Sentences and Movements

Explaining what you mean is a virtue.

“Black Lives Matter” is a sentence. It is also a movement, and Al Mohler’s exhortation for conservative evangelicals to endorse the sentence without supporting the movement makes intuitive sense. But in a way, I think the fact that this has to be pointed out at all is a sign of how dire the status of public discourse has become. We gloss over it because we are far more interested in seeing where a person lands on a predetermined theological-political grid, but I would love to hear more honest talk about how in the world we got to a place  where a sentence can mean a movement: thus, a spectacle whereby saying a sentence marries a person to a set of ideas and hesitating over the ideas means it would be better if a person didn’t say the sentence. This seems disastrous to me. It suggests the impossibility of basic ideals and the blurring of all fundamental observations into activism.

Every Christian ought to joyfully, aggressively assert that black lives matter. Every American to whom the Declaration of Independence is more than prop ought to joyfully and aggressively celebrate the fulfillment of its ideals in the unfolding of justice toward African-Americans. I’m sure there’s a distressing number of American Christians who cannot reconcile themselves to either of these very basic statements. Racism is real and it is an heirloom. To those people we can issue an invitation to repentance, and until such repentance we must work and pray that their presence and influence in churches and government will be proactively marginalized.

I am also sure that there is a large number of American Christians (I think it’s larger than the aforementioned group, though I could be wrong) who endorse those basic sentences but cannot reconcile themselves to the lump of political and theological commitments they think those sentences conceal. It’s this group that I’m interested in, because they are indeed in a tough spot. They’re not in a tough spot because the importance of black lives or of police justice is hopelessly complex—they’re not—but because the extreme polarization of language in our society makes even knowing what all you’re saying very difficult.

Take the issue of defunding police departments. It turns out that “defund” actually may or not mean defund. So if I say I don’t agree with defunding police departments, what I could be telling you is that I don’t agree with abolishing local police BUT I DO think police unions ought to be busted up and qualified immunity scrapped. Or maybe I’m telling you I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the current status quo. The point is this: There’s absolutely no way for you to know what I mean by “I don’t agree with defunding the police” until you ask me what I mean, but there’s no motivation for you to ask me what I mean if there’s an ambient cultural sense that sentences mean movements. “Don’t defund the police” turns into “black lives don’t matter” in the same way that “black lives matter” turns into “defund the police.” If principles are being asked to provide cover for practices, people leery of the practices will appear leery of the principles.

The catastrophic consequences of this for talking about race are obvious. But there are other versions, too.

Take gender and the church. What do you think is being said when you hear something like, “Evangelicalism needs to repent of its treatment of women”? Your answer to that question will almost certainly depend on which movement you think is represented by the statement. If you put aside movements and just deal with the sentence, there could be a lot of truth in that basic statement. We could say pastors ought not cavort together in Facebook groups to demean female authors they dislike. We could say that evangelical men ought not look at pornography and corrupt their ability to love and respect and learn from their sisters in Christ. Those are examples that could generate a lot of unity around a statement like that. But as you probably know, “Evangelicalism needs to repent of its treatment of women” could represent a huge variety of meta-propositional ideas. It could mean evangelicals need to start ordaining women to be pastors. Blurring a sentence into a movement could mean that disagreeing with female ordination cashes out as resentment of any suggestion that women could be mistreated in an evangelical culture.

Is it any wonder that the art of persuasion feels impossible right now? People can be plain ole’ disagreeable, but there’s simply no way to carry productive dialogue when sentences don’t mean themselves. It creates disunity before people even talk to each other. It tilts the balance of social power toward those with the loudest voices instead of the clearest. It gives cover to racists and sexists and heretics, because it’s always the enemies who benefit the most from low-visibility.

And of course, all this is going on in a technological age in which basic reading is compromised by constant distraction, attention to communal responses (e.g., what’s my tribe saying about this?), and a crippling level of self-marketing and brand consciousness. Asking people what they mean takes up valuable characters and is not SEO-savvy.

Clear thinking is possible. But you have to want it more than other things: clout, self-affirmation, expediency, confirmation bias, etc. That’s how it often goes with virtue. There are lots of chances to cultivate it. The biggest hurdle is deciding you want to.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

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