A debate has raged in recent days over where to place the blame for the physical altercations at Donald Trump rallies. Some say the fault is with Trump and his incendiary rhetoric. Others say he is blameless and the fault should be laid entirely at the feet of the MoveOn.org and Black Lives Matter protesters.
As far as Trump is concerned, the Bible is plain that words have real-life consequences for which we will have to answer. Jesus himself told us, “[O]n the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).
James 3:5-8 reminds us that “the tongue is a fire ... setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” The word translated “hell” here is “Gehenna,” a reference to the festering, smoldering, burning garbage dump on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The point here is that words can start destructive and consuming fires. An entire forest can be burned to the ground by one man with a match. A man cannot walk away from inflammatory rhetoric any more than an arsonist can walk away from his torch.
Here are just a few examples of provocative language Trump has used at his rallies, language which has the effect of encouraging physical aggression:
- "I'll beat the crap out of you."
- "Part of the problem ... is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore."
- "The audience hit back. That's what we need a little bit more of."
- "In the good old days this doesn't happen because they used to treat them very, very rough."
- "Try not to hurt him. If you do, I'll defend you in court, don't worry about it."
- "I'd like to punch him in the face."
- "Knock the crap out of them."
- "Maybe he should have been roughed up."
- "I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or if other people will."
We cannot give Trump a pass on this kind of speech just because organized disrupters show up at his rallies. The other candidates in the race do not use this kind of language. Marco Rubio did in one debate, and now regrets it as something that embarrassed not only himself but his children. Sen. Cruz debates protesters rather than calling on his supporters to punch them out.
Nor, to be sure, can we give protesters a pass either. We all get provoked every day by language we find offensive. Part of mature character is responding to such provocative language with self-control rather than fisticuffs or obnoxious and disruptive behavior. The protesters should be held accountable for every bit of their anarchic behavior. Security can and should remove them if they do not behave, and it’s certainly appropriate to press charges against them where criminal behavior has occurred.
It’s fair to say that Donald Trump is accountable for the pugilistic atmosphere he has created at his rallies. There is no reason for evangelicals and other conservatives to give him a pass or excuse his intemerate language. And the protesters must be held accountable for their immature, juvenile, and destructive responses to this atmosphere. Trump is accountable for the atmosphere, and the protesters are accountable for their response to it. No one, Trump included, has covered himself with glory here.
Mr. Trump does not understand that punkish antagonism must not be mistaken for strength and bullying must not be mistaken for leadership. Donald Trump has not learned this lesson. But voters can.