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“Set a Guard Over My Mouth, O Lord”
The Church’s Response to Violent Speech
About the author: Nancy J. Duff is the Stephen Colwell Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Emerita at Princeton Theological Seminary. She taught Christian Ethics at Princeton Seminary for 25½ years before retiring in December 2020. She published a book on death and dying titled Making Faithful Decisions at the End of Life (Westminster John Knox, 2018) and recently co-edited a book of Paul Lehmann's essays with Ry O. Siggelkow and Brandon K. Watson, The Revolutionary Gospel: Paul Lehmann and the Direction of Theology Today (Lexington/Fortress, 2022). She has served on the Ethics Committee at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center for over 25 years and is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
On December 3, 2020, Rudy Giuliani published a highly edited surveillance video of Georgia election workers counting ballots on election night, falsely claiming that it showed suitcases of ballots for Joe Biden being pulled from under desks and then those ballots being run several times through voting machines.1 Seven days later, Giuliani showed another video of election workers on that same night, claiming that Shaye Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, were “quite obviously and surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they were vials of heroin or cocaine.” (Ruby Freeman was actually handing her daughter a ginger mint.) A month later, in a phone call to Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, then President Donald Trump referred to Ruby Freeman eighteen times, describing her as “a professional vote scammer and hustler.”
As a result of these highly publicized lies, the two women received hundreds of threats, including references to hanging and images of burning crosses. For their own safety, the FBI advised them to go into hiding until inauguration day. Both women stopped saying their names in public, fearful of what someone would do if they were recognized. Ruby Freeman gave up her long-established nickname, “Lady Ruby,” which she had used to build a business, and Shaye Moss told the January 6 Committee, “I don’t want anyone knowing my name.”
When Donald Trump told Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that his refusal to find him votes was “going to be very costly in many ways,” he intended his words to be a threat. In truth, his lies have been costly in many ways. They cost Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman their names, their reputations, and their sense of security. They aren’t alone. One in six election workers across the US report having received death threats, and in 2022 threats to members of Congress more than doubled compared to 2018. This increase in threats began in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump, who helped normalize the use of violent speech. In testifying before the January 6 Select Committee, Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, cites several surveys indicating a rise in the acceptance of violence against one’s political opponents in the US. While the acceptance of violence (which increased in both parties) was greater among Republicans, both Republicans and Democrats have been recipients of violent threats as can be seen in the examples given below.
Types of Violent Speech
We can consider violent speech in three forms: the use of violent metaphors; indirect (but clear) messages meant to motivate others to act violently; and direct death threats. Consider these examples:
The Use of Violent Metaphors. (1) Referring to federal bureaucrats Ron DeSantis said, “We are going to start slitting throats on Day One,” and similarly that he wants a Defense Secretary ready to “slit some throats.” (2) In an ad campaign for US Senate, Former Gov. Eric Greitens (R-MO) held a rifle, saying, “We’re going RINO hunting,” followed by images of soldiers in tactical gear firing guns while breaking into a home. Greitens says, “Join the MAGA crew. Get a RINO hunting license. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country.” Greitens later defended the ad saying he was just speaking metaphorically.
Indirect (but clear) messages for others to act violently. (1) When Donald Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” he was encouraging a violent, rightwing group, to be prepared to act, violently if necessary, on his behalf. (2) When Trump claimed in June 2015 that Mexicans crossing the border are rapists, bringing drugs and crime with them, he was purposely feeding the kind of prejudice and fear that can lead to violent acts against Mexican immigrants.
Direct death threats. (1) In November 2019, Representative Rodney Davis (R-Illinois) received a voice message in which the caller, identifying himself as a trained sharpshooter, said he wanted to blow the congressman’s head off. (2) When the Electoral College confirmed Joe Biden’s victory in 2020, Ryder Winegar, a 34-year-old man from Amherst, New Hampshire, called six members of Congress (both Republicans and Democrats) threatening to hang them if they failed to support Donald Trump. As we approach the 2024 election, there is rising fear that the increase in violent speech will escalate to physical violence either committed by mob attacks, such as in the January 6 Capitol riot, or by rogue individuals.
What Can We Do?
Karl Barth believed that just as a church building stands next to schools, theaters, and train stations, “the area of the church stands in the world.”2 Christians, he wrote, are publicly responsible for their faith, because the church exists for the sake of the world.3 In the world in which the church now exists in the US, increasing numbers of people are accepting the normalization of violent speech against political enemies. Whether the victims of this speech are individuals with little power, such as poll workers in Georgia, or people who hold power, such as members of Congress, the threats embedded in violent speech make them vulnerable and afraid. For the church in our time and place to exist for the sake of the world and to avoid becoming what Barth calls “a community of the quiet,”4 the church needs to be keenly aware of particular instances of violent speech such as those described here, how numerous they have become, how potentially destructive they are of individuals and of our democracy, and to speak out in protest. The church cannot allow itself to take on the guilt of the silent bystander.
Also, the church and its individual members can aim to resist the temptation to respond in kind. We are right to be angry and to condemn the violent speech of others, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged people not to take up the tools of their enemies, we need to be mindful of our own speech, avoiding the use of violent metaphors and direct or indirect threats of violence. Now is the time to beseech God to set a guard over our mouth (Psalm 141:3). And if we agree that “the words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing,” (Proverbs 12:18), we can be publicly responsible for our faith by both condemning violent speech and seeking to speak words of healing to the victims and to our broken nation.
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For an evaluation of the video, see “Georgia election officials shows frame-by-frame of State Farm Arena Election Night video (WSB-TV)”:
Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, trans. G.T. Thomson (London: SCM Press, 1949), 31.
Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 32.
Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 31.