Last week Andrew Walker and Owen Strachan wrote a piece defending Chris Kyle’s use of the term “savages” to name his opponents. I followed it up with a piece questioning some aspects of that defence. This week Andrew had a friendly response to my critique. If you haven’t already, please read these before going further as I won’t be recapping the arguments. Also, please note, if you comment in a way that indicates you have not read the articles, I’ll likely ignore you.
That out of the way, what I want to do is just give a quick, friendly follow-up to clarify my points in contrast and agreement with Walker.
First, I hope I did not give the impression that Christians ought not name evil in stark, appropriate terms. Indeed, I noted that I was grateful to Walker and Strachan for making that broader point. Naming actions as wicked, evil, idolatrous, violent, and so forth are necessary for proper Christian speech. So, just to be clear, I have no problem labeling the atrocities recently perpetrated by ISIS as wicked, grotesque, cruel, and utterly appalling. In that sense, I find a larger, broader agreement with Walker and Strachan in the principle of naming evil as evil.
What I was suggesting was a nuance on the point. I proposed that we ought to be sure we take into account the historical dimension of speech, paying attention, not only to the dictionary denotation of a term, but the socio-cultural connotations of a particular term like “savage.” Walker disputes that point:
Implied in his criticism of us is that naming something as evil or “savage” can or should be conditioned or governed by externalities that have nothing to do with the evil being perpetrated. On this, I simply disagree.
As Walker says, evil is no respecter of persons and our naming of evil should not be. Our naming of evil should be carried on without fear of social and cultural realities as long as we’re equal-opportunity offenders:
And I agree, fiercely, with a recent headline “When ISIS Ran the American South” from Rod Dreher, who linked to a story out of The New York Times that described the barbaric, savage practice of lynching in the American South. I’ll willingly be an equal opportunity offender: Those Americans who perpetrated lynchings acted as savages, driven by irrational motive and employing brutal tactics that were unspeakably awful (and what is incalculably terrible is that many who professed Christ were the evildoers. Maranatha!). I’m not concerned about the feelings of any American who felt they were somehow justified to commit barbaric acts against their fellow citizens because of their skin color. I want to confront that past evil, name it, and work to end future occurrences of it.
Where evil is practiced, let us call it evil, barbarous, and savagery—regardless of culture, race, or ethnicity. Let not the troubled conscience of past sins erode our ability to name evil for what it truly is. Let us be aware of the points of vulnerability, but let not that impede the opportunity to speak in morally stark terms that seeks to restrain the evildoer and rescue the innocent.
I appreciate Walker’s egalitarian approach to condemnation and discernment, as well as Dreher’s willingness to remind Americans of their own possibility of descending into “savagery.” Indeed, in my pastoral care, I repeatedly remind my students of those age-old gospel truths of the universality of judgment and, correspondingly, of the opportunities of grace.
Still, my point is that church leaders need to take care about those “points of vulnerability” in which our chosen terms of moral condemnation can carry a weight that gets away from us. Speech-act theorists have noted the way that the utterances we use (locutions) to say what we want to say (illocutions) can have an effect (perlocutionary force) that carries beyond what we intended. What happens when we invoke terms like “savage” are a good example of that.
When I wrote the initial article, some people were skeptical that race was or even could be a dimension in the use of terms like “savage” for Iraqi soldiers and so forth. In their minds, it was clearly linked to acts of particular political actors associated with particular ideologies and so the condemnation stops there. Let me, at this point, be even blunter than I was in my article. For a lot of people that’s simply not the case.
What do I mean? I know this is a bit anecdotal, but not four days ago, when a woman at a coffee shop found out I was a Palestinian and a Presbyterian, she asked me with great shock about my conversion from Islam. Because that’s obviously what happened. I’m an Arab, so I must have been a Muslim growing up. For her, me saying “Palestinian” just meant “Muslim.” For many there is an utter lack of awareness of the longstanding history of Christianity in Palestine or the large percentage of Arab Christians in the region as well as the US. Despite what I said, her own preconceptions based on her culture, history, and so forth, determined the meaning of what I said. My illocution had an unintended, but predictable perlocutionary force. This why my dad has historically described himself as a “Christian Palestinian” to forestall the nearly inevitable misunderstanding.
Now, this is a fairly innocuous example. Still, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes trolling through Twitter, Facebook groups, or even just local political commentary at the water-cooler, to see that for a number of Americans and Westerners, even some sitting in certain churches, there is an indiscernible mass of Muslim/Terrorist/Arab/Enemy/Violent-Degenerate. It is for that reason that I raise a caution about the way holding up possibly language about “savages” as morally exemplary can play into this sort of thing.
And this is where I do something that I don’t particularly enjoy doing because of how staunchly conservative I was raised. Returning to the point about being an “equal opportunity offender” on this score. One friend (not Walker) pointed out after my last article that my ethnic background seemed to be playing a role in my reasoning. I agreed. It does. My rejoinder was that so did his. When it comes to the language of “savages”, that’s a lot easier to do when you’re not the brown guy whose ancestry, religion, and culture have historically been the ones under suspicion in the majority culture.
I suppose that’s the sort of sensitivity I’m talking about. I’m not saying we ought to neglect moral language. I’m saying take care of the context in which you use it and choose your terms carefully. Precisely because we want to avoid becoming a “respecter of persons”, it pays to be respecters of context.
Soli Deo Gloria