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Paul Graves: Rhetoric has meaning, and costs

Paul Graves

It’s my turn to weigh in on the power of words in our lives – primarily because words in today’s American culture have become so cheaply used. But words cost everyone a lot, especially when they cause anger and misunderstanding in an “exchange of words.” I don’t think we actually exchange words. We only use words to usually exchange information and misinformation, but emotions are always there. We may sometimes use words to communicate what’s in our heads, but we always use words, for better or worse, to share what’s in our hearts.

Any political campaign, from national to local, is a great example of how words can be used so cheaply to communicate whatever fears, angers, or hopes the candidates use to persuade voters to vote for them. Political rhetoric is not, however, a reality show. It deals with real life.

Let’s use Donald Trump as an example. I am not a fan of Mr. Trump. He uses fearful and angry words, and doesn’t seem to care what others think about his words. He makes a big deal about not being “politically correct.” The history of that term suggests why.

Until I checked that history, I really didn’t know how it had been claimed in the 1930s by political conservatives. They made into a paranoid ideology that targets so-called “liberals.”

I’ve tried to practice PC simply to show respect to other people. But I didn’t see the word “respect” used in any of the explanations of the term, even at Wikipedia. Too bad.

Rhetoric – “art of the orator” – matters because our mouths most often reflect so much about what happens deep in our hearts. The letter of James in the New Testament clearly reminds us of that. James 3:1-12 is identified in some versions as “Taming the Tongue.”

In “The Message,” James 3:8 states “This is scary: You can tame a tiger but you can’t tame a tongue – it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!”

Trump? You bet. The rest of us? Certainly.

We all have the same kind of tongues. But let’s consider Trump’s recent “come to Jesus” moment with a group of evangelical pastors. Does his faith move him to use his tongue to bless all persons being made in God’s image – or only the “right and safe” persons being made by God.

I sadly and angrily see him use “political correctness” to divide people into “good or bad.” I try to use that term to remind me that all persons deserve my respect as human beings, that “PC” needn’t force me to welcome certain persons and dismiss others – particularly those with whom I strongly disagree.

I try to appreciate Trump’s rhetorical bombast as it helps me clarify my own desire for political policies and practices that affirm all persons – not just those deemed worthy by any particular politician.

If you happen to believe a person should not use his faith-understanding to “get political,” I respectfully remind you of one reality that you won’t likely see on a reality show:

Healthy politics is a faithful (trusting) act. So faith (from all traditions, not only Christianity) is meant to inform how we live together with others, not dictate how we must live separately from each other.

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is the founder of Elder Advocates. He can be contacted at

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