I Might Have Tacos Tonight: The Power of Words and the Reputation of the Gospel
Being the mayor of New Haven, Connecticut is not supposed to be political post that will garner you national attention. Until this last week, the 28,000 person town was probably most famous for its trolly museum, which doesn’t exactly top the list of must-see tourist attractions from sea to shining sea. But then mayor Joseph Maturo opened his mouth during a TV interview and uttered one line which made the previously unheard of Connecticut town the center of a national discussion about racial prejudices. After a day where four police officers were arrested for allegedly bullying Hispanic residents, the mayor was asked by a Hispanic TV reporter what he was “doing for the Latino community today”. “I might have tacos when I go home. I’m not sure yet.”
Today, the mayor was greeted by activists bringing 500 tacos to his office for lunch. He’s been publicly reprimanded by the governor of Connecticut, become a pariah for the town’s Hispanic residents, been called to resign, and had his portrait grace column upon column holding him forth as proof of what’s wrong with America. The mayor has quickly apologized, describing his comment as “off-color” and “insensitive,” and admitted they were not helpful in furthering the “progress” made towards harmony in the town. Tired and at the end of a long day, the mayor spoke without thinking of the context. And today he is accused of making a “blatantly racist, ignorant, and arrogant slur.” One columnist wrote, “The thin translation of Maturo’s remark is, ‘I am a full human being, and you are less than one.'”
Watching the firestorm a quip about tacos has ignited is somewhat terrifying in that it could have happened to anybody. Who, after a long day at the office, has not made an unwise comment that would have been funny in one situation but is rendered inappropriate due to the heavy clouds of context on the horizon? The only difference is that the mayor’s comments went viral; mine and yours did not. Is what the mayor said wrong because of its insensitivity? Certainly. Does it make him the example to be held up and examined from every side to prove what a terrible human being he is and how the rest of us are so much more enlightened than he? Certainly not. It means he’s unwise with his words at times, which pretty accurately describes every human being to leave his footfalls on the earth.
Long before every purse and pocket held a phone with a video camera and audio recorder, long before YouTube and Twitter meant every moment of every life could wind up surreptitiously recorded and posted, Solomon laced Proverbs with wisdom about the tongue.
There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (12:18)
He who guards his mouth and his tongue guards his soul from troubles. (21:23)
Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word fitly spoken. (25:11)
A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. (25:28)
Perhaps most fitting to the mayor’s plight is Solomon’s wise words from Ecclesiastes. Though of the poor cursing the rich, in a world of elections and political equality it is the official whose position is tenuous:
Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter. (10:20)
Though we may think the stakes are higher now in a spirit of modern myopic arrogance, they have always been the same. Words matter. Context matters. Words fitly spoken always apples of gold in settings of silver. He who guards his mouth guards his soul from trouble. Though a quip spoken in a back room of the king’s palace in Jerusalem may not have circulated throughout the world, unwise words unravel the good. Whatever Mayor Marturo does in the remainder of his political career, this will be the lasting remembrance of his career. Did he say, as the one columnist asserted, that he believes himself to be more of a human being than a Hispanic constituent? Never. But unwise words mutate in ways we never expect. We would do well to learn from a small-town mayor that even our quips are a commentary upon the gospel we claim to represent. The stakes are higher for us than a political career.