Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Defaming the Name

Since the re-launch of Doctor Who, the title character has become extremely powerful. In the classic series, the Doctor was merely smarter than his foes. In the new version he has achieved virtual omniscience along with other almost divine mental and physical powers. So it was a nice touch when he took down someone powerful with one sentence. After saving the earth again and making the alien race agree to leave our world alone in the future, the Doctor is outraged when the British prime minister uses a secret weapon to blow the retreating warriors out of the sky. She was his ally but her needlessly aggressive action causes him to threaten to destroy her with 6 words. He goes to an aide and whispers, "Don't you think she looks tired?" This simple doubt about her stamina and ability to continue leading the country goes viral and does her in politically.

Words can be powerful, which is why political parties and companies spend so much time framing issues and characterizing opponents through language. Thus the "estate tax" become a "death tax," "medical savings accounts" become "privatizing social security," "firing lots of employees" becomes "trimming the fat," and a department of people with little or no authority to make any significant change in your account are called "customer service." As Mark Twain said, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is…the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Words can even affect us physically. A recent study showed that if you gave people a powerful painkiller and didn't tell them you had, they received only a little pain relief. If you gave them the painkiller and told them so, their pain was significantly diminished. If you gave them the painkiller but told them it had been withdrawn, they experienced no pain relief at all. What they were told was more effective than the medicine they were given!

The ancients knew the power of words. They knew that spreading gossip and lies could destroy. Just recently, one of the websites I read repeated the lie that silent comedian Fatty Arbuckle killed a young actress by raping her with a Coke bottle. The fact is that she died of infection from a botched abortion. The infection did kick in at a drunken wrap party thrown by Arbuckle. But the story was started afterward by a friend who hadn't even seen the actress collapse. After Arbuckle was charged, the politically ambitious prosecutor realized the actress' friend, his chief witness, was an unreliable one who kept changing her story and so he never called her to testify. But she went on the vaudeville circuit repeating her story. In addition, the Hearst papers picked up the story and spread it far and wide. Though Arbuckle was acquitted and the jury actually apologized to him for his ordeal, his career was ruined and this lie will forever haunt his name.

Our sermon suggestion concerns the way people casually use and misuse God's name. I know that when people in my secular job find out I'm a priest, they frequently apologize for their language, although they use obscenities more often than profanities. And they don't usually know the difference, that obscenities are crude, often sexual words whereas profanities are using the names of God or Jesus inappropriately. Profanity is nothing new. The old English term "zounds" is a contraction of "Christ's wounds" and the word "bloody" refers to the blood of Christ and is still considered an offensive oath in Britain.

In the ancient world, a person's name was more than just a label. A name stood for the person himself, his authority or his character. So swearing to the truth of something using God's name was the equivalent of invoking his authority. Which is why Jesus tells us not to swear to anything but simply let our "yes" or "no" mean exactly that. And it's easy to see how swearing to something by using God's name degenerated to turning his name into an exclamation.

While researching this, I came across an interesting perspective on the third commandment. According to the IVP Bible Background Commentary, the primary focus of this prohibition was not bad language but the use of God's name for magical purposes. Contrary to what you see in the Harry Potter films or books, magic in the real world involves invoking the name of a god or demon. Knowing the real name of such an entity and calling upon it could be used to make them carry out your will. So in the third commandment what God is saying is "don't even try to use my name for magic."

The opposite of magic is prayer. In prayer, one is asking God, not trying to manipulate him. Implied in every prayer is what Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane: "Not my will but yours be done." Magic is about making the universe bend to your will; prayer is ultimately about bending your will to God's plan for the restoration of the universe.

Though the primary focus of the third commandment might be prohibiting using God's name in spells and hexes, it is obvious that God would not want his name misused in other ways either. So we should not be using God's name casually, especially as a profane exclamation or adjective. In order not to use the divine name God revealed to Moses, the one erroneously transliterated as Jehovah, Jews took to using the word "Adonai" or "Lord" instead. And this practice is carried on to this day with most translations of the Bible. Anytime you see the word "LORD" all in caps, it was substituted for the covenant name of God.

I cannot help but think that there are other ways in which we misuse God's name: when we use his name for causes or justify methods which contradict what we know of God. For instance, the tiny Westboro Baptist Church recently won a Supreme Court case over their right to protest at the funerals of our servicemen. I'm not going to deal with the question of free speech; I'm not going to talk about their stance on homosexuality. It seems to me that the real questions arise even before one gets to that. In Christianity, the end never justifies the means. So why are they trying to upset the families and friends of our soldiers with offensive messages on an issue that has nothing to do with those involved? What are they trying to accomplish? Are they just after publicity for their tiny church? Are they trying to drive people away from God rather than convert them?

The answer to the last two questions is yes. They are seeking publicity for a church which is primarily made up of Fred Phelps' family. They were going to protest at the funeral of the little girl shot in Tucson until a clever radio station in New York offered them free airtime that conflicted with the time of the funeral. By canceling the protest to take the airtime, they betrayed the naked cynicism of their campaign. And, as an NPR story reveals, they aren't trying to save anyone. According to their spokesperson, "we are supposed to blind their eyes, stop up their ears, and harden their hearts so they cannot see, hear or understand, and be converted and receive salvation." This is not just aimed at gays but at all Americans for their tolerance of homosexuals, whether explicit or implicit. Not only are they misusing a statement Jesus made about parables, they are going against Christ's Great Commission, in which Jesus commands us to go and make disciples in his name. I can't think of another church that practices anti-evangelism. Of course, they do this because they disbelieve other parts of the Bible, such as Ezekiel 33:11, where it says, "As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live." And John 3:16, which says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life." "You're going to hell!" is not God's good news! For this group to say that they do these things in the name of the God who is Love is an abuse of that name.

The same could be said of the crusades, the inquisition, and the witch trials, all of which contradict Jesus' prohibition of taking up the sword even to protect his person much less his name. We are way too fast to slap God's name on things that go against his explicit commands. And that is a graver abuse of his name than any inadvertent slips of the tongue.

You would not use the name of your mother, or child, or friend in the manner that many people use God's name. And it doesn't matter that it's allowed by our constitution. Morality and legality are not the same thing. And we Christians must remember that having the right of free speech is not saying that all such speech is free from consequences. Just because no one can censor us doesn't meant we should not think before speaking and filter out our baser feelings before opening our mouths. We should acknowledge when we are voicing our own opinions and when we are proclaiming God's word. And never confuse the two.

Words are powerful. They have impact and are therefore important. We must be careful, especially when using God's name. We mustn't use it sloppily, casually, or to justify our prejudices or politics. In fact, if you think you agree with God on everything, you're fooling yourself. No one is that Christ-like. Even the prophets balked at some of God's hard truths. But we must always remember that the purpose of our speech is show forth God's love. And we must match what we say with what we do. Because between sending the wrong message and mixed messages, we are not doing what Jesus told us to do. If we were, less people would be cursing with God's name, and more would be joining us to praise it.

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