“I have a dream. That one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” – Frederick Douglass
“Do or die!” – Mahatma Gandhi
Some of the most well known quotes in human history have come from political thinkers or revolutionaries addressing the public. I don’t think anyone could question the imprint these people have left on human history. They understood, first of all, the power of the word and what a formidable tool it can be when used intelligently.
Public speaking, although often completely misunderstood, is an art that can touch people’s hearts and can determine a course of events capable of changing the world. Unfortunately it can also be used in erroneous ways—using pompous words to mask superficial ideas or, worse, to manipulate masses in favour of the speaker. This custom is common—a sophisticated argument anchored in selfishness, full of vain words meant to benefit one’s own person. Dozens of books join the bestselling ranks by promising to teach the art of speaking so eloquently that others will have no other way than to listen and comply. Such books often disregard sound moral values. However, there are also speakers who value the quality of their own work, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish quality in an amorphous mass of mediocrity.
Jesus: the Incarnate Word
One could then ask: Where should we go when we want to explore basic principles of oratory and human relationships? In the prologue to his gospel, the apostle John describes Jesus as the incarnate Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were made by Him; and nothing that was done was made without Him. In Him was life, and life was the light of men. (…) And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-4, 14).
From the perspective of the gospels, there is no doubt that Christ is the foundation of substantiated communication, of valuable and effective communication. In Him, the word reaches its maximum levels of creative and transforming power. Studying one of Jesus’ most beautiful discourses—the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew Chapters 5–7—will be an example of an analytical exercise, useful for drawing on the principles of Jesus’ discourse.
The Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount is one of Jesus first and well known teachings. Addressing a large crowd, He begins by providing a series of blessings known as the Beatitudes before transitioning into discussion of morals and actions which those he is addressing may be able to apply in their lives. It is where some of His most well known statements including “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your neighbour” originate. But even beyond being a sermon conveying a moral framework to live by, we can look at it as an example of Jesus oratory abilities—in order to understand how He preached the message for maximum impact.
From the very beginning it is obvious that Jesus did not use sophisticated words and pompous expressions when addressing people. On the contrary, He used simple words to explain complex concepts so that everyone would have access to His teachings. Jesus understood His audience and shaped His speech according to the abilities of the listeners. In addition to the Sermon on the Mount, this feature of Jesus’ speech is illustrated just as clearly in His parables. This flexible and didactic method of answering questions comes to the aid of the simple man, who does not occupy his time philosophising, yet still seeking the answers to the same “big” questions. By discussing relatable scenarios with familiar language, He broaches these questions in a way which is easily understood.
Jesus did not criticise His audience and did not reproach its general state of moral degradation, although He was aware of its magnitude. Instead He chose to begin by blessing people and praising their thirst for knowledge. Jesus offered sincere appreciation, without seeking to flatter His listeners.
At the same time, He was really interested in people. He lived to teach them and tried to give them a better life with God. No one could deny His careful choice of words and clarifications on delicate matters, such as, in our example, the fulfilment of the Law—a contentious issue in his time, and one which persists in some religious circles. He did not offer the possibility of initiating a controversy concerning the observance of the ceremonial rules, as One who knew that the chance to get the best out of an argument is to avoid it altogether from the very beginning. Instead of seeking to stoke the flames of controversy, He used his knowledge to respectfully tackle these matters in ways which would not alienate anybody—assuming they were willing to listen.
One final aspect I appreciate is that Jesus did not ever impose anything on His audience. He invited people to contemplate and then to take responsible action and apply practical principles for a better life. Take for instance the Beatitudes (where Jesus provides blessings to specific groups in accordance with their actions), the first four focusing on the relationship with God and the last six on the relationship with others. But even if His ideas are hard to dispute, Jesus gives them value not only through His words but also by applying everything He preaches. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus essentially suggests a human paradigm shift, which some have followed and others, on the contrary, have wholeheartedly rejected.
Speaking with Love
What is worth underlining here is the source of Christ’s discourse—His words were deeply rooted in mercy, kindness, humility, care for one’s neighbour, and especially love. I would insist on the last aspect. Jesus surprises by His extravagant, incomprehensible love of the human mind. Who else would have had the power to ask God’s forgiveness for the mistakes of others while nailed to the cross in agony?
Christianity has love as its cornerstone, embodied in Jesus, but it is not the superficial kind, which we all know so well. Jesus’s love is able to transcend the physical and to reach its absolute form, the love of an eternal God, transposed for us, including in principles left for our well-being. But it is not enough to simply accept these ideas; we need to metabolise them as part of our very being.
The greatest speakers made their voices heard most clearly in times of unrest and instability, in times when people were confused and seeking guidance. Today, we live in a period of what many in the western world would consider to be relative peace, as fragile as it is. What relevance does biblical discourse have in a world where, as Clifford Goldstein says in the book God, Godel and Grace, morality is dictated by man’s senses (not divine commandments), man’s appetite (not the sacred text), and man’s desires (not religious principles) “…because there is nothing else. What we lack is hope. Truth is horizontal, not vertical; it is physical, not spiritual, and it comes from mitosis, testosterone, and protein metabolism, not from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I believe we, today, are in utmost need of hearing Jesus’ words, not only as a form of art, but as living principles.
The end of the twentieth century brought about a general feeling that the postmodernist movement might have began its demise. Many were compelled to think that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there began a movement with a completely different dynamic. Deliberate obscurantism had been left behind, and people were now seeking refuge in a broader cosmic narrative, clothed in various forms of spirituality. A basic feature of contemporaneity is instability, which creeps in primarily on a personal level, taking the form of increasingly common problems: depression, irritability, resignation, distrust.
What we lack is the kind of hope which is aware of the presence of evil, but does not recognize it as truth. Romanian author Andrei Pleşu writes in his short essay titled “Hope”in a manger heated only by the breath of cattle. This is how the solution is sometimes slipped into history: discreetly and miserably.” But no matter how penetrating this bitter conclusion may be, we must not dwell on it. Jesus’ answer is special precisely because it has the power to transform misery and darkness into purity and light.: “According to the Gospels, the Saviour of the world, its ultimate hope, appeared in winter,