The Violence of Our Words
Maybe we love violence.
Maybe that is one of the deep truths of our society we talk around, ignore, and orphan.
I’m reading a book on the settlement of the American West from the mid-19th century. Contrary to our images of dazzling sunsets, mountain vistas, and settlers looking for a new life, the era was mostly one of violence. Deeply wounded and defeated former Confederates moved westward to find a new start, taking with them their anger and rage. Outlaws who shot people for money were and still are the stuff of legend (thanks largely to the media of the day). Sherman (yes, that Sherman) invoked a plan to “deal with” the Native Americans by driving the buffalo to extinction, thus starving the Native Americans to death. He and hundreds of white Americans executed it almost perfectly.
Layer this history on top of centuries of slavery, riots, laborers with no rights who were literally worked to death, executions and assassinations of those whose voices differed with the narrative of the day, and wars. So when I watch the news now, I wonder, maybe we love violence.
To Christians, this should not be news. On Good Friday, we gather to face our love of violence as we yell, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Preaching peace, love, and forgiveness will get you killed.
Pointing to the other’s sin, the other’s love of violence without recognizing our own complicity is not a particular helpful endeavor. Jesus in his ministry loved sinners; the people who got called out regularly were those who sinned and ignored their own sin by projecting it onto others (pretty much all of us). That’s the whole plank in your eye conversation Jesus has.
The Son of God wisely recognizes that what we are so quick to hate in the other is almost always the very thing we refuse to recognize in ourselves.
What does this say, then, about the speed in which people of faith are quick to condemn violence with “thoughts and prayers” and statements issued within 48 hours of a tragedy, but little action otherwise?
I wonder if we are asked to recognize the casual violence we inflict on ourselves and others in our own lives. Destruction often happens with a thousand or a millions small cuts that numb us until we stand with a gaping wound and our heart is in danger of falling out of the hole in our chest. And one of the most pervasive acts of violence we love in this country?
Our violence of words.
Our words demean others. When we differ from another, when another does not agree with us or act the way we want them to act, do we recognize diversity?
My experience is no. My experience is we demean the other. We engage in triangulation. We start sentences with the accusatory, “You!” rather than, “I,” which requires us to take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. We use epithets and abusive language. We get mad and leave in a huff, planting ammunition against the person or people we blame for our anger as we walk out the door.
While the systemic love of violence in this country is overwhelming to many of us, we are responsible for our own acts of violence with our words. With this in mind, I wonder if we can commit ourselves and our faith communities to:
• Confess our acts of violence through words. Talking about sin is not one of our favorite things. Doing so means we have to realize we participate in the violence of the world. This is one reason we engage in corporate confession on Sundays. Private confession is just as vital - taking time to identify our words spoken deliberately to hurt others and to justify our hurtful behavior and our words spoken which have inadvertently cut another’s soul (that beautiful encapsulation of things known and unknown in the language of confession). Maybe we make private confession to a priest; perhaps we spend time alone in honest inventory of what we have said. Either way, investing time identifying our violent words is a beginning point for turning from them and engaging in a more loving, peaceful way.
• Recognize that another’s experiences, another’s truths, are not points to argue against, but an invitation to listen and understand. Diversity is necessary for life to thrive. We do not take a vote on whose truth is the most true. Instead, we are encouraged to recognize differences, even perhaps learn from them. As empathetic as male priests can be, they cannot fully understand the experiences of a female priests or transgendered clergy. As understanding as White people may strive to be, living daily with the racism inherent in this country as Blacks do is not something we can feel in our bones. Instead of engaging in the sin of presuming everyone’s experience is the same as ours, people of faith are called to listen, to learn, to have our eyes opened and our ears unstopped.
• Pay attention to our emotional flash points - they are often saying more about us than the person speaking. Spiritually speaking, these are showing us the planks in our own eyes we refuse to see. The people who speak the words that grab us emotionally are often the very people we need to hear, to encounter, and to experience as voices of the Holy. When we take our toys and leave (often in a rage), when we dismiss and demean, we cut our selves and souls off to transformation and healing. Richard Rohr has an excellent reflection and an exercise that can help us see the aspects of our selves and souls we would rather ignore here.
• Eliminate broad speaking stereotypes from our language: all police, all Muslims, all Christians, etc. are almost never helpful. Instead, speak from your experiences. With this - confront hate speech. Using racist, homophobic, sexist, hate filled terms are acts of violence. If we would be unwilling to stand by silently as a person is physically abused, why would we stand silently as their souls are beaten with the words of another?
• I statements. I statements. I statements. No one can fully and completely speak for another, and when we begin an argument with “you” (You always act like a jerk…) we are dictating and speaking for another. Own your feelings and experiences. Let others speak for themselves. And, as importantly, help create space for those whose voices have been marginalized and/or silenced to speak their truth without interruption.
• Talk with people rather than about them. People of faith love - and I mean LOVE - the sin of triangulation, which is talking to others about others (I talk to Jane about John's act, not to get her thoughts or insight or advice, but to proselytize for my cause or to justify my actions). This single act inflict so much violence. It creates hurt and distrust, because believe me, what we said almost always gets back to the person. Our act of peace is simply to go to the person with whom you have a disagreement or, if that feels too uncomfortable, get someone to go with you for support. Also, if we are the person someone is coming to with the information, WE are part of the problem if we don't collapse the triangle, so to speak. While it's seductive to be in the role of "people just come to me with their problems," kindly suggesting that this person go speak to the person in question is a godly way to engage in reconciliation. This also hold true for triangulating with entire groups. Rather than talking about what Muslims believe with people who are not Muslim or listening only to the media to learn about Black Lives Matter, be vulnerable and trust love enough actually to listen to people involved in faiths, organizations, and movements with which you are unfamiliar, asking about their experiences, their fears, and their hopes. And, asking how you can help.
• Believe fully and completely that peace on earth, as the song says, begins with me. If you are active in a faith community, encourage your leadership to commit to non-violent conversation. Accept not only our complicity in violence, but our responsibility to peace. Let our prayers for peace change us.
If you're looking for further resources, I commend Dr. Kay Collier McLaughlin and her insights. She gets to the heart of many leadership issues and offers practical responses (in other words, she doesn't use 'thoughts and prayers' as a euphemism for inaction; instead she gives us courage to face fears and tools to speak honestly of hard topics). You can find her resources here.