Archive | January, 2020

What language do you trust?

29 Jan

Three events have spurred these reflections. The first comes from my days as a seminary teacher, in a seminar discussing the Bible.  One student spoke up: “I grew up in a Soviet society; we knew that we could not trust what the government told us; much of the time we could not trust each other. But we could trust the language of the Bible.”  The speaker was Anne Kull, who is now a university professor in her native Estonia.

That seminar took place forty years ago. Just a few weeks ago, Michiko Kakutani’s new book appeared, The Death of Truth, an analysis of political talk in the United States. The dust jacket features a snake attacking Truth.

The third event, which forms the background for my reflections, is my daily reading of the Hebrew Psalms. Several verses stand out:

Psalm 140—

Rescue me, Lord, from the wicked,

save me from the violent.

Their tongues strike like a serpent, 

their lips hide deadly venom. 

Heap hot coals upon them, 

plunge them into the deep, 

never to rise again.

Let liars find no place to rest 

let evil stalk the violent

and drive them to their ruin. 

Psalm 12—

Everyone lies to their neighbor;

they flatter with their lips

but harbor deception in their hearts.

Psalm 149–

May the Lord silence all flattering lips

and every boastful tongue—

those who say,

“By our tongues we will prevail;

our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”

They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s;

the poison of vipers is on their lips.

Deep fissures of alienation run through American society today. Our public discussion focuses on our political alienation; ironically that discussion is itself often alienating—marked by name-calling, hypocrisy (as the antagonists insist each upon their own ideological purity), division within communities and even within families. Although certain individuals are pictured as the primary agents of alienation,  the body politic itself is alienated; in actual fact, “we the people” are its agents.

This being the case, it is not surprising that we are alienated in and by our language. Politics is a realm of alienation, and so are the news media  (Fox News versus MSNBC); in some instances, even sports has been politicized and thus also become a domain of alienation.

The three events I have referred to span three millennia. I am shocked sometimes by how relevant the ancient psalms aren’t the current scene—I think particularly of “they flatter with their lips  but harbor deception in their hearts.” Language is a great gift, without it we would not be human—and yet our tongues are as sharp as a serpent’s, and the poison of vipers is on our lips. Our language is demonic—following theologian Paul Tillich’s definition of the demonic as “the good turned against itself.”

What are we to do? Language, in both writing and speaking, pervades our living spaces, like the air we breathe. Like Anne Kull, each of us has specific language-places that are our safe places, our refuges, from demonic language. Sections of Scripture, favorite poems or novels, pieces of music and songs—all of these can serve to remind us of truth that does not kill; they can be language-oases for us.

I am interested in the safe places of language that serve you. What language do you trust? Send me your responses, and we can stage our own life-sustaining language event.

(c) Phil Hefner 1 February 2020

Two Stories

18 Jan

It is not unusual that events in my daily life prompt reflection. On an afternoon in January here at Montgomery Place a service remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. was followed by a Jewish Shabbat service. 

I was impressed that each service recounted two stories, they were on parallel tracks. One story tells of the miseries of the human condition—injustice, brutality, exploitation, The other story is centered on the ideals that picture human life as a quest for justice, kindness, deepened sense of community, and sacrifice for others.

The two-story structure underscores a theme of the King service: “the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine, is that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed.” 

One resident left the service in tears, feeling the years-long weight of the evils of racism. We all know the truth in her tears—the “isms” that mark our lives, often so pervasive that we are blind to them: racism, sexism, classism, ageism. These are ways we label people as “other” from us because of race, gender, sexual orientation, and economic-social class. Barack Obama warned us against this “othering” we so often engage in—against those “others” who look different from us, who speak, think, love, vote, or worship differently from us. “We must not permit ourselves to go down that road,” he said. But we have gone down that road, and we continue to do so. 

There is something in those tears that can awaken vision in people, the vision that we can take a different road.

The Shabbat prayers spoke eloquently of this “half divine” dimension: “Looking inward, I see that all too often I fail to use time and talent to improve myself and to serve others. And yet there is in me a yearning to use my gifts for the well-being of those around me. Renew my vision; help me understand those about me. Let me remember that I depend on them, as they depend on me; quicken my heart and hand to lift them up.”

Two stories. One drives us to despair, anger, and tears. The other gives us vision to strive relentlessly for a world that does not yet exist, except in our hopes.

These two stories make us human.

(c) Phil Hefner January 18, 2020