is a weighty responsibility…”
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, p. 3.
Caring for words demands that we examine the content (truth) of our words. It calls for an examination of our sources. It calls upon us to listen, to discern, and sometimes to hold space for the truth to emerge — before we take action.
Language Conveys “…the Quick of the Human Spirit.” -George Steiner
Reflecting on Biden’s emphasis on words as mobilizing agents, I was drawn to an assessment of the function of words by George Steiner cited in McEntyre’s book:
“[Language] has two principle functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace.”
Words Well-Chosen Advocate for Humane Order and Grace
Words well-chosen should advocate for humane order (as the recent events of the past few weeks might indicate); but words also exist as expressions of grace as in art, music, poetry, and civil discourse.
Words, the president conveyed, help us to rediscover “the soul of a nation” as a body that works together for good. As the poet Langston Hughs envisioned in his poem, “Some Day.”
The guns roar.
The call goes forth for men.
The war begins,
False slogans become a bore.
Yet no one cries:
ENOUGH! NO MORE!
Like angry dogs the human race
Loves the snarl upon its face
It loves to kill.
The pessimist says
It always will.
That I do not believe.
The savage in us will wear away.
Some day quite clearly
Men will see
How clean and happy life can be
Like flowers planted in the sun,
We, too, can give forth blossoms,
Shared by everyone.
Langston Hughs, Let America Be America Again and Other Poems, pp. 14–15.
“Reclaiming the Soul of a Nation” Begins with Love of Neighbor
Even as I write, a news prompt appears on my phone that says flight attendants are facing confrontations over wearing masks. As a hospice chaplain, one thing I am grateful for is the team approach. If masks save lives, we wear masks! This is to say nothing of our politics, but everything about our care for those we are called upon to serve. That’s what soul is — sharing a good that is common to us all.