“Whenever speech overwhelms and silences, it is not [an] expression of love.”[i] When speech is not an expression of love, the speaker does not “affirm the freedom and dignity of the one spoken to, but uses him or her for extrinsic purposes. Harvard divinity professor, Harvey Cox, makes these comments in an essay in which he draws out a Biblical concept of God in the way he connects speech and love. The Gospel of John begins, “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God” (1:1). And then verse 14, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” And 1 John 4:16b, “God is love.” So, God is “word” (logos). And God is love. Thus, word is love, or it should be. “Since God’s love/speech is unqualified, we should love all people regardless of whether they qualify.[ii]
Cox’s essay appears in ‘A Common Word,’ which was first a letter written by Muslim scholars, addressed to Christians worldwide. The intent was to call Christians and Muslims together around the two commands present in both faiths: love God and love neighbor. The book by the same title is comprised of essays from scholars of both faiths that further develop the concept of love and how it can, as a topic, be the ground on which Muslims and Christians meet in peace.
Cox insists that love cannot be coerced, only chosen. We can’t be made to love God. We choose to because God has overwhelmed us with his freely given love. But it is that, a gift. The counter-speech, or “antiparable” to use Cox’s speech is seduction and sorcery. Seduction does what Cox wrote that it does; it uses people.
He quotes Goethe’s Faust to illustrate his point, but the conversation moves out of the realm of dry academic writing and into the realm of uncomfortable invasion of personal space when we turn the question. Instead of pointing out how Faust uses people with his speech, we have to ask do we? Do you? Have you spoken in ways, whether bullying or deceiving, browbeating or seducing, in order to get someone to do something for your benefit, but not necessarily for theirs? Have I? You better believe I have.
I have used speech to run down a woman who turned back my romantic overtures. I have spoken violently to intimidate my children just to convince myself I was in control. I have manipulated others for my own ends. I have used speech to use people. People are God’s image-bearers and I have sinned by seeing them as tools for my own personal use. In the thought space of Cox’s essay, that’s seduction, not love.
The second way sin turns love aside is sorcery. “Sorcery mocks and reverses God’s loving speech.”[iii] Lovespeech communicates “in ways that preserve and nourish the freedom and dignity of people addressed.”[iv] Sorcery, robs people of their dignity. Cox sees three forms of sorcery as it exists in modern practice: propaganda, advertising, and complexification.
Of these forms of modern word-sorcery, advertising is especially insidious. Advertising plays on the anxieties that plague people, especially in America. TV watchers and internet users in America are out of shape, isolated, lonely, and sedentary. And they (we Americans) know it. Because we see the emptiness of our own lives, advertisers use beer, shampoo, potato chips, diet plans, dating services, video games, cars, and 1000 other products as ways to rescue us from our anxiety. The anxiety makes us vulnerable and into the space our own insecurity has carved out, advertisers convince us to spend money we don’t have on products we don’t want or need, products that won’t deliver what the advertiser promised. Sorcery is the right word for it.
Christians are to speak and listen to lovespeech. Note the difference. Sorcery deceives and seduction uses. In sorcery, humans – God’s image bearers – are pillaged. In seduction, God’s image bearers are used as tools. In lovespeech, God’s image bearers are given dignity and helped to flourish.
Cox and the other authors in A Common Word urge Muslims and Christians in the world to work for human flourishing by focusing on love of God and love of neighbor. Love is essential in bringing together the billions of adherents to these faiths. Beyond the scope of A Common Word, love softens the hearts of Buddhists and Hindus, Jews and Mormons to one another.
And in the topic that has been my focus in these blog posts – race relations and Christianity - love is the foundation. No attempts at justice or reconciliation will be successful without love.
So, put the question to yourself as you become intention about your own speech. Let this be an exercise in the day ahead. Does your speech promote the dignity of the one to whom you speak? Do your words reveal that you are trying to use that person the way a plumber uses a wrench or other tool? Is your speech lovespeech, speech that helps the other flourish? Or, when you talk, is the other being manipulated, led down paths that will lead to his destruction? Put your own speech to the test. Jesus, the World made Flesh is our guide and our standard. May the meditations of our hearts and the words of our mouths be acceptable in his holy sight.
[i] Harvey Cox (2010), “Love and Speech: with Remarks on Seduction and Sorcery” in A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Loving Neighbor, Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington, editors, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids), p.166.
[ii] Cox, p.165.
[iii] Cox, p.167.