a word about our words

I've said it before, perhaps even on this blog, but it begs repeating:

Words matter. 

As I watch the comings and goings, vitriol and violence, arguments and antagonism of our presidential race in America, more and more the issue is words.

Candidates speak in scathing tones about groups of people, then say they didn't mean it. Sorry, something came to life in that moment and that thing is going to be nearly impossible to kill. That's why James called the tongue a "spark" that starts a fire. 

What I hear underneath the rhetoric about speech is fear, uncertainty, and anger about certain words and phrases being declared "politically incorrect." It's the "Merry Christmas" argument writ large, and in some ways I get it. We can become insulated against hearing difficult things, things that trouble us and cause us internal distress, things that we don't believe or don't agree with. I'd rather not hear difficult words, and I know once something is said it sets into motion a process that is nearly impossible to reverse:

When we accuse our spouse of cheating, the word "adulterer" takes shape and moves into our home. Evicting that word is a long brutal process. 

We can come to the place where we're insulated against real life words, and to our detriment. We aren't always surrounded by pretty words, pretty pictures, pretty scenarios and to hide from that is to hide from the thing that makes us US and makes God beautiful and true. 

On the other hand...

I am concerned when I hear fellow Christians talking about politically correct speech with an upturned lip. When I hear followers of Jesus saying, "I don't want to have to think that much about what I'm saying. I'm tired of being so careful." I won't unleash the list of verses in the Bible about "speech" - suffice it to say that God has an opinion on our words.

I as a white Christian speak (and have spoken) these words from the place of being the dominant demographic in America. I'm coming to this realization and trying to understand it, and I'm not done yet, but I'm starting to see my limitations from a new light. 

I speak often from a place of privilege, never having to worry about what other people think about my speech - about the impact of my words. This is a new conviction, and it has caused me to think more about my words. 


When I hear the hesitancy to change our speech, to think about what we're saying and why, I'm reminded of a God who creates by speaking. Words make life happen, shape land masses and set the color palette of the sky. 

I'm reminded of a Jesus drawn in rich tones by the word "Logos" - the wisdom and the wildness of the "word who was with God and was God." 

I'm reminded of a Spirit - a separate, distinct one - that speaks in quiet, still, small voices. Speaks. 

The Trinity is extremely talkative. 

So, we inherit this role as the image of God - we are speech-makers, speech-creators. Our words, when set free and become things. That's why I wrote a book on curiosity, because curiosity is doubt spoken aloud with a fill-in-the blank at the end. 

Words are divine. Words are powerful. And words matter. 

Which leads me to a thought that may be painful to hear: much of our ranting about political correctness isn't about our personal rights.

No, it's more about the fact that we would rather not harness the creative power of our words for the good of others. 

The truth is for us, political correctness in its various forms requires that we think of others before we unleash our creative words on the world. Freedom of speech, we believe, is a right. But should we consider when that right is no longer righteous? 

When we speak of "those people" we create a film, a picture, that teaches our children a general principle about specific individuals. 

When we speak without thinking about the other side, the ears that hear our creative word, is it possible that we're dropping the mandate to "love our neighbor as ourselves"? 

When we complain about being more careful in our speech, are we simply saying we don't have time or energy to love others that deeply - that richly? 

Because it requires that we listen to people, even when we disagree. Even if we never agree.

Because it requires that we hold our words longer than we're comfortable with.

Because it requires proximity - if we're going to have an opinion on a person, issue, or situation we'd better be close enough to feel the heat and smell the sweat involved in the lives of those affected. 

Let's try this today: before we speak about a person or group of people, let's ask a few questions:

1. What will my speech "create"? What words are loving and hopeful? Do I even know how this word, this description, affects that person or people?

2. What do I feel rising up within me as I think about my speech? Am I frustrated by how careful I need to be? What might God be saying about these feelings? 

3. What word - or lack of word - most closely sticks to Jesus' directive to "love our neighbor as ourselves"? How can silence speak love more than words in this moment? 

Granted, there's more to this story from a political perspective. However, I believe if we discipline ourselves to understand the "why" of our speech - placing it under the reign of a God-who-talks - the "what" of our speech will bring grace where in the past we've sown grimaces.