November 1, 2010
Political Code Language
Are political sticks and stones affecting the church?
There is a sinister trend gaining momentum in the days leading up to the mid-term elections. It is not initially obvious to many of us, but it has significant implications for the American church. The code language associated with this trend goes unnoticed by many majority-culture Christians despite how alienating it can be to our non-white brothers and sisters. It is a trend that both threatens devastating consequences to the unity of the church and presents powerful opportunities for Gospel witness to a cynical country.
Different code words summarize this trend: us, ours, mine—the possessive language many politicians and pundits use to describe the need to retake America. The aim of this trend is to identify the insiders and outsiders, those on the right and wrong side of American history. This language hearkens back to an ideal America when things were as they should be now.
Pamela Geller, an influential blogger and speaker and a major force behind the opposition to the so-called ground zero mosque, put some of these code words to work in a recent interview with The New York Times. “Growing up as the sort of tail end of the baby boomers, there was this feeling of invincibility in America…We were free. The good guys won. The good cop is on the beat. I certainly don’t get a sense of that anymore.”
Immigration and Islam have also become code words during this campaign season, another indication of this trend of alienation. A few politicians have exploited fears by some in the majority culture and have blurred the lines between legitimate security concerns and ugly prejudices.
Take for example a recent campaign ad by Sharron Angle, Nevada’s Republican senate candidate. The ad warns of “waves of illegal aliens streaming across our border, joining violent gangs, forcing families to live in fear,” while men understood to be gangbangers and thugs glare menacingly at the camera. If the ad doesn’t immediately strike you as pandering to racial and ethnic stereotypes, try imagining yourself as an American of Mexican descent. It seems that in this politician’s view of America you (Mexicans) are causing normal (white) families to live in fear.
An ad attacking West Virginia Representative Nick Rahall shows how slippery this trend can be. The ad shows the representative talking about chairing “a nationwide group dedicated to mobilizing Arab Americans in bringing light to those issues we care about.” The ad ends with a screen encouraging the viewer to call Representative Rahall to “tell him to stand with West Virginians.” Is it not possible to be both a West Virginian and an Arab American?
How are our churches affected by this code language about who is and is not a real American? For the thousands of non-white churches throughout the country the examples above can come across as unwelcoming at best and racist at worst. Language and images meant to drum up votes for desperate politicians communicate powerful messages about who is valuable in America and who is unwelcomed. Speeches about returning to an idealized America of yesteryear gloss over the painful experience of many non-white citizens who look to the future rather than the past for inspiration.
Majority-culture Christians who borrow this insider/outsider language are reinforcing an ideology at odds with the Gospel. The unity between Christians that Jesus prays for in John’s Gospel is meant to demonstrate the Father’s love to the watching world. This unity must include American churches of disparate cultures, races, and ethnicities. Aligning ourselves with politics and ideologies that seek to divide is no benefit to our Gospel witness.
How can those of us in the majority culture proceed in these divisive days in a way that leads to greater unity within Christ’s body? First, let’s attempt to begin seeing and hearing from the perspective of our non-white Christian family. This will be much easier if we are in meaningful relationships with members of our multi-ethnic Christian family. Even if those relationships are few, we can begin listening with a critical ear and seeing through a broader lens.
Second, we can be specific when describing our political stances. Rather than succumbing to the vague and ostracizing language used by both political parties, we can instead explain why certain issues matter to us as Christians. It is inevitable in the incredibly diverse American church that individual Christians will hold different opinions and values. It is not inevitable, however, that these varied perspectives must divide us.
Finally, on November 3, regardless of the political winners and losers, we can be crystal clear that our hope lies not with any politician, ideology, or political platform. Our allegiance is only to God and our commitment is to one another. For a society gagging on its own cynicism, such humble unity could be a powerful cure.