12 Jan Words matter. Words have power. Words have consequences
Last Tuesday (1/5) I sat at my desk to write my first blog of 2021. A few days before, I had spent fifteen hours in the car, driving the 1000 miles back to Fairfax from Arkansas. So, I’d had plenty of uninterrupted, quiet time to contemplate what I wanted to write to launch the new year. Those “car thoughts” never made it to the page, as Marcelo’s unexpected death on Monday sent my weekly blog in an entirely different direction than what I had anticipated.
And now this week, my blog has been redirected once again, this time as a result of the shocking and horrifying events of last Wednesday. Alongside much of the rest of the country, I watched in stunned dismay as a mob of pro-Trump rioters stormed the United States Capitol, breeching security and forcing Congress, which was in the midst of a joint session, to adjourn, don gas masks, and hide behind barricaded doors, afraid for their lives, waiting to be rescued. Five people are dead.
There is much that could be said about all of this and no doubt will be said in the coming weeks, months, and even years. It will take a long time to process what we have witnessed and there are many questions to be answered. Some of those questions will be answered by the law enforcement community, others by the justice department, and still others by historians. I am not a police officer, nor a lawyer, nor a historian. I am a preacher which is why my thoughts have been focused this week on words.
Words matter. Words have power. Words have consequences. From the first chapter of Genesis to the final chapter of Revelation, Scripture is filled with words. The Bible begins with God speaking creation into being. The prophets speak words on behalf of God to tell Israel what it means for them to be God’s people, the people through whom God would bless and redeem all humankind. And, as the season of Advent just reminded us again, God’s Word took on flesh and walked around with us, so that we could see, as well as hear, who God is and how much God loves us.
Because words are so powerful, it shouldn’t surprise us that scripture is full of admonitions about our speech and how we use words. The most obvious, of course, is encoded in the Ten Commandments: “Don’t lie.” In ancient Israel, giving false testimony against one’s neighbor was considered such a serious offense it was punishable by death. Jesus upped the ante in his repeated calls to act responsibly with our speech, saying that insulting or demeaning others or swearing falsely have no place in the life (or mouth) of a Christian. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or “No, No;’ anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).
But it is James who provides us with the most vivid and memorable image: “It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. This is scary: you can tame a tiger, but you cannot tame a tongue—it’s never been done. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:5-8).
As a pastor, I am keenly aware that being in community together is hard work. Our church is a multicultural, multiethnic, multigenerational group of people whose backgrounds, experiences and values are diverse. I love this about us. It is part of what enriches our life together and makes us who we are. But our differences also make me keenly aware that true community is achievable only when our relationships are built on honesty, integrity, and mutual respect. If we cannot trust the veracity of what we say to one another, community is categorically impossible. Trust is the very foundation of human relationships, and trust cannot exist without honesty. And that leads me back to last week.
The carnage that unfolded Wednesday afternoon in our nation’s capital did not arise out of a vacuum. It was the direct result of what happens when truth is systematically assaulted, when lies are told repeatedly and pathologically. After four years of the “deadly poison” James warns us about, our trust in government, our intelligence agencies, the media, and one another has been severely damaged. Particularly, the lies told by the President of the United States about the November election and repeated by those who have curried political favor with him, along with many of his followers, led to what was, not so long ago, unthinkable.
In many ways it seems premature to ask, “how do we go on from here?” Like any victim of trauma, the shock and numbness must first wear off. That will likely be replaced for numerous people by anger, anxiety, or depression which may last weeks or months. This is a normal part of the grieving and healing process. But my conviction is that we will not heal in any meaningful way, and deep, covenantal community cannot be restored until we begin to recover the truth again. It is no accident that South Africa instituted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to lead them out of the dark days of apartheid and into a new future. At the very heart of the TRC was the need to tell the truth about the violence and horrors that had been perpetrated. Already there are people in the United States who want to rewrite the record of what occurred last Wednesday, and of the months and years leading up to it, and their involvement and/or complicity in it. We cannot allow this to happen. We must truthfully and forthrightly face the stain and humiliation that we have suffered. It is the only way forward. It is the only path to rebuilding trust and pursuing peace. It is the only loving thing to do.
Yours for the Kingdom,