Yesterday’s horrific news of active shooters in two American cities underscores both the prevalence of violence in our society, and the trends that encourage borderline or anti-social personalities to engage in acts of bigotry, violence and oppression. And while no one suggests that Bob Malm or Grace church overtly support violence, the rhetoric the church engages in does, I think, contribute in a small way to these larger issues.
Specifically, in recent years we have seen an increase in hate-filled, disrespectful rhetoric across all levels of society. In many instances, this rhetoric is justified based on the desired outcome—an approach that, until now, was considered unacceptable in mainstream society. So whether it’s winning an election, or barring asylum-seekers, or simply getting the upper hand in a dispute, many forms of rhetoric previously off limits are now fair game.
The sad reality, too, is that words matter. Words hurt. Words can cause violence and hatred. Borderline personalities by definition need little to set them off, and the disaffected and marginalized in our society may already feel anger and resentment.
In the case of Grace Church, the rhetoric coming from Bob Malm and Jeff Chiow, with its references to “domestic terrorism” and other inflammatory language, is highly inappropriate. Using language of this sort tells people that this sort of conduct is okay, both within church and within society at large, as it demonstrates disrespect for others. After all, if a priest can try to go after perceived enemies by referring to those individuals as “dysfunctional” and “terrorists,” and “starved for attention,” including in discussions with the church vestry and diocesan staff, then some inevitably will conclude that this sort of rhetoric is an acceptable way to solve problems.
At the same time, using these buzzwords to describe online criticism, and taking words out of context, is disrespectful to the very real human tragedy confronting many Americans. For Bob Malm and Grace Church to claim that they are victims of “domestic terrorism” is a grave injustice to all who have lost loved ones or otherwise been traumatized by violence. The reality is the Bob has lived a privileged life of very little work, and a whole lot of leisure, while those affected by the violence of El Paso and Dayton now face lives of enduring sorrow and pain.
Inflammatory rhetoric of the sort deployed by Grace Church, Bob Malm and Jeff Chiow also demonstrates profound disrespect for the first responders involved in these and other tragedies. When the risk and sacrifice these women and men make is trivialized into nothing more than the rhetoric for a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) case, as here, society looks past the very real courage, commitment and bravery that is called upon in situations such as this.
Of course, this sort of conduct also makes a mockery of the baptismal covenant. That said, I long ago realized that the latter means nothing to Bob Malm and Jeff Chiow—it’s just a bunch of empty words that get said on Sundays, with no larger meaning for day-to-day life. Like the Nicene Creed, pretty, quaint words, but nothing more.
Meanwhile, as one of our Supreme Court justices noted, the best defense against misuse of the free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment is more free speech. I therefore will continue to spread word far and wide of the toxic mess that is Grace Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. In doing so, people can form their own opinions. And ironically enough, Bob’s choice of rhetoric is a lose-lose situation for the church: If true, people will stay away. If false, people will stay away.
At this point, nothing Bob Malm or Grace Church can do is likely to repair any time soon the harm Bob Malm has inflicted upon this particular faith community. Bob’s rhetoric is hateful and ugly, as are his lies, and there’s simply no avoiding those issues.