Most people probably heard this at some point growing up: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” It’s one of those pieces of “folk wisdom” that has always bothered me, because it discounts the power of language. As a priest, I have met a lot of wounded people over 20 years of ministry, and none of those people were struggling with wounds inflicted by sticks and stones. Their wounds really had their roots in words: wounds from words that had demeaned and devalued them; wounds from words that had judged them; wounds from words others had used to try to define them. And wounds from words that were never spoken: people who had not been told that they had been loved or cared for. Yes, words have power. They can comfort, challenge and inspire, or they can inflict deep, invisible wounds that leave scars on the soul and psyche.
Christians should understand the power of words, for one of the principal images used for Christ in the New Testament is the image of the Word made flesh and blood in the humanity of Jesus. The Gospel of John understands that the Word made flesh in Christ is the same divine power through which the universe came into being. “Through him, all things were made, and without him was nothing made that was made.” From a Christian perspective, the Word of God is a dynamic, creative power that is experienced preeminently in Creation and in Christ, but also touched through the Scriptures and sacraments. Biblically, the Word is associated with life, liberation, salvation, wholeness and blessing. And as such, the Word is never separated from action. The Word of God is a kind of agent of God’s “thought” and intention, bringing that thought and intention into reality in the world and the larger universe.
Words and language, when used by us human beings, also carry power. They have the power to express our thoughts and intentions, and they become inextricably linked with actions in the world, both our own actions and the actions of others. But whereas the Word of God is always about life, liberation, salvation, wholeness and blessing, our words and language can either be about these things or they can carry us in a very different direction, towards death, oppression, division, fragmentation and condemnation.
Sadly, much of our public political discourse falls into this latter category. For both politicians and pundits, politics has transitioned from being the art of compromise meant to serve the public and common good to a tool to demonize the opposition, insist on our own way, categorize people into “real Americans” and something else. During the most recent election cycle, there were candidates and members of the media who suggested that if the election didn’t go the way they wanted it to, people should basically take up arms to enforce their will in defiance of the election results. One woman who had made such public suggestions, a radio talk show host in Florida, was actually briefly appointed as a new congressman’s chief of staff until, apparently, he thought better of it, after her advocacy of violence in response to an election loss became public knowledge.
While it is tempting to dismiss this dangerous use of words as belonging to fringe elements, there are those in our society who take these words seriously. Tragically, we witnessed that this past weekend in Tucson, when a young man set out to assassinate a congresswoman, injuring and killing a number of people in the process, including the death of a 9 year old girl. Of course, his motives are not yet entirely clear, and undoubtedly he was and is disturbed in a tragic way. The very fact that he has been described as disturbed makes it possible to dismiss him as an unusual kook. The reality is, however, that it is quite possible that this young man has been influenced by violent and hateful words spoken against the congresswoman he targeted.
This would not be the first time. A few years ago, when I was living in Tennessee, a man walked into the Unitarian Univeralist Church in Knoxville and opened fire, killing two people. The subsequent investigation revealed that the man had been deeply immersed in negative and hateful political speech from various conservative commentators. Their consistent message that liberals were dangerous to American society had entered into him deeply, and he had come to the conclusion that the Unitarian Church was somehow a symbol of this liberalism and he decided to take action, with tragic results.
In American society today, we need urgently to learn the power of words. And those who have the benefit of having a public platform from which to speak need to learn that in particular, and to understand that they have a public duty to be accountable for what it is they say and advocate. It is one thing to express one’s opposition to a public policy, piece of legislation or candidate position. It is something else entirely, however, to suggest that one’s opposition is unAmerican, dangerous or deserving of death. The use of violent words and images in our politics has become tragically commonplace, and the power of those violent words and images can translate into violent actions, as the latest incident in Tucson and the violence in Knoxville a few years ago demonstrates. Such actions may indeed be unusual and exceptional, but even one such unusual and exceptional event is unacceptable. It demeans our community, compromises our humanity and endangers our democracy.
Equipped with a renewed understanding of the power of words and ideas, we should begin now to change those words and ideas, and it needs to begin with our politicians, pundits and community leaders — those who have the benefit (and responsibility) of having a public voice. Violence is unacceptable, and violent words should be just as unacceptable. We need to recover a sense that diverse perspectives enrich our national life, and recover an ability to engage in public debate without demeaning and demonizing others. The future viability of our democracy may depend on it.