January 8, 2011 now has a place in the annals of Americaâ€™s tragedies. A very disturbed young man in Tucson, Arizona attempted to assassinate Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords, killed Federal Judge John Roll and five other citizens, and left many others injured. I wrestled with what to say here in the wake of that horrific day, beyond urging that we all pray for the recovery of those injured and for Godâ€™s comfort for those mourning their losses. I found inspiration when I turned on my TV this morning and heard the comments of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. While other elected officials and political leaders offered bipartisan expressions of grief and concern, urged national prayer and healing and expressed the need for civility in our political rhetoric, Ms. Palin took a different tack.
She opened with words decrying the tragedy and expressing condolences and concern for the victims and their families, and then spent the rest of her time defending herself. She denounced those who said that the gunman may have been motivated by violent political rhetoric, denied that her words promoted violence, and said that the events of January 8 – though tragic – would not change the way she spoke. Thatâ€™s a tragedy in itself.
James 3:1-12 gives us a reminder of the impact of intemperate words. James says in part, â€œAll kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.â€ Many reasonable people believe that the violent and inflammatory political rhetoric of the last two years may have been a factor in the Tucson tragedy. Those like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the national scene and like Richard Todd and Rocky D. on the local scene may deny that link, but itâ€™s evident.
In the last two years, a disturbed solider and a disturbed college student in Virginia opened fire on and killed innocents, and a disturbed man in Texas flew his plane into a Federal building. All of them were disturbed, and emotional disturbance sometimes leads to tragic action when those not thinking clearly react to words in dangerous ways. Thinking people may see Tea Party rally rhetoric, armed protestors at rallies for President Obama, vicious political signs, and candidates urging people to apply â€œSecond Amendment remediesâ€ and saying â€œDonâ€™t retreat, reloadâ€ as simple political hot air. Those who are emotionally disturbed may interpret those things as their marching orders to deal with the â€œenemyâ€ and take violent action to do so. Defining oneâ€™s political opponent as a dangerous enemy can, heard through the wrong ears, be the rhetorical equivalent of throw a match into a can of gasoline. Gasoline can explode and burn, but only does so when ignited by the right spark.
If any good is to come of what happened in Tucson, then it may be that weâ€™ll return to civil discourse in American politics, and we need to promote and practice that kind of discourse as people of faith. We need to demand that those who seek our votes campaign in an air of respect for others and for themselves and stand against those who spout words of fear and division for political gain, but we canâ€™t stop there because our words matter too and civility should extend to the church.
Civility in the church means coming to meetings and having our say, but doing so in an air of respect and not of insult. Civility in church means not spreading rumors or whispering about those who share the pews or the pulpit with us. Civility in the church means speaking in a positive way to our friends and to those we donâ€™t like, to those in our circle of friends and to those who simply wander in from the street in need of the Gospel. We canâ€™t demand civility and respect until we ourselves model civility and respect.
Let us hope that America moves forward from the Tucson tragedy, heals and becomes a fairer nation and what we claim to be – â€œone nation under God.â€ Letâ€™s each do our part to achieve that goal, and to live out the words spoken by President Barack Obama in the Tucson, Arizona memorial service on January 12, 2011 – â€œRather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.â€