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Choose words that heal, love

My neighbor George recently asked if I knew the saying that begins “sticks and stones may break my bones…” Of course, I replied, “but names will never hurt me.”

That really isn't true, he added. Names, words and symbols not only can hurt, but do as much — or more — psychological damage as a physical punch to the jaw.

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In 18th-century England the followers of John Wesley were called “Methodists” because of the methodical way they lived out their faith in their daily lives. Originally a term of derision, the name stuck because it became a positive term to describe this new Christian evangelical movement. On the other hand, for some the word “redskins” is a derogatory term for Native Americans. They would like to see the word dropped in relationship to sports teams because of its negative connotations. It was in Antioch that followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” (NRSV Acts of the Apostles 11.26b). Once again the name stuck because it was a positive term to describe those who were disciples of Jesus.

A young man in Charleston, South Carolina, wraps himself in a Confederate battle flag and talks about how America is being destroyed by Jews, Catholics, blacks and Hispanics. And then he adds that he needs to do something about it. Where did he learn the language of hatred? Was it from sitting at the dinner table with his family? Was it from associating with groups that talk and preach hate? Have you often wondered how much damage we do to one another — including our children — by the way we talk about others when we share our personal thoughts? For some the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of their history and heritage, a reminder of their desire to protect states' rights. For others it is a symbol of “slavery” and “racism.” The Confederacy fought to protect the right of a state to buy and sell human beings like animals who were believed to be only three-fifths of a person.

My neighbor has an acquaintance who is a “born again believer” who can tell the worst racial or ethnic jokes around. One time he asked if I had ever heard the one about the dumb “Pollock who…” And I cut in, saying “I don't appreciate jokes like that because my wife's family is from Poland.” “OK,” he continued,” how about the one about the Catholic priest who…” And I cut in again and said “my wife's Polish family is Roman Catholic, so I don't appreciate jokes like that. How about telling a joke on yourself?” That fell on deaf ears! Why do we often have to put someone or some group down in order to make ourselves look or feel better?

There are some people who believe that the only way to go up the ladder of success is by pushing someone down. Some who are insecure in their own worth need to create an enemy as a scapegoat. History has seen this happen many times.

The person who over and over again hears negative comments, experiences rejection, or feels belittling behavior — unless they are strong enough to think and reason for themselves — can fall victim to destructive behavior. In the Christian scriptures James writes, “how great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire. And the tongue is a fire” (3.5b).

In our culture today, especially with an approaching election, we have become very good with words that separate and divide. There is a phrase in I John that goes, “the commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (4.21). Maybe one way to “love” is to keep the channels of communication open. Maybe it is to listen before we talk.

Rather than words that tear down, we need words that build up or heal. Letting someone know that even if I disagree with you I still love you or value you could be a start. Words that lift up or offer reassurance or comfort can change an entire situation. Words of kindness or compassion offer positive encouragement. Even saying “I'm sorry” or “forgive me” can go a long way to healing relationships.

Words that hurt or words that heal: The choice is ours. Let the dialogue continue. I only ask that you think on these things.

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