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…consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship, to proclaim that which the Speaker on Sinai hath set forth and to observe fairness in all matters. They that are endued with sincerity and faithfulness should associate with all the peoples and kindreds of the earth with joy and radiance, inasmuch as consorting with people hath promoted and will continue to promote unity and concord, which in turn are conducive to the maintenance of order in the world and to the regeneration of nations. Blessed are such as hold fast to the cord of kindliness and tender mercy and are free from animosity and hatred. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 35-36.
The purpose of language is to communicate. It can be used to educate and inform, or to obscure and confuse—to build bridges or to drive wedges. Earlier in this series, I wrote about writers who have divisive agendas. Because of the nature of Baha’u’llah’s teachings and the religious culture they inspire, the Baha’i agenda tends toward using language to build bridges between people. But that’s not true of everyone—especially those who attack other religious beliefs.
Some Christian apologists use language to create barriers, simply because their cultural imperative is toward separation and distinction from other faiths rather than unity with them. They divide humanity into the “saved” and the “unsaved,” and try to make them distinguishable from each other. I’m ashamed to admit that I used to say, “I don’t believe in religion. I’m a Christian.” In my naïve view at the time, religion was man-made; only the Christian faith was from God and hence, a real faith. In this realm, language becomes a tool of division, exclusion and disunity.
Let’s take a look at some of the tools used to shape the reader’s or listener’s thoughts and understandings about a subject. The first one that comes to mind is…
You often see this tactic in TV legal dramas. An attorney knows the judge will have a particular question stricken from the record, but he asks it anyway, because he also knows that the jury cannot “unhear” it.
In philosophical discourse, or in a discussion about religious beliefs, the writer or speaker makes a statement, then retracts it in some way, perhaps by stating that it cannot be proved, or that he has no evidence for it, or that he’s just hypothesizing, but that he’s certain to one degree or another of the truth of the statement. So, the statement is essentially retracted, but once the listener or reader has taken it in, it cannot be unread or unheard. You’ll often see this tactic used in anti-religious rhetoric.
For example, the Lutheran Reverend JK van Baalen, in his 1938 book Chaos of the Cults, states that a Baha’i who leaves the faith (usually a woman, since this is a “ladies’ cult,” according to the author) “has good reason to hide as far as possible out of reach from the leaders of this loving cult. The last statement can, in the nature of the case, not be backed up by references; but the author vouches for its truth.” (p. 89)
This is masterfully done—if you like propaganda. The reader is not likely to remember that Mr. van Baalen said he had no references to show in evidence of his assertion, but they will remember that ex-Baha’is have some unstated reason to hide—an absurd claim, but one that does two things simultaneously. It uses an unfounded fear tactic, and then the fear tactic camouflages the author’s claim that the Baha’i Faith is some kind of cult.
There’s a very good reason Mr. van Baalen cannot back up his statements with actual references—they refute his assertions. They’re simply untrue, and in the way of most propaganda, they play on the emotions rather than relying on actual verifiable facts.
The Baha’i teachings ask us to do exactly the opposite:
Consort with all men, O people of Baha, in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. If ye be aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and good-will. If it be accepted, if it fulfill its purpose, your object is attained. If any one should refuse it, leave him unto himself, and beseech God to guide him. Beware lest ye deal unkindly with him. A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning… – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 289.
Next time, I’d like to talk about colorful language.
Next: Adding Color: Every Word Endowed with a Spirit