Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Genesis 24:50-67, 2 Timothy 2:14-21, Mark 10:13-22
We all grew up hearing some variation on “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.”
Turns out life is more complicated than childhood nursery rhymes.
Words are paradoxical things. While they are little more than scribbles or puffs of air we agree have certain meaning, they can actually contain immense power and create considerable harm. Laws and their consequences hinge on the order of words and the punctuation between them. Contracts can bind or fail based on a comma or its absence. Some words expressed too freely threaten the powers that be and become cause for censorship and prosecution.
Classes of people can be created simply because we impose upon them a word that describes a single one of their characteristics. Take for example the idea of people being “black” or “white.” We all started out the same color and became more varied through circumstances of time, climate, and genetics. Before we started to travel and become reacquainted with each other, we didn’t think of ourselves as white or black – we were just people. It’s such an inexact distinction that over time we had to invent yet more words (and legal categories) to describe people who didn’t fall neatly into one of those two categories. Yet those words – arbitrary and inaccurate as they are – have had a real and tremendous harm on the history and freedom of millions.
It seems the more we insist on parsing words, the less we agree on them. Take for example the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a simple statement in response to a documented and ongoing history of disproportionate violence against black people by authorities, yet many insist on reading something anti-white into it. We see an “only” at the beginning where there is none. We insist a “too” at the end would clear things up. We want to overwrite it with the essentially meaningless “All Lives Matter” because then we don’t have to face actual and specific problems.
In 2 Timothy, Paul advises the church to “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.” In other … words … getting caught up in semantics does no service to the church. Rather, it creates false divisions and distracts us from the central message of the Gospel. Schisms have occurred over such unnecessary distinctions. Scholars and theologians in their ivory towers may wage battles (both well intentioned and prideful) over such matters, but the rest of us could pretty comfortably stick with The Word of God – the Logos, the Christ – and loving God and loving our neighbors. Insisting on the “right” words – such as the Sinner’s Prayer to accept Jesus, or a specific Bible translation – alienates us both from each other and from unbelievers who look upon the petty squabbling (and therefore the faith) with justifiable skepticism.
Sticks and stones can break bones, but they can also build shelters. Are we using words to harm or heal? Are we twisting other people’s words to fit our own agendas and assumptions? When we speak, do people hear Jesus … or hear us trying to prove we hear Jesus (and forcing them to also)?
Let us pray for discernment about which words to embrace and which to let go, which to support and which to oppose. Let us be humble in wielding their power, as Christ calls the last to be first. Let our yes be yes, our no be no, and all our other words authentic and carefully considered.
Comfort: When words hurt, Christ is there to heal.
Challenge: Precise use of language is important for communication, but avoid nitpicking and dismissing people over semantics when you know their intent.
Prayer: God, may I be quick to listen and slow to speak. Amen.
Discussion: “Black Lives Matter” is often portrayed as an anti-authority movement because of a few sensationalized stories of people behaving radically under its banner. Early Christianity had the same reputation, and in later years after becoming the authority had a history of violence and oppression. How is any movement different from its best and worst examples?
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