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People often ask me why I don’t blog more often in the
crucible of the news cycle when an issue is “hot.” My friends and editors are always trying to get me to speed
up–as I tend to be slow with my words.
Last week, for example, I was quiet as the war of words escalated
between partisans in the Professor Gates/Cambridge police affair. President Obama did, of course, jump in
the fray with his poorly chosen assessment that the Cambridge police behaved
“stupidly,” only to apologize a couple of days later and invite the wronged
parties to the White House for beer
President Obama’s actions underscore my reticence to enter
the blog-fray in heated battle. By
inclination and academic training, I’m a historian. Historians believe that the more time we have to understand
a situation, the better.
When seeing the picture of Professor Gates hauled away in handcuffs from
his own house, I was shocked. But
I also suspected that something had happened of which I was unaware. As a commentator, I had a sense of my
own limitations. Better, I
thought, to let the picture speak for itself. And better to hold back before starting to call someone
names like “racist” or “bigot” or “idiot” or “rogue cop” or whatever. The escalation is even more shocking
than the original event–culminating yesterday with Glenn Beck calling President
Obama a racist!
If nothing else, the events leading up to today’s Beer
Summit at the White House have underscored the importance of slow words. Although progressive Christians are
known for activism, liberal and progressive Protestantism also is marked by a
commitment to intellectual analysis.
As a group, we are often painfully slow at decision-making–sometimes to
the point of institutional paralysis.
But we are so slow because we believe that the world is a complex place
that defies black-and-white (no pun intended) characterizations. In particular, morality and ethics are
often shades of grey, a shadowy realm of mixed human motives and
less-than-perfect choices. In my
religious tradition, moving slowly is a spiritual practice–one that accounts
for careful and thoughtful engagement with important ideas and events.
The progressive emphasis on thoughtful analysis is more than
a matter of taste or the privilege of educated elites. It is drawn from–what is arguably the
most important of all liberal Christian sacred texts–the New Testament Letter
of James. This week’s
shouting match is well-described in this ancient paragraph:
all of us make many mistakes . . . The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts
of great exploits. How great a
forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
And the tongue is a fire.
The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains
the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by
hell . . . No one can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison
(James 3: 2-8).
The letter’s author goes on to say that the tongue is
corrected only by “works done with gentleness born of wisdom,” by those who
“make peace.” Quick and uninformed
judgment must be restrained by a quest for wisdom.
Here, at Progressive Revival, Paul Raushenbush and I are
trying to create a blog space that reflects the deepest virtues and values of
mainline Protestant traditions–a way of being in the world that believes to
hold back the tongue–even for a moment–creates the space for understanding,
opens new possibilities, and allows us to glimpse God’s reign. Consideration, discernment, and
thoughtfulness should never be an excuse to avoid action; rather, they should
frame the way we act. We’re not in
a contest for speed; we’re on a journey toward wisdom.
In the midst of the fray, I humbly invite spiritual
progressives into a “slow word” movement.
Like the “slow food” movement that argues food must be savored to be
healthy, so care-filled words also need to be digested in order to be wise, to
act justly, and to make peace.
Slow words are a spiritual practice, one much needed in a world of junk
politics and faux news events.
Slowing down, guarding our words, might reintroduce a measure of reality
into our lives. In order to change the world, we must first learn to bridle the