We learned it as children:
Sticks and stones may
break my bones,
But words will never
assume it is to be a comfort to children when someone speaks unkind words to
them. It occurs to me that it also could
be a taunt that dares actual physical violence.
In either case, it is not true.
Words do harm us. To speak is to
act; it is to do something. The writer
of James knew this when he wrote “the tongue also is a fire, a
world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the
whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell [James
3:6].” If we think we can say whatever
we wish and then the world around us can remain unchanged, we are mistaken.
We can never unsay what we have said, retract what we have
written. Once it is out there, it
remains despite all our denials, apologies, and disclaimers. The world is then a different place.
I recently was in Rwanda and had the chance to talk with both
a victim and perpetrator of the 1994 genocide.
The perpetrator had killed the mother-in-law of the victim. Through a reconciliation ministry in Kigali, they
were reconciled to one another and now live in peace as neighbors.
I asked each of them how their experiences shaped the way
they raise their children. They both answered
that they talk with their children about what they are hearing and then seek to
correct anything they have heard that might give birth to prejudice. They both realize that words are dangerous,
in some cases deadly.
The Rwanda genocide did not just happen overnight. It was the result of decades of ethnic
tension and animosity created, crafted, and disseminated by the government, by both
former colonial powers and the Hutu government in power preceding the
genocide. The government began by fomenting
animosity and divisions and in this way brought the nation to the point where
one group saw another group as “cockroaches.”
This all did not begin with the word “cockroaches.” It began by fostering a sense of victimhood
and resentment on the part of the perpetrators.
They were told they were being denied something they deserved by their
inferiors, the Tutsis. On the foundation
of this rhetoric the perpetrators were being groomed for violence.
Sometimes we say “look at what someone does and not what they
say.” This is a mistake. To say
something is to do something that has
consequences. As James says, words can
be a spark that ignites destruction and violence.
Jesus said “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles
[Matt 15:18].” Our words can defile us
and everyone and everything around us.
Words can desecrate God’s creation and humans who are made in the image
suggests that we use language only in a positive way, to enhance and nurture. “Let
no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,
as there is need, so that your words
may give grace to those who hear [Eph. 4:29].”
Paul knew that to speak is to act.
With our words we build up or we tear down God’s creation.
we say “look at what someone does not what they say,” we make a mistake, and we
can be laying the groundwork for powerful events that will hurt others. Just ask the men I met in Rwanda.
Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State