“What Do We Mean By Radical”

“What Do We Mean By Radical”
By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
September 18, 1954

It is commonly assumed that the purpose of language is to convey meaning; but this is not necessarily so. Language can be used to obscure meaning; it can be vacant of meaning; it can transmit a false meaning so as to hide or disguise the truth. There is no assurance at all that merely because words have been spoken, something substantial has been communicated.

This seems to have been understood by the writers of the Old Testament, or at any rate by one of them, since we read in the Book of Job that God himself once complained of it. “Who is this,” he asks, “that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” And he goes on to demand that Job conduct himself like a man and give forthright answers to the questions that will be proposed to him.

It would be a good thing, I believe, if this could be made a contemporary requirement. For it would be hard to imagine a time when there was more darkening of counsel by words without knowledge. Again and again, language is used, not to describe a situation accurately, or to characterize a person honestly, but to convey false impressions—impressions which may have come to confuse even the speaker himself so that he may suppose them to be tolerably reliable. The fact is, apparently, that language may become a substitute for reality, like the pieces in a chess game or a pack of cards, whereupon the mentalities of those affected by the substitution are possessed by a sort of systematic fantasy—a fantasy, that is, in which there are uniformities, sequences, enunciable identities and indeed an entire false world superimposed upon the real world, which it supersedes and hides.

One of the most recent cases in which this process may be seen at work—and on, I suppose, that would occur to almost any of us, once we began to consider the matter—is that in which the term “Fith Amendment” is employed as a prefix. A person who refuses to testify to the truth or falsehood of Communist associations and who seeks the protection of the Fifth Amendment against the possibility of self-incrimination is called a “Fifth Amendment Communist.” He may, of course, be a Communist. This is the question that remains in doubt. But what he certainly cannot be is a Fifth Amendment Communist, since the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution is designed to protect him, not to incriminated him. However, by the use of this epithet, the entire question of guilt or innocence, truth or falsehood, is passed over and the victim becomes, through the misuse of words, a condemned person without benefit of trial, and irrespective of the realities. And this happens, as I say, because a repetitive form of words has been substituted for what is actually so, and takes the place of reality.

Now, it seems, the tables have been somewhat turned and we are hearing at times of a “Fifth Amendment Senator”—a Senator, that is to say, who refused to testify before a Senatorial Committee about such matters as personal finances, possibly because his testimony might embarrass him. Now, as a matter of fact, this Senator did not take refuge in the provisions of the Fifth Amendment; he merely stayed away from the Committee hearings. But this makes him in the eyes of some who have become familiar with his won vocabulary, a “Fifth Amendment Senator.” I do not pretend to be much upset by his predicament. In a rough-and-ready way, there is a certain justice in it. “With what measure ye mete,” says the New Testament, “it shall be measured to you again.” Nevertheless, if we have a proper regard for fact, we shall note that the Senator, whatever else may be true about him, has not sought the shelter of the Fifth Amendment. But the, as I say, words and realities can be far apart these days. I have even been told that in secluded placed in the mountains of Kentucky, some of the farmers make a beverage which is now being referred to as “Fifth Amendment Bourbon.”

The worst offenders in the use of the words to obscure realities are, of course, the Communists. They have developed it into an elaborate art. By ‘peace’ they mean an unrestricted opportunity for Communist aggression; by ‘people’s democracy’ they mean a political system in which the people have no voice and which is deeply antagonistic to democracy; by ‘truth’ they mean whatever they have decided it is best for them that we believe—and so with most things else.

But the Communists are not the only ones who use words to “darken counsel.” We do it in the United States—and we do it habitually. Suppose a person were to drive from here to Richmond, Virginia, and took literally the advertisements he saw at the succession of gasoline stations. He would no sooner have put ten gallons of the best of all gasolines into the tank of his car than he would have to empty it out to make room for the one and only gasoline that was better than the best. If, while he stopped for lunch at a picnic reservation, he glanced at his newspaper, he would be in even worse trouble with the advertisements of television sets. Each of them is so much better than all the others, producing a brighter picture by the twiddling of fewer knobs, that he might conclude that the only thing to do was to wait until the controversy had been settled—or some informed and candid friend might tell him what the advertisements never discuss at all: namely, that no matter what make of television set you buy, there will seldom be anything on it that is worth seeing.

To come, however, to the particular word I am offering for consideration this morning, how many people have any clear idea what they mean when they call an idea or a person radical? To what extent do they consult the realities at all? What do they do except play with words as children do with toy money? Or perhaps I should say with toys that are turned into weapons—weapons that are very carelessly used.

According to the dictionary, radical means that which goes to the root of things: which, surely, must often be an excellent thing to do. But this is not at all in the minds of those who use the word most frequently. When they call a person a radical, they want to convey that he is working for changes—usually political or economic changes—which to other people seem disagreeable or dangerous. And very frequently, they associate these changes with Communism.

Now, it is true, I think, that in certain respects, a Communist is radical. He wants to change our political and economic system—indeed, our entire way of life—and he is willing to do it by force. This does go to the root of things; in fact, it uproots them. Yet, the changes themselves are not progressive—by which I mean beneficial to human welfare. They are reactionary—by which I mean they revert to practices which have been condemned by human experience and which we hoped had been left behind in the past. A person can be a radical and be utterly opposed to Communism—that is to say, he can wish to go to the root of things and make drastic changes and yet repudiate entirely the sort of changes that Communists would make. That thing a really adult mind would be interested in would not be what name can the man be called, but what does the man want? Let us discover it, weigh it, consider it, and decide whether it is beneficial or harmful, good or bad. Nothing whatever has been contributed by condemning the man with a senseless epithet.

Today, however, if you hold non-conformist views of any sort, you are likely to be called a radical. This is not true, of course, of all views. I happen to hold the non-conformist view that the budget of the United States should be balanced. But no one will call me a radical for this. They will probably say they agree with me, but that they are opposed to higher taxes. But if I say that I believe that everyone should have economic security in old age, or that a way should be found so that all who are sick should have good medical care, or that we should have a large-scale economic program to help the peoples of Asia—then, I am a ‘radical.’ Not a red radical, but quite blushingly pink! At the same used to be said, of course, if you believed in radical equality and non-segregation—but that is a bit more difficult now. After all, it is not very convincing if you call the Supreme Court of the United States radical, or refer to its decisions as being colored in one degree or another with pink.

And as I understand it, that is certainly confirmed by religion. Who was more radical than Jesus? He wanted people who hat each other or who are bored with each other, who irritate each other or are utterly cold to each other. Well, Jesus said that they should love one another. They should go to the root of things—within themselves. And as a result, they should love God with all their hearts and their neighbors as themselves. Which, of course, Christians, although deeply respectful to Jesus, have steadfastly refused to do. To get this requirement out of sight, they have built up a whole system of fantasy—the creeds and dogmas and the entire fabric of orthodox theology. This makes it possible to substitute words for reality. You can recite the Apostles’ Creed and feel orthodox; this saves you from having to recite the Sermon on the Mount and know yourself a miserable sinner.

Words, words, words! It is the most ancient of all the tricks man plays upon his mind—but it never seems to grow old. Substitute a system of words for the realities—and then keep your mind safely within the system and the realities locked out.

“Do unto others as ye would that others should do unto you.” Is there any command more than that that goes to the root of things? Anything more radical? Would it not change the world—and all the people in it more drastically than any proposal that has ever been put forward?

The conclusion is inescapable that if Jesus walked the earth today, he would be regarded not only as a radical but as a very dangerous one. Yet he would propose no new political system; at least, he didn’t when he did walk the earth. I doubt that he would say much about systems of economics. He didn’t think these things were sufficiently radical. He would say things about people. As, of course, he did, and very emphatically, about the Scribes and Pharisees. And that is what would be so upsetting. He would look at people and at what they were doing, and he would tell what he saw. It would be the truth and it would be unbearable.

But it would also be the truth that could save us—if we acted upon it. That is how it often is with things radical. A surgical operation can be radical—some of them are called so quite accurately. But it can be much more dangerous not to have the operation than to undertake it. To conserve life—or anything else that is precious—radical measures are sometimes necessary.

They are not always necessary. They are sometimes so. And this, surely, should indicate our attitude. We should use words not to obscure meanings, to “darken counsel,” but to communicate realities. And we should never be afraid of honest communication. If an idea is drastic and bad, we should consider it and discover why it is bad. It is not necessarily bad because it is drastic or unusual or disturbing when we first encounter it. It is only bad because, upon examination, we discover that its results are likely to be bad. Similarly, an idea, whether drastic or not, can be found on its merits to be good. We do not know until we have rationally considered it.

It is time, therefore, that we stopped playing, like children, with words. Or being made afraid by epithets. What we need is to reach the realities. If, because a man’s ideas are strange to me, or I feel that they would be unwelcome, I dismiss the man or his ideas as radical, I cheat myself. Yes, it is myself I cheat rather than him! I refuse to consider something that might be for my benefit. And if it would not be for my benefit, I prevent myself from knowing this by honest thought arriving at an honest opinion. And so I have debased my mind. I have declared my want of confidence in my own candor. But if I seek the realities conveyed by words. And weigh them, search them, try to understand them, I am better for it whether in agreement or in disagreement.

Yet, how far we are from that! The words ring in the air and the meanings are far from us. We are dazed by the sound of screaming voices and the realities march on unnoticed. How long must it be before we learn to ask, “What is the meaning?” Not the word that drugs the mind, but the meaning that gives health to it. I think of a man, an investigator for the Government, who comes to see me at the church. “You know Mr. So-and-so?” he asks. “Yes, I know him.” “Do you know whether he has any radical associations?” And I suppress a smile. (One must not smile in the presence of a Government investigator.) “Radical associations?” I want to reply. “Well, he’s associated with this church where we preach the brotherhood of man and the love of one’s neighbor as oneself. I don’t know how deeply he believes in what this church teaches but love and brotherhood are surely radical. They shouldn’t be after all these centuries, but they are. Yes, my friend, and that is our danger. That these things are still radical—still would require drastic change—after all this time.” That is what I want to reply.

But I do not do it. I know my cue. I know what is required. I must take the situation as is comes to me. And so I say, “No, I cannot imagine his having radical associations.” Which, in a foolish world, is the right answer to a foolish question. In the sense intended by the inquiry, the reply is true. The man who is being investigated is strongly opposed to Communism, he is not interested in drastic political changes, he does not belong to anything that stirs Congressional Committees with the tremors have penetrated all his secrets. At one time, he may have been surreptitious single-taxer, or a furtive vegetarian!…. More seriously, what would we be worth—any of us—if at sometime we had not wanted to turn the world upside down?

I admit that I would like to do it even now—because if anything is obvious it is that the world is not the right side up. If it is freedom we want, and justice, and a decent, kindly, peaceful world—what are we doing to get what we want?

But let us leave that question—at least for now. Let us stay with one question at a time. What are we doing to dissolve this fantasy of words that convey no useful meaning, this “darkening of counsel by words without knowledge?” Perhaps it was distress at this abuse of language that made Jesus recommend to his disciples that they say only ‘yea’ and ’nay.’ Obviously, he did not mean that their only communication should be through these two words. He himself used all the words he needed to convey what he wanted to say. But that is the purpose for which he used words. And that, I think, is what he was advising: that words be used in simplicity and in relation to realities. Not to obscure meaning but to make them plain.

As the Sarum Missal puts it—and no words could be simpler:
God be in my head,
And in my understanding;
God be in my eyes,
And in my looking;
God be in my mouth,
And in my speaking;
God be in my heart,
And in my thinking;
God be at my end,
And at my departing.

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