A few days ago I was scrolling through our neighborhood Facebook page when an entry caught my eye. The post said that there were police cars stationed around the writer’s house and asked neighbors to immediately dial 911 if they saw any suspicious activity.
What in the world is going on? I wondered. I looked to see who had written the post. It was Gabriel Sterling. At first I had no idea who that was, and then suddenly it clicked. Gabriel Sterling is a state election official who made national news by condemning President Trump and Georgia’s two Republican senators for their rhetoric about the Georgia election returns.
“Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence,” he pleaded. “Someone is going to get hurt. Someone is going to get shot. Someone is going to get killed.”
Sterling’s impassioned pleas came after a 20-year-old election worker received death threats and found a noose outside his home. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger and his wife have also received death threats.
These threats of violence are not unique to Georgia. Chris Krebs, a Department of Homeland Security official charged with overseeing the security of the election, was fired by Trump after saying that the election was secure and the results could be trusted. One of Trump’s attorneys publicly said that Krebs should be shot for treason.
Today’s Washington Post has a story about a gang of dozens of armed thugs surrounding the home of Michigan’s secretary of state Saturday night while she was decorating for Christmas with her son, claiming the state’s election, in which Trump decisively lost, was rigged.
It’s not just election officials who are receiving threats. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the most trusted medical advisor in the administration, has security for himself and his family because of the number of death threats they have received. Public health officials across the country report threats on their lives.
In Michigan this summer, armed protesters surrounded the state capitol after the governor imposed Covid restrictions. Trump responded by tweeting, “Liberate Michigan.” Weeks later some of those same thugs were arrested for plotting to kidnap the governor. Our president failed to condemn this violent plot.
That our president is a serial liar is a fact. His lie that Barack Obama was not born in America was what first thrust him into the political spotlight. Since he has been in office he has told tens of thousands of lies, so many that at one point Washington Post fact checkers had a two-month backlog of presidential statements to assess for their veracity.
Lies have consequences. Tens of thousands of Americans have died because of the administration’s lies about the coronavirus. Lies about the election result undermine our democracy, and could very well lead to violence incited by the president.
“Hateful rhetoric and hateful voices can lead to hateful actions,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said.
This is a political issue, but it is also an issue of faith. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” is one of the Ten Commandments. Lies about a pandemic or election are included in this command.
New Testament writer James devoted an entire chapter to what he called “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits,” he writes. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”
James is talking about something more serious than words hurled in anger or rumors that damage our personal or professional lives.
“The real peril of the tongue is not found in the passing angry word or the incidental oath or the petty bit of slander,” New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says. “It is found in the creation of distorted worlds of meaning within which the word of truth is suppressed.”
That is an accurate description of what is going on in our country right now. Much of the rhetoric we hear now from our president and other so-called leaders is creating a distorted world of meaning, in which the truth is suppressed, violence is encouraged, and polarization grows. Too many elected officials have remained silent in the face of those lies.
Language shapes reality. Words have consequences. When we can no longer discuss an issue based on truth and facts, when we can no longer engage in true debate and work together for the good of the whole, then we are in danger of unraveling — as a society and as a nation.
Words have creative power. We can use them to create worlds of truth and beauty and healing and justice. Or we can use them to create fear rather than to inspire hope, to spread lies rather than truth, to polarize rather than unite, to incite violence rather than promote peace.
What James calls the evil of the tongue (today he would add the tweet), the toxicity of our language, is one of the gravest dangers our nation faces today.
If we do not contain this evil, I fear that the sparks set off by this rhetoric may ignite a blaze that makes the wildfires in California pale in comparison.