Words Still Matter | Sojourners

Words Still Matter

Last week, the president responded to a question about immigration laws and the infamous MS-13 gang by referring to either those gang members or to those trying to get into our borders as “animals.”

Some were quick to justify this comment as a reflection of a violent, murderous reality. This reading reminds me of Tony Campolo’s famous sermon, in which he says, “First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a sh*t. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said sh*t than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” More important than the language, Campolo pointed out, was those who suffer.

But the parallels don’t hold up. Campolo’s language tries to break through so we see those kids as more human than we did a moment before. The president’s language, it seems to me, tries to make both the gang members and more broadly those trying to get over the border less human.

This creates at least three important issues that apply to how we use language.

Our words about our “enemies” matter.

The Bible has a lot to say about how we are to use our words. We’re created in God’s image — which means a unique ability to speak into creation and participate in God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. Everything we do and say matters.

The flip side of this power to do good is that our words can do great damage.

The guide, then, is love. Learning the right words to speak about other groups isn’t a practice of political correctness — it is a practice of love. Jesus put loving our neighbors high on the list of what was most important. God’s three-phrase summary in the book of Amos about how to live a worthy life includes to, “love kindness.” Jesus also tells us to love our enemies.

Calling people “animals” misses the mark on all of this, even if the comment only referred to gang members. No, we shouldn’t shrug at evil or avoid calling out awful things and people who are causing great suffering — an important part of our power with language. But even in naming evil we’re to be guided by love for the suffering and those who cause suffering. Jesus loved the criminal on the cross next to him on Golgotha. Each person is made in God’s image and loved by God.

Our words about our neighbors matter.

The broader context in which we hear the president’s comments is the way in which the president and other politicians have talked about immigrants for the past few years (and long before that).

How quickly the comments conflate gang members and “people coming in, or trying to come in …” In lightning speed, the characteristics of a small, violent group are applied to all immigrants coming, or trying to come, across the border.

This is effective political rhetoric because, as one commentator said, “It dramatizes his imagined connection between immigrants and crime, forcing opponents into a defensive crouch as they try to criticize the link without defending the gang.”

This language not only dehumanizes gang members, it broadly dehumanizes people who want to cross the border because they’re in danger or seeking better lives for themselves or their families.

The Jesus way is not to conflate animal with God-bearing-human and it’s not to conflate gang-member with refuge-seeking immigrant. It’s to use language in a way that, word by word, shapes our heart to be more like the heart of God.

We love because God first loves us.

We have to be able to protect those who are suffering — including speaking out against those who are causing the suffering — while still staying rooted in how we ourselves are saved by grace.

When I think of someone who has lost their home or had to flee, I hope someone would take in me and my family in a similar situation. Love your neighbor as yourself.

When I think of someone brought to our country as a child who is now demonized and lumped in with violent criminals because of their ethnicity, vulnerable to citizens and authorities because of the climate of our country, I know this isn’t loving our neighbor as ourselves.

When I think of God’s love for us — the risk of incarnation, of crucifixion as demonstration of the extent to which God’s love reached — it’s clear that we need to be guided by love and generosity, not self-protection and fear.

When we talk about others, we should choose our words carefully as people who follow the word of God made flesh, a light who shines in the darkness.

May the words we each choose be light of truth, light of compassion, light of love. May God’s grace be with those fleeing danger. May we be ready to welcome, for when “I was a stranger, you welcomed me.”

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