Just Words

Carla J. Bailey, February 12, 2017

Scripture John 1:1, 14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.

In 1862, The Christian Recorder, an American periodical with a mostly African American audience, appears to have been the first publication to print “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me,” adding that it was an old adage, which implies it had been around well before it was published in 1862.1 Old it certainly is. I imagine everyone in the sanctuary this morning has heard it, perhaps even spoken it as a protective shield against insults and bullying. If ever there were an example of an alternative fact, the old “words will never hurt me” is it.  

Words have tremendous power. They lead and mislead, inspire and terrorize. They shape thinking in unconscious ways and define value, even reality, to a greater extent than we realize.

I think of the early 1980s, when many progressive Christian churches, Plymouth among them, struggled with gender language, particularly as it described God. It wasn’t terribly difficult to move away from words like mankind, and an acceptable case could be made for using both male and female pronouns when describing people according to their work—clergyman or clergywoman, for example. But Scripture was a more challenging arena. Oh mercy, was it ever challenging. The Lord is my shepherd. And he shall tend his sheep. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men. I remember trying to find a hymn I could comfortably use for Father’s Day worship that didn’t equate human fatherhood with God as a father. “Our Father by whose name all fatherhood is known” seared my eyeballs. We still struggle with gender language for the deity. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. We have considered the comfort of familiarity when thinking about gender language and the sensibilities of those who sit in our pews on especially sad occasions like funerals and memorial services. We even work at unpacking the logic, such as it is, of the notion that we are being exclusive when we use inclusive language because we are excluding those who don’t like inclusive language. On and on they go, these language skirmishes, nearly 40 years later. I suspect we’re still struggling with it because we know, at least unconsciously, that language influences thinking and we’re not quite where we need to be in our thinking when it comes to gender, particularly when associating female gender to the divine.

You may think this is something of a benign issue and perhaps compared with some of the more life-or-death threats so many people face today, this matter of how language shapes our thinking isn’t so dangerous. But I’ve read two articles in the last week that cause me to wonder whether language doesn’t pose an even greater threat to our reality than we imagine.

The first is an article written by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at New America. She served as Counselor to the U.S. Defense Under Secretary for Policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. In a prior article, she speculated about possible circumstances in which the U.S. military, trained to obey without question the orders from its commander-in-chief, might refuse an order determined to be completely outside the bounds of rational mental reason. In that article she wrote these words:

The prospect of American military leaders responding to a presidential order with open defiance is frightening—but so, too, is the prospect of military obedience to an insane order. After all, military officers swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not the President of the United States. For the first time in my life, I can imagine plausible scenarios in which senior military officials might simply tell the president: “No, sir. We’re not doing that,” to thunderous applause from the New York Times editorial board.2

Well, I can imagine many of us would disagree with Rosa Brooks’s opinion, but in a subsequent article she wrote for Moyers & Company, she described the reaction her words received:

Needless to say, when I wrote this, it didn’t occur to me that anyone could construe it as a call for a military coup. Perhaps this should have occurred to me, given the current state of American political discourse, but it didn’t. I received a couple of polite email messages from readers who argued that I shouldn’t have even raised this as a hypothetical possibility, but most initial comments came from readers who took what I wrote in the spirit in which it was intended: What might happen if the U.S. president gave an order that was truly, frighteningly unhinged, and all normal checks and balances had failed? . . .

A few days passed quietly [until] on Thursday morning, Breitbart . . . ran a story about my column, headlined “Ex-Obama Official Suggests ‘Military Coup’ Against Trump.” . . .

Soon, extremists and conspiracy-oriented outlets from InfoWars to openly white supremacist websites had moved from claiming that I had “suggested” a coup to asserting that I was demanding, planning and threatening the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. . . .

By mid-afternoon, I was getting death threats. . . . Correspondents threatened to hang me, shoot me, deport me, imprison me and/or get me fired . . . . The dean of Georgetown Law, where I teach, got nasty emails about me. The Georgetown University president’s office received a voicemail from someone threatening to shoot me.3

Internet trolls sit at their computers and type the most vile, hateful, threatening, anonymous comments you could ever imagine and a few you wouldn’t care to imagine. It’s another venue for the “marketplace of ideas,” that long-held and possibly outlived assumption that truth will emerge from the competition of ideas—that ideologies will be ranked according to their superiority or inferiority and that the free exchange of words will ultimately make the best positions rise. I’m not sure the “marketplace of ideas” could have imagined the anonymity of the Internet or the vitriol of this increasingly violent culture. How shall we think about words that generate such hate? How shall we think about hate that responds to opinions and perspectives with such consequence-free threats to life?

Another troubling example comes from released documents from the recent trial of Allen Scarsella, here in Minneapolis. You will recall that Mr. Scarsella was convicted of felony first-degree assault and riot for shooting five protesters at a Black Lives Matter encampment outside the Fourth Police Precinct last November. During the course of the trial, racist text messages from his computer were presented to prove he had a motive for the shootings. At one point the prosecutor asked him if the texts were “just words” that didn’t mean anything to him or jokes not meant to be taken seriously. “Yes,” he replied. What does it mean that words don’t mean anything? Is that ever possible? It reminds me of a story Desmond Tutu told in his book No Future Without Forgiveness (Doubleday, 1999), when, during the Truth and Reconciliation testimony following Apartheid in South Africa, commission members took special care to release the terrible words they were hearing so that they wouldn’t continue to poison their spirits. Desmond Tutu recounts that commission members did not realize until late in the process that the ones who needed the most care were the translators who repeated words in first person of both perpetrator and victim. “They undressed me and then slammed [parts of my body] in a drawer.” “We abducted him and gave him drugged coffee and then I shot him in the head.” Repeating those words, translating them for the commission members to understand, caused terrible trauma for the translators. Words never mean nothing.

A recent film nominated for a number of academy awards is Arrival, based on the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.4 The film is interested in how language shapes reality, even the perception of time. In a review written for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson writes:

The film’s premise hinges on the idea, shared by many linguists and philosophers of language, that we do not all experience the same reality. The pieces of it are the same—we live on the same planet, breathe the same air—but our perceptions of those pieces shift and change based on the words and grammar we use to describe them to ourselves and each other. . . .

[The film] suggests that reality—what we perceive as comprising the facts of existence—takes on a different shape depending on the linguistic tools we use to describe it.5

If you have not yet seen Arrival, I do recommend it to you. If you are allergic to science fiction, you won’t like it, but if you’re willing to enter in to its premise, Arrival challenges some earthly, Western assumptions about both language and time. The basic story is that a brilliant linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, is summoned to try to communicate with recently arrived other-world lifeforms. Again from Alissa Wilkinson:

Language isn’t just about understanding how to say things to someone and ascribe meaning to what comes back. Language has consequences. Embedded in words and grammar is action, because the metaphors that we use as we try to make sense of the world tell us what to do next. They act like little roadmaps.

Earlier in today’s service, Lindsey read from Matthew’s version of the sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. Among other important lessons imparted by Jesus’ words is the power of language to reorder responsibility and blessing. “Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, for they will see God and be called children of God.” But it is the powerful image from the beginning of John’s Gospel that compels me to work on language, to understand the impact of my words, your words. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Of course the writer of John’s gospel was referring to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. But let’s not be limited by that one, particular manifestation of God. Let us imagine, if for only a split second before the words come out of our mouths or are typed on to our screens that the words are with God and the words are God. And the words become flesh—living, breathing, fully alive and present in the world. At that moment they really aren’t just words. They live among us. Wouldn’t it be good if we could make them words full of grace and truth? Amen.

1“Sticks and Stones,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sticks_and_Stones (accessed February 15, 2017).

2Rosa Brooks, “3 Ways to Get Rid of President Trump Before 2020,” Foreign Policy (FP), January 30, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/01/30/3-ways-to-get-rid-of-president-trump-before-2020-impeach-25th-amendment-coup/ (accessed February 15, 2017).

3Rosa Brooks, “And Then the Breitbart Lynch Mob Came for Me,” Moyers & Company, February 8, 2017, http://billmoyers.com/story/breitbart-lynch-mob-came/ (accessed February 15, 2017).

4Collected in Stories of Your Life and Others, Vintage Books, 2016.

5Alissa Wilkinson, “Arrival is a stunning science fiction movie with deep implications for today,” Vox, November 24, 2016, http://www.vox.com/culture/2016/11/11/13587262/arrival-movie-review-amy-adams-denis-villeneuve (accessed February 15, 2017).