Midweek Message: "What Luther Might Have to Say About Hateful Speech"

Week of the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Dear Friends in Christ:

In the social commentaries I read, more and more authors are bringing up the question of our nation being on the brink of another civil war of one sort or another, so divided are we as a nation. No longer are the divisions the stuff of policy debates. Rather, one side demonizes the other with ad hominem vitriol, hateful speech that often reduces the other to sub-human categories. These dynamics are at play on the extremes of both the right and the left today. Moreover, the genuine pursuit of truth is lost in the service winning fights by any means necessary, of “owning the libs” or “cancelling” perceived right-wing offenders. This divisive climate is amplified exponentially by social media platforms online, arguably a new wrinkle in our day concerning the age-old human problem of social strife and speaking ill of each other.

Christian people are caught up as well in this zeitgeist, this spirit of the times. It seems that many Christians, again on both the left and the right, prefer a muscular, combative Jesus who turns over the tables in the temple rather than a Prince of Peace who turns the other cheek and teaches the Golden Rule.

What might Martin Luther have to say about all of this? Well, first off, it’s important to acknowledge honestly that Luther did not consistently practice what he preached and taught. He was caught up in the vitriol of his own age and often employed ad hominem language to denigrate his opponents. I’ve often said of late, “Thank God Luther did not have access to Twitter” – given how he expressed himself in tracts and elsewhere, I can imagine that his tweets might cause even the most extreme Twitter users to blush.

That said and honestly acknowledged, Luther did and does offer sound teaching to guide us today, and a lot of this centers on what he had to say about the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” I believe I’ve written before about Luther’s views on the Eighth Commandment, but it bears some revisiting given the fevered pitch of discourse where we find ourselves currently in our national life together.

Here again is Luther’s explanation to the Eighth Commandment in his Small Catechism: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”

Luther also reflected on the meanings of the Eighth Commandment in his devotional guide, the Little Prayer Book. Here is his listing there of examples of breaking the Eighth Commandment: “Whoever conceals and suppresses the truth in court. Whoever does harm by untruth or conceit. Whoever uses flattery to do harm, or spreads gossip, or uses double-talk. Whoever brings a neighbor’s conduct, speech, life, or wealth into question or disrepute. Whoever allows others to speak evil about a neighbor, helps them, and does nothing to oppose them. Whoever does not speak up in defense of a neighbor’s good repute. Whoever does not take a backbiter to task. Whoever does not speak well about all neighbors and does not keep silent about what is bad about them. Whoever conceals the truth or does not defend it” (Martin Luther, “Little Prayer Book,” in The Annotated Luther: Pastoral Writings, Volume 4, Mary Jane Haemig, ed., Fortress Press, 2016, p. 174).

Then, Luther also offers reflection on how to keep or fulfill the commandment, not just how we tend to break it. This additional, complementary word is very much in keeping with his approach in his explanations to the commandments in the Small Catechism which include both ways of breaking the commandments and ways to keep or fulfill them. Here is what Luther says in the Little Prayer Book about fulfilling the Eighth Commandment. We fulfill this commandment when we offer “a peaceful and beneficial manner of speech which harms no one and benefits everyone, reconciles the discordant, excuses and defends the maligned, that is, a manner of speech which is truthful and sincere. Here belong all precepts concerning when to keep silent and when to speak in matters affecting our neighbor’s reputation, rights, concerns, and happiness” (ibid., p. 177).

There’s a sense in which Luther’s words speak for themselves in terms of their applicability to our current circumstances. We can clearly see how Luther’s listings indict persons across political spectrums, technological platforms, and other forms of speech. Thus, I need not name names in terms of who or what circumstances Luther’s wisdom applies to. For to name such names in this brief message of one-way communication runs some risk of violating the spirit of the Eighth Commandment about bearing false witness! You yourselves can do that math in the silence of your hearts and minds. Suffice it to say that despite Luther’s own failures to live up to what he had to say on the Eighth Commandment, his teaching has enormous implications for helping us to asses and guide discourse among us today. For so much of the strife of our current national climate has to do with our relationships to the Eighth Commandment, the ways we break it, the ways we fail to fulfill or keep it, in our discourse with and about others.

It may be that most of us in polite Christian community, those who don’t occupy extreme, outspoken positions on the far left or far right, may feel that we do pretty well when it comes to the Eighth Commandment. But Luther does not let us off the hook either. That’s what I find most striking in some of his statements in the Little Prayer Book. Here again is what Luther writes, this for the sake of reiteration and reinforcement. Those who break the bearing false witness commandment include: “Whoever allows others [emphasis mine] to speak evil about a neighbor, helps them, and does nothing to oppose them. Whoever does not speak up in defense of a neighbor’s good repute. Whoever does not take a backbiter to task.” That is to say, we also break the Eighth Commandment when we sit on the sidelines allowing all the vitriolic rhetoric to continue without challenging it. Such sins of omission certainly include me, and perhaps you as well.

That is where I’ll leave it for today. In short, by way of conclusion, all of us share in some responsibility for the divisive, de-humanizing qualities of discourse in today’s society, including the many of us, myself included, who tend not to speak up when we encounter others engaging in behaviors that end up bearing false witness against our neighbors – on Facebook, Twitter, at family gatherings, in church at coffee hour, at our places of work, and more. What our omissions leave us with is the reality summed up in a quote commonly attributed to the eighteenth-century Irish philosopher and statesman, Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.”

God in Christ give us courage to speak truth in love in the power of the Spirit,

Pastor Jonathan Linman