Regardless of what the old adage about sticks and stones tells us, we all know how much words matter, and how much they can both hurt and heal. A cruel word can stay with us for years, even decades, especially when it is repeated, perhaps by a parent or a spouse. And an encouraging word can brighten our whole day, and help us to see ourselves differently, better than we did before. Words shape our entire world, for good or for bad; so like I said, words matter.
I have been thinking about this a lot in the last 24 hours, since hearing of the attack on Salman Rushdie. Remember he went into hiding years ago, after the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for his death, in response to his book, The Satanic Verses. After all those years of hiding and limiting his public engagements, he must have felt safe at Chautauqua. I have a friend who has been there many times, and she told me how lax the security is, and how freely people are able to move about the grounds once you show your pass. It was a horrible attack, based on words–words that were deemed blasphemous, disrespectful and provocative.
I imagine all of us have noticed how rhetoric has sharpened in the past few years, and intensified. It seems now almost normal that if someone shares an opinion I disagree with, or does something I don’t like, I have license to heap upon them the most toxic vitriol, using incendiary words that both threaten and incite violent acts. This very thing is the subject of a recent New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/13/nyregion/right-wing-rhetoric-threats-violence.html?referringSource=articleShare. The article notes the increase in both violent threats and violent attacks, particularly on public political figures, and argues the following:
“scholars who study political violence point to a common thread: the heightened use of bellicose, dehumanizing and apocalyptic language, particularly by prominent figures in right-wing politics and media.“
In case after case, example after example, we see how violent words are enfleshed in violent acts.
All of this matters, especially to Christians, because of the role the Word plays in our faith. God speaks creation into being in the first chapters of Genesis, and it is this creative word that is incarnate in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Christians confess that this divine, creative word of love and grace was enfleshed in Jesus Christ not for violence, but for life and life abundant; for salvation and forgiveness, for joy and reconciliation.
I think the church, then, has a role to play in stopping the cycle of violent words to violent acts back to violent words, to interrupt it with embodied speech that has a different character, a different source. The church can and should be characterized by a rhetoric of love, openness, respect and care–even among those who disagree, even towards those who we don’t like. Christians can and should create a new cycle: a cycle of loving words to loving acts back to loving words.
This doesn’t mean Christians can’t be critical, and it doesn’t mean hard truths can’t be spoken. What is does mean is that those truths can and should be spoken with care, with respect, and in Christian love, cognizant always of the image of Christ each human bears in his/her/their very being.
In this way, the church makes manifest the one whose body nourishes its very existence, the one whose life incarnates a creative, transformative word that heals and restores, and brings hope and new life for individuals and communities.