Author Archives: Lace Williams-Tinajero

Shaping beliefs through language

By Contributor Lace Williams-Tinajero

Lace Williams-Tinajero

In “The Ways of Silencing” published last June in The New York Times, Professor Jason Stanley raised a legitimate point on how political propaganda silences people. Stanley’s piece drew plenty of criticism, especially with his comments on pornography. I took interest in what Stanley had to say because he drew from a speech act perspective to argue that no true political discourse takes place in American politics. I began to wonder if the same applies to true religious discourse. If Stanley’s interest is language and the ways of silencing, mine is language and the ways of believing.

Among the 160 plus responses to Stanley’s piece was one I gave. Here it is:

Professor Stanley raises a legitimate point, and I for one am glad that he tackles it with speech acts.

Speech Act Theory is a fancy technical phrase for looking at how a speaker uses language. The title for a collection of William James lectures delivered by J.L. Austin, and published posthumously, captures it best in “How To Do Things with Words.” Speech Act Theory lets us distinguish the various ways that humans employ language. Asking questions, promising, reporting, directing someone to do something, expressing thanks or sympathy — these are types of speech acts. Propaganda is a type of speech act as well, and it ought to be distinguished from assertion. Why?

With each type of speech act, a speaker’s purpose differs greatly. The point or purpose of an assertive is to state what is the case, what is so in the world. An assertion reveals what a speaker believes. John R. Searle says a successful assertive commits the speaker to the truth of the proposition. Only if I believe it is raining can I assert successfully that it is raining.

The point or purpose of propaganda extends far beyond this. A speaker doesn’t necessarily have to believe what she or he is saying. I’m unsure how Searle would classify propaganda — perhaps as an incomplete speech act? Or propaganda may very well fit into Searle’s ‘directive’ category of illocutionary acts. With directives, the speaker desires to get the hearer to do something. With propaganda, the point is to sway, to persuade, to shape the audience’s belief system. It works, quite successfully, by tapping into people’s emotions. It does so either by creating fear and anger or by arousing the fear and anger already there.

As Stanley argues, a speaker can silence the voice of another with certain speech acts. More is at stake, however, than just silencing. Until we recognize the power of propaganda to shape people’s beliefs, beliefs that become nearly impossible to give up, there exists no possibility of bridging the chasms in our political issues.

Conversations on God

By Contributor Lace Williams-Tinajero

Lace Williams-Tinajero

Over the years conversations with people from different religions, atheists and agnostics included, have piqued my curiosity on the direct correlation between language and God.

Here are a few encounters that make me wonder to what extent language reveals the way we think and speak of, believe in, approach and ultimately worship God. One day two Mormon missionaries visited our home and left copies of The Book of Mormon and some pamphlets on family life. Not long afterwards I had a conversation with a Protestant Christian who used portions of the New Testament to argue that God’s will for divorced couples with children is always for them to reconcile. Then I’ve had opportunities to speak with an agnostic who argues how we ‘religious types’ give the impression of having God figured out.

A thought occurred to me. How can you capture a mystery, say a religious experience, with words? The Mormon missionaries who visited had never heard of the word “incarnation.” They did not know what this word meant and that it has to do with Jesus’ virgin birth. For them, the words ‘literal’ and ‘atonement’ capture the essence of Jesus. The example may seem trivial, yet it reveals something important. Incarnational language gives rise to a specific religious context. Such language reinforces what it is exactly Protestants and Catholics believe. Different interpretations of such language bring about the need for ecumenism.

A tension arises when people encounter someone with a different belief system. Before you know it the conversation is about who is right and wrong. What I believe is right. What you believe must be wrong because it’s a threat to my personal belief system. The right-wrong approach has its limits when trying to understand conflicting religious beliefs. Paying attention to language is key for understanding, not converting, one another.

It is clearly the case that sacred texts like The Holy Bible, The Book of Mormon, The Koran and other texts are all deemed sacred by their adherents, that each of these texts reflects the divine experiences of its writers. The language of each deserves credit for influencing, shaping and reinforcing entire religious communities and traditions. Religious tolerance is a human construct. We need to understand and relate to one other as fellow human beings, divine ones.

Parting the sea of 2 faiths, the language that separates Messianic Jews

By Contributor Lace Williams-Tinajero

Lace Williams-Tinajero

One day Rabbi David D’Auria found a red Nazi swastika painted on the sign of his synagogue. Regardless, he answers with a firm “no” when asked if he has ever been targeted or persecuted for being a Messianic Jew. The leader of Kehilat HaMashiach, a Messianic congregation in Spokane Valley, says that anti-Semites, people who hate Jews, target all Jews. Even some of his fellows Jews are suspicious of him. For Christians the rabbi has to prove himself a true follower of Jesus. For Jews he has to prove he’s still Jewish.

At times, such “gross display of ignorance” makes living in Spokane difficult, D’Auria said. Larger metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, Miami and Fort Lauderdale have higher populations of Jews and Messianic Jews. Not so in Spokane, which is mostly homogeneous.

“Spokane is not this international community with many different cultures,” D’Auria said. “When you have interactions between different cultural groups, you have more openness. Spokane feels resistant and non-accepting of different groups.”

One word sets all Messianic Jews apart, Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus). The call for Messianic Jews is obedience to Yeshua while maintaining their Jewish identity. Yeshua is the center of their worship. Yeshua is also the eye of a storm of controversy that swirls around them.

“We are not part of what is traditionally considered Christian or Jewish because of our unique call; yet, we desire the unity in both groups of people — Christians and Jews,” said D’Auria.

As with any religious journey, it is difficult to walk a straight path. The difficulty for Messianic Jews is, “staying to the center of the road when there are two sides pulling you apart, Jews pulling you to be non-Yeshua, and Gentiles pulling you to be less Jewish,” he added.

Yeshua is the most descriptive word for Messianic Jews. It evokes hatred from some non-Yeshua believing Jews. D’Auria indicates for nearly 1,000 years, some ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews refuse to utter the name Yeshua. Instead, they spit on the ground and shorten it to Yeshu, interpreted as false one or traitor. Non-Messianic Jews regard Yeshua as a blasphemous word. They disregard Yeshua because of the harm that has come to Jews in the name of Jesus. In defense of Yeshua, D’Auria rejects this conclusion as sinat hinam (hatred without cause), stemming not from theological reflection but from emotional reaction.

To move forward, more open dialogue in place of emotionally charged reactions is needed. D’Auria answers “yes” to the question of whether it is possible to understand one another’s beliefs based on language.

“From a Messianic Jewish standpoint, belief in Yeshua breaks down some points of compatibility,” he said.

He stands firmly in his belief that Yeshua is God’s promised Messiah to the Jewish people. His sincerity and courage give insight into his character and why he continues on a path that others find so suspicious, even if it comes in the form of a red swastika.