Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Language in Christian Rhetoric

In their respective texts “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Peter-Hans Kolvenbach postulate heavily on institutional justice. Kolvenbach, for one, addresses ministry within institutions of higher education and a university’s function and vocation as a bastion of solidarity between faith and justice, religion and education. On the other hand, Martin Luther King addresses, with a poignant directness and urgency, the paternalistic institutions of government and Church, delineating both their present shortcomings and their wished-for reparations. Both men, at the conclusions of their respective texts, propound a methodology by which this salient injustice can be countered and supplanted with justice, a justice that is proactive, faith-minded, and borne out through “’travel and toil’” (Kolvenbach 41).
Evidently, the two texts are positive reinforcements of one another, complementary pieces authored by like-minded social reformers who espouse a common agenda. However, though the ultimate agendas and objectives of the texts are comparative, the way in which each author conveys these agendas and objectives is distinctly unique. More specifically, the language that pervades each text is ruled by certain personal effectuations in technique, effect, and musicality that prove definitive qualities for both the author and the text.
Kolvenbach’s The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education is an orderly, prosaic address to an exclusive audience of Jesuit educators and students. Logically and ethically, the writing is sound, a perfect embodiment of the Greek statutes of logos and ethos. The text follows a didactic back-and-forth. It asks, “How can the Jesuit colleges and universities in the United states express faith-filled concern for justice in what they are as Christian academies of higher learning, in what their faculty do, and in what their students become?” (22). Then, it answers, with enumerated sections I-IV and a punctual allusion to GC 32 to tie things up nicely (41). In proverbial, predictable rhetorical fashion, it dots its “i”s and crosses its “t”s, thus making   Kolvenbach an orderly, learned, believable, and not in the least sentimental text, for it espouses logos and ethos but eschews pathos, or emotional appeal, the last third of the Greek rhetorical trinity. The final product is limpid, urbane prose and a summary, well-defined call to go forth and make "'contact'" (34) and “to live in a social reality” (40).
Dr. King’s language is radically different. It is potent, provocative, imagistic, a conduit for social justice rhetoric that not only speaks of  “social reality” but invokes “social reality.” That is to say, Dr. King’s language integrates societies of all types, becoming a language of countless men - men of countless creeds, colors, statuses, and eras. His language speaks for Lincoln and Jefferson and Amos, exhorting, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (King). But King does not solely echo history’s dynamos. King stoops down to the stature of a young boy of the 20th century South and assumes his voice and asks his question, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” (King). Through the whole text, these voices harmonize; the mighty and the meek are collated under a single letter, which King presents as an open address not only to the clergymen (the formal addressees) but to a comprehensive readership.

This inclusivity, it seems, is central to King’s letter and, in turn, King’s mission. Furthermore, inclusivity, is what triggers an emotional, deeply spiritual reaction. A reader may feel , having read the letter, more motivated to act, more emphatic to the downtrodden and  that little girl who has seen “ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky” (King). And, now being unified with those marginalized, the reader may begin to see only two colors, the antithetical colors of justice and injustice. Thus, as King channels pathos to supplement the logos and ethos of his letter, the reader becomes absorbed and wholly included into King’s emotions and speech, and the reader, word by word, becomes a traveler in the rhapsody of injustice, justice, history, and present.

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