Don’t Fight – Work!
A few years ago, I was fortunate to attend a 10-day workshop in Minnesota for Christian writers. (I’m not a writer, but I am a Christian. One out of two ain’t bad.) I thought it would help me as a preacher to have an immersion experience with people who use words for a living. I was right. It was transforming, if a little humiliating.
The humiliating part was having my writing torn to shreds by my colleagues. It was all done with grace and with the goal of all of us learning from each other. And yet, it was still so devastating that we all considered taking an Uber to the airport early.
The transforming part? Metaphors – those non-literal pictures that communicators use to brighten their prose and teach deep truths. I learned all about them. I discovered just how powerful they are. I came to value them but also to be wary of them, to treat them with respect, to choose them carefully. You see, metaphors have the power to shape lives. So, make sure you pick them with thought.
Take, for example, a metaphor I read in an article the other day. The writer was describing the arrival of asylum-seekers at the southern border. She was extremely supportive of the refugees and had great empathy for their suffering. Her article was a long and passionate plea to us to care for immigrants and respect their stories. And yet, she used a word – a metaphor – that, to me, undermined her whole article. It appeared in the phrase “Little children flooding the southern U.S. border.”
Floods. God spare us from floods. Floods are always bad (think about it – has there ever been a ‘good’ flood?) At best, a flood will destroy the things in your basement; at worst it will claim thousands of lives. Floods bring loss, destruction, and death. They bring nothing beneficial. So, when the writer uses the ‘flood’ metaphor to describe the arrival of immigrants she undermines her argument. Deep down (which is where metaphors do their work) we sense that she thinks these children are threats to our safety. They may even lead to our destruction. This is a tragic error by the author because it is the exact opposite of her intention.
I apologize for pointing out the obvious, but our national politics is dominated by rancor and ill-will. The reasons are many and complex. But I believe that the use of unhelpful and even destructive metaphors is part of the problem. Take violent or military metaphors, for example. “We must fight to protect our way of life… We must fight for our rights… the war on drugs/poverty/terror/Covid/you-name-it.” I want to suggest that the metaphor of fighting is unfortunate and leads to unhelpful attitudes and actions. When we use militaristic language, it becomes easier to see people who disagree as enemies, and in the minds of some, violence may become a justifiable option.
Instead, why don’t we use other metaphors? May I suggest ‘work’ instead of ‘fight’? It still implies focus, determination, courage and hard slog. But it doesn’t imply violence. In fact, it can imply partnership. We can ‘work’ with allies and with others to correct injustice or protect rights. Enemies can become partners. The real foe is an ungodly idea or practice – not people. See what I mean? I may be naïve. Actually, I’m pretty certain I am. But if politicians said, “Send me to DC and I’ll work for you” it might create a more harmonious culture than saying, “Send me to DC and I’ll fight for you”.
Among other things, Jesus was a master of metaphors. His ‘I am’ statements tell us so much more about him than straightforward descriptions could. “I am the Good Shepherd; I am the Vine; I am the Bread of Life; I am the Resurrection; I am the Light of the world; I am the Door; I am the Way.” Beautiful, powerful metaphors that touch us where literal language would not reach.
So, as children of the light, (great metaphor, eh?) we are committed to peace, transparency, holiness, compassion, and Christ. So let us think about our language, and especially the metaphors we use each day – sometimes without even realizing we are using them. And may the peace of Christ dwell in our hearts richly.