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A Rabbi, an Ayatollah and a Pundit

June 22, 2009

The title of my blog sounds like the beginning of a bad joke - a rabbi, an ayatollah and a pundit go into a bar... However, I actually have something quite serious in mind: the use of speech in the exercise of authority. The rabbi is Jesus, the Ayatollah is Khamenei, the "Supreme Leader" of Iran, and the pundit is Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. Each of them has authority in their own right because they have people who listen to them.  

In the gospel story from the third Sunday after Pentecost (June 21), Jesus stills the storm with three words, "Peace!  Be Still!" (Mark 4:41).  The disciples marvel that even the wind and the waves listen to him, for he has an authority like no other.  He uses his authoritative words to reign in the violence of the storm that had caused the disciples such fear.

In contrast, the Ayatollah Khamenei, in his speech before a throng of listeners at Friday prayers in Iran, unleashed the potential for a storm of violence when he declared that if  the protesters gather peacefully in opposition, they bear responsibility for any violence perpetrated against them. His tacit permission to the security forces in the country to use any means necessary against the protesters has resulted in a rising tide of violence in that country.

While political pundit may have fewer levers of power, people listen to Bill O'Reilly and his words do influence the actions of others.  His persistent characterization of Dr. George Tiller as "Tiller the baby killer"  dehumanized the doctor and stirred the winds of passion for those who violently oppose abortion.  O'Reilly's words may have contributed to the "perfect storm" resulting in the murder of Dr. Tiller in the narthex of his church in Wichita, Kansas.

The word for "listen" in Greek, the original language of the New Testament, is also the word for obey.  Those who have listeners have authority -  their words can influence action. All three, the rabbi, the Ayatollah and the pundit prove this truth:  sticks and stones may break bones, and words can hurt or heal.

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