There’s a wonderful passage in the gospels about Jesus standing up to the religious folk who talk about the high road but refuse to walk it. He reminds his followers that what goes into our mouths won’t defile us, but the words that come out of them matter a great deal.
Our words are important. What we say has a huge impact.
We’ve gotten yet another reminder of the power of words in the past few days. A man immersed in racist words killed black people in a Kentucky grocery store. A man immersed in fearful words sent bombs to people labeled as threats. A man immersed in anti-Semitic words killed Jewish people in their synagogue.
Words can inject the disease of hatred, fear, and divisiveness into our society, or they can be used as a healing balm that counteracts the infection. They can inspire us and bring us hope, or they can appeal to our darkest instincts and tear us apart.
This is a fitting time to remember three important things about words:
First, we must monitor what we say and how we say it. It’s tempting to respond to incendiary, angry words with incendiary and angry language of our own. We mustn’t do that. Martin Luther King Jr. showed us how to change societies in nonviolent ways, and that included nonviolent language.
Love means recognizing that everyone — even the one who disagrees with us stridently — is an equally beloved child of God. We respect their human dignity, even if they don’t do the same for us. Our aim is never to harm anyone, but to challenge their way of thinking and defend those whom they are hurting.
Second, we must hold our leaders accountable for all their words. Our political, religious, and social leaders have influential positions, gaining louder voices when they speak from pulpits and press conferences.
We’ve seen throughout history how leaders can stir fear, resentment and conflict, or turn down the heat by rejecting hateful and dishonest discourse. Leaders have an enormous impact on people’s attitudes and actions with their spoken and tweeted words.
When leaders choose crude, divisive, and incendiary language, we must challenge them. When they inject poison into our society’s veins with bullying and mocking and demonizing, we must replace them.
This brings us to the third point about words: The ones we don’t say matter immensely, too. We must never be silent about things that matter.
A friend’s father is a retired pastor. My friend asked his dad what he most regretted during his many years of ministry. The father said he remains anguished to this day that he failed to speak up during the civil rights movement. He knew some people in his church were racist, and he didn’t want to create friction or divide the congregation by speaking up for the equality of all God's children.
Years later, he realized his silence had made the church a safe sanctuary for racism. His fear of confrontation provided cover for the hateful attitudes and words in his congregation.
We live in such times again. Choosing the safety of silence amounts to siding with those whose words demean us, divide us and inspire horrific acts upon us.
Let's never underestimate the power of our words. What comes out of our mouths and off our fingertips can heal or harm, unite or divide, bring more of God’s love into our world or more mistrust, fear and darkness.
Let’s choose our words carefully and say them respectfully, persistently, and bravely. Let’s choose leaders whose words are prophetic rather than poisonous.
And let’s not just say them, but live them. Let’s make our words become flesh in a world that desperately needs to hear them, see them and be saved by them.