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A couple of months ago at a conference I was privileged to hear former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The conference was aimed chiefly at preachers and teachers of preaching and so in one of his lectures, Williams had a series of observations for clergy on how to avoid even inadvertently sowing seeds of violence and division in our sermons and other public addresses. To accomplish this Williams made four key observations on the power of words and how that power has traditionally often been both used and abused. I think this is apropos for preachers but these days really for all of us.
First, Williams noted that humans have long used language to mark out the boundary lines that determine who is in and who is out for any given group of people. Congregations and denominations can do this too. We set up a de facto shibboleth. By how we talk about God or Jesus or the wider issues of the day, we may subtly send the message “If you do not think thus-and-so about these matters, you have no place here.” Again, we may do this inadvertently or sometimes with malice aforethought. Either way, such a use of words will never be conducive to an inclusive community where we can help challenge each other to be better, more Christ-like, more thoughtful. Even in doctrinally orthodox congregations we need not insist on monolithic thinking in every sector of life. Shibboleths of all kinds create echo chambers after a while. (Of course this need not mean we pull our punches on vital matters like the identity of Jesus or the truth of the resurrection. The shibboleths Williams had in mind tend to involve less vital, more intramural socio-political-economic or other such secondary or tertiary matters that can involve community identity.)
Second, we should be wary of the stories and the speech patterns that freeze us in any given status: we are always victims, we are always innocent, we are always correct, we are always strong. But when we freeze our identity to any one thing, we are more prone to deluding ourselves that our always seeking for revenge and retribution is only correct–we are ever and only victims after all. Or our being correct and strong all the time validates the actions we take–we know what we are doing and would be foolish not to use our power to get things done. But when we operate and talk this way, we may be forever justifying ourselves and the truth may not be in us.
Third and in a closely related vein, we should be careful about treating as merely self-evident who we are. That is, a myriad of things–many good and lovely things as well as many unfortunate and ugly things–went into making us who we now are. We need to be thankful for the graces of God that got us through whatever we have experienced and not act like (and not TALK like) we are self-made individuals who got to this point of our lives on our own and who, therefore, are in full control of whatever comes next. In short, we should not talk about ourselves, our congregation, or our group as though we got here easily or without a lot of grace and help.
Finally, we need to be very wary of language that evacuates all hints of darkness from ourselves in order to locate the darkness only “out there” and in “the other.” This is speech as displacement, locating only the light among ourselves and the darkness is all somewhere else in ways that make it inevitable that we take the actions we do. Williams noted that when Adolf Hitler began his systematic persecution of the Jews, his initial explanation boiled down to “Look what you Jews made me do?” Hitler pointed to some alleged worldwide conspiracy of the Jews such that what else could a noble leader like Hitler do but take action against Germany’s clear enemies? I am told that abusive spouses frequently do this very thing: “I did not want to beat the living daylights out of you, honey, but when you leave the kitchen such a mess, what choice did I have? Look what you made me do.”
Step by step when we use language in these ways we move ever closer to just ignoring those who are not like us or, worse yet, flat out dehumanizing those not like us. First we alienate and push out the other, then we self-justify this by pointing to our permanent status as victims ourselves, next we act like we alone can do something about our destiny, and finally we claim we have no choice but to do what we do. But not to worry, by now “the other” does not count as fully human anymore anyway.
All of this is worthy of reflection. Any of us who preach, teach, or speak should fret such matters and watch what we say so we don’t start down any of these rhetorical paths. We also should, as Williams notes, be aware of the soil conditions that may already exist in a given congregation or community. Are there things we could say that might, inevitably, be “heard” a certain way just now given everything else going on? And if we know that and yet say such things anyway, are we fooling ourselves when we later claim innocence since our words were taken out of context? “How could I have known so-and-so would take my words that way?” Well, sometimes we really could not have known. But other times . . .
And also yes, all of this has some pretty big socio-political and social media ramifications these days too. But I won’t even try to tease out how each of us might apply this to our leaders or–just as importantly–to our own selves.
There is a great irony to be observed, however: despite the fact that the last 50 years have witnessed the triumph of the visual and despite the fact that we are all addicted to our screens these days, the power of words has seldom been greater. Right speech can still lead to great inspiration and beauty. Wrong speech can still light the world on fire. If anything, all those visual screens out there have only served to become giant megaphones for good old fashioned speech.