John Ames, narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful book Gilead, raises a fascinating question about the relationship between words and actions.
He describes midway through the novel the similarities between the stories of Abraham & Isaac and Hagar & Ishmael—in both instances Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice both of his sons and in both instances the sons are saved by ministering angels.
These similarities led Ames to think about cruelty towards children and how much room for misinterpretation there is by saying that “the child is within the providential care of God” (p. 130). Ames links this sentiment to a common argument heard both inside and outside religious circles: namely, that if a body or being greater and more powerful than my individual self claims responsibility for the care of another, then I am absolved of responsibility and can behave how I want.
Or, in Ames’ formulation, if the oppressed are within the providence of God, then “it will be taken by some people to mean that it is not a grave thing, an evil thing, to insult or oppress” (p. 130).
We don’t need to be familiar with the teaching of the Bible to know that this claim is as gravely incorrect as any other falsity. Indeed, Christ teaches that it would be better for someone who causes a child to sin to be thrown into the sea with a heavy stone tied about his or her neck.
“That is strong language, but there it is,” John Ames sums up.
The relationship between saying that children (in this example) are in the providential care of God and the corresponding action or inaction is one I am having difficulty parsing out, but what follows is an attempt mainly in the form of “if/thens” and questions.
- If words are only words that the individual hears or says and these words are taken to have no correspondence with ethical behavior (action) on the part of the hearer or speaker, then the hearer or speaker bears no responsibility to those words. Better, then, that they were just inarticulate noises.
- If words are only actions and the individual hearing them “doesn’t listen to the meaning of words” (p. 130) as John Ames says, then the hearer doesn’t bear any responsibility for interpreting those words. The hearer is only able to/allowing him- or herself to react to them on the level of stimulus response. Ames explains this position as follows: “He just decides whether they are hostile, and how hostile they are. He decides whether they threaten him or injure him, and he reacts at that level” (131).
- If words are balanced by actions (in the “faith without works is dead” way of Saint James’ epistle), then the individual recognizes that the words he or she uses have a responsibility to concrete reality and not just realms of abstract thought and signifiers. The user or hearer of words recognizes that using words is part of a contract with reality, with God, with others, and with oneself. Thus, if I say, “Caring for people is a virtue,” or “We should care for people,” then I am responsible to carry out those words, on my own, as I am able, since I used those words and set them into the world. If I defer my responsibility for me language, then I return to proposition 1. To say “Caring is a virtue” and then say “God should…” or “Government should…” without taking any steps of my own towards caring—to say these things and then not act on them is tantamount to keeping words abstract and denying my responsibility for the words I use since I can thrust responsibility onto a larger and more abstract entity than I.
These three positions seem consistent to me; they seem to be the three available options when we speak about our use of language and ethics. If Christ tells us to love people or to care for the poor, and we say in response, “Oh, let the government pass a law that…” or “Oh, the Church should be doing…” without taking individual, non-systemic action—in a word, action on the level of the personal, the “You-and-I-alone-without-governing-bodies”—then we are guilty of breaching our contract with the world.
We are guilty, I believe, every time we make an ethical claim and then dodge individual, personal responsibility for that claim while at the same time shunting the responsibility onto some other body.
We are equally guilty, it is true, when we refuse to consider words above the threat/non-threat level. If we only use the dialectical of “These words are an attack” and “These words are not an attack,” we perhaps give too much power to language, breaking the balance between words and actions. An example of this might be how people react to novels with vulgar language or content in it: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has sadly seen antihistorical redactions and challenges in court.
At my high school, a mother got Fahrenheit 451 banned because the words “damn” and “hell” were in it in the form of profanity.
I suppose these examples are akin to discussions of banning speech, where certain things people say are considered to be an attack or a threat and (importantly) nothing other than an attack or threat. In a word, this language people want to ban is never treated with grace or mercy or understanding—never taken to be spoken out of real fear, real hurt, or any other real human experience that ought to be taken seriously and understood.
That is something compelling and convicting to consider. It is something I need to think about more before I have any clearly consistent position to take, but if we hold the third proposition above to be true and reject the first and second as having disastrous flaws and consequences, then the above example would certainly be damning of and should be convicting to those among us who want to be considered virtuous out of pride and in the hopes of visibility and meaning and connection.
I think the takeaway here, where I want to leave it, is that not only do ideas have consequences and thereby associated responsibilities on the part of the individual person (look at Christianity, Islam, National Socialist Germany, Stalinist/Leninist Russia, Venezuela today, and/or the crony and venture versions of capitalism), not only these but also words have consequences and responsibilities that go with them.
If this claim is true, and I doubt that anyone can coherently and convincingly argue that ideas and words are without consequences and responsibilities, then it is more and more vital that each of us develop a consistent ethics, one whose parts are not in contradiction with each other or with the whole.
This contract we make with ourselves and the world and, hopefully, with God must rid itself of any claims that are mutually exclusive and in contradiction so as not to compromise the validity and efficacy of that contract.
How wonderful would be to then say, at the end of our lives that we have lived the good life, which as Saul Bellow writes in Mr. Sammler’s Planet is to do what is required of us (cf. p. 260, Penguin Classics edition)? And to be able to say, at the inevitable end, that we have fulfilled the terms of our contract.