It is around 1:21 AM, and my almost 3-year-old just rolled over and our heads collided. Being a toddler, his head his made out of vibranium or something, so he continues to sleep peacefully while I find myself sitting on the couch writing an article during a tornado watch. So, I thought I’d put some thoughts down that I’ve been considering for several years now but have been recently inspired to put them onto paper thanks to a book I’ve been reading called The Need to Be Whole by Wendell Berry.
The Civil War
Berry spends a lot of time humanizing citizens of the South during the Civil War, not to justify slavery, prejudice, or to defend a lost cause narrative; instead, his goal is to help heal the wounds that still exist in the United States due to that war. This is a book that I’ve deliberately tried to read slowly and intentionally due to its importance. I want to share a passage I find insightful, but we first need to get the context.
Berry talks about how the ability to forgive others comes from the undeniable fact that we all have our problems. In times of conflict, however, it can be easy to think that each person is a perfect representative of whatever category we place them into, a category which we can totally reject. We, on the other hand, since we oppose that category, we are beyond reproach.
Berry’s chief example of this relates to the Civil War. Since we reject slavery as immoral, then we are forever indebted to the North for fighting on behalf of God to end slavery, regardless of the North’s sins. At the same time, we are to condemn the South along with everyone involved with or sympathetic to the South, regardless of what good these individuals may have done.
It is within this context of the complexity of life and the need for forgiveness that we find the following quote:
This makes obvious what is wrong with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which I so much dislike. Its author, I am sure, was more or less a normal human, but her song implies that she never had a minute of fun in her life. Her words are uttered through a mask of terrific seriousness. When God has come gloriously to your side in war, any touch of humor might admit some hint of doubt or confusion or uncertainty. Humor must be excluded, and to do that it is necessary to exclude humanity.Berry, Wendell. The Need to Be Whole (p. 238). Shoemaker + Company. Kindle Edition.; Read the full hymn at the bottom of the page.
By “humor” in this passage, Berry is referring to the previous paragraph in which he says that there is a bit of humor in our awareness of our own autobiographies. Speaking of Jesus’s commands to love our enemies and forgive others, he writes, “Those sayings, it seems to me, rest upon a wise and generous laughter that is meant to wedge or wear a breath of space between our selves and our opinions, and so to keep us from becoming a mere gadgetry of politics and war.”
Dehumanization in Political Language
A lack of humor leads to the exclusion of humanity.
Dehumanizing someone through everyday language or rhetoric, then, gives one permission to mistreat, kill, or otherwise harm someone else.
Think of the power of the words “merciless indian savages” used to describe Native Americans in the Declaration of Independence. Do you see how this language dehumanizes and gives permission to displace and even slaughter Native Americans?
Or, more recently, consider how words like deplorable, communist, baby-killer, pro-life, pro-choice, fascist, treasonous, etc. have been employed in political contexts to intentionally or unintentionally categorize entire groups of people, regardless of the context or even the apologies offered after employing this kind of language. We often remember the use of the term far longer than we do any attempts at reconciliation.
If you vote Republican, you are anti-choice, anti-women, and anti-poor. If you vote Democrat, you are anti-life, anti-family, and anti-business. All Republicans hate women, and all Democrats hate Christianity. Yet, I’m sure we know plenty of people in our own personal lives who do not fit neatly into these categories – people with whom we worship, work, and sit at the table every day.
I bring up these political terms because I’m sure we have all either used these, heard them used, or defended their use at some point in the past few years. And some of them may need to be used or be necessary to use. But even words like “conservative” and “liberal” can become tools of violence.
By violence I do not necessarily mean physical violence, though that can easily happen; instead, I mean violence to someone’s humanity, which can lead to expulsion from a community, physical violence, and other forms of attack or rejection. We’ll explore that more below.
Dehumanization in Religious Language
Now that we’ve set the stage with a few passages from Wendell Berry and a couple of supporting examples found in politics, let’s turn our attention to dehumanization in a religious context.
Like in the political discussion above, some of this language may be necessary at times. In fact, some of these words can be found in Scripture using a Bible search tool. What I am talking about is how these words are misused and often overused.
Take a look at this list:
I’m sure you can add your fair share of words. When used in the dehumanizing way I’m talking about, these words are often preceded with the word “just.” That’s just traditionalist rigidity. Or that’s just typical liberal thinking. Or that’s just progressive mumbo jumbo.
This is often a way to dismiss someone’s point or feelings by placing them into a category which one expects others to reject on sight. Once we dismiss someone in this way, we can then justify excommunication or other exclusive behaviors without a fair trial. We can skip the difficult steps of dialogue and attempts at understanding by slapping a label on someone and moving on. In church history, some of these terms were employed to justify burning other believers at the stake.
We often excuse not doing our due diligence as brothers and sisters in Christ by robbing someone of their humanity through violent language.
There is no need for dialogue when “everyone knows that’s heresy.”
In a recent video review I did, I pointed out how Keith Mosher used this very tactic in a lecture condemning people who believe in a restored earth at the end of the age. He argued that people in that room would “apostatize” because they started their studies with an impure heart. In other words, if someone disagrees with Mosher, then they have an impure heart, so they should be rejected, isolated, and not be allowed to preach.
Notice what this kind of language does.
Let’s say we know a guy named Dave. And Dave is a young minister. He was raised within the same denomination he’s preaching in now. Fresh out of seminary, he has a lot of zeal, so he spends day after day studying Scripture to prepare for his sermons. One day, he comes across something that he had never noticed before that has serious implications for a doctrine he and his denomination hold dear.
What does he do?
If he goes to a trusted advisor and they dismiss the question by using some of the language or attitudes portrayed in our discussion so far, how will he react? Or maybe he doesn’t even go to that person because all he has ever heard from them is this kind of approach to differences.
Using this kind of language flippantly and broadly without humor, as defined by Berry, makes us unsafe people to talk to. When people consider who they can share their feelings, doubts, or frustrations with, they think, “Well I can’t share that with Daniel because I’ve heard him condemn and laugh at anyone who disagrees with him on this subject.”
Dehumanizing, violent language doesn’t just hurt current opponents – it can also do harm to people we love that sincerely have questions about whatever subject is under consideration.
When we try to place someone into a category in order to justify rejecting them wholeheartedly, then we end up ignoring our own shortcomings. In fact, sometimes this is form of violence is carried out to intentionally cover up our own sins.
A Final Word
We must be careful when using words that are polarizing in our culture. Words like liberal, traditionalist, and false teacher have their place, but their definitions and baggage from person to person vary so much that using them without a disclaimer or explanation of some sort is often not helpful.
Instead, we should be sure that our language is “seasoned with salt” and that we follow Paul’s advice to the Ephesians:
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is good for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.Ephesians 4:29; cf. Collisions 4:6
By the way, for those keeping score, Cayden woke up around 2:20 with a coughing fit and asked to snuggle me, so I went back to the room until he fell asleep again. What a cute kid, even if he does headbutt me in the middle of the night!
Here are the lyrics to the hymn cited by Berry.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
Mine eyes have seen the gloryThe Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe (1861)
Of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage
Where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
Of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watchfires
Of a hundred circling camps
They have builded Him an altar
In the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence
By the dim and flaring lamps;
His day is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet
That shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men
Before His judgement seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him;
Be jubilant, my feet;
Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom
That transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy,
Let us die to make men free;
While God is marching on.