Propaganda and rhetoric are powerful tools, especially in the hands of skilled orators. Language can be a powerfully emotive weapon which can be used to persuade, argue and propose all kinds of views. It can be very difficult to sift fact from emotion in speeches and it can be hard not to be swayed by these tools in the hands of skilled debaters. Throughout history we have seen how politicians in particular can use oratory to persuade us to do things which normally we would not even consider or can motivate us to do things we would normally be reluctant to do. As with most things, this can be used both positively and negatively, to inspire or to condemn. We have all seen a little of this in recent times with government announcements about the coronavirus pandemic, many of which seem to have little solid factual foundation but which use emotive language in many ways to persuade us to an agreed point of view which may or may not be the correct one. The use of statistics can easily be manipulated; as so many have commented, interpretation of these can reach apparently mutually exclusive conclusions, and it’s easy to feel bewildered by the agenda of those making the speeches.
In Acts 16:16-40, we see how Paul and Silas end up being thrown into prison for relatively little: the exorcism of a slave girl means her owners lose access to their means of income (since she is no longer able to earn money by telling fortunes), but they soon resort to emotive language to get their own way. Instead of admitting that they are motivated primarily by the loss of profit, they say, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” (Acts 16:20-21) They appealed to people’s sense of national identity, made people feel afraid of sedition and fuelled anti-Semitism. Their charges had little basis in law (hence Paul’s comments about being a Roman citizen who had been treated illegally at the end of the chapter, which threw the magistrates into a blue funk.) Nonetheless, they seemed to be getting their own way, with the magistrates not even bothering to check out the accusations before handing out a beating and imprisonment.
We need to be careful about our use of language. Eugene Peterson comments that “we cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.” (‘Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places’) Words matter, as the Bible makes plain; Jesus is Himself known as the Word (John 1:1-3). We don’t need a veneer of respectability to our words (something Eugene Peterson describes as ‘religious lace’); we need solid truth and we also need our hearts to be in line with our words. Above all, we need to be soaked in the truth of God’s words, for then we will be guided into all truth. It’s far too easy to be led astray by words, but we need ‘words of insight’ to guide us and lead us (Prov 5:1), gracious words to provide instruction and help (Prov 16:21, 24) and the wisdom to discern between deceptive words and truth.