We Christians believe that words make us. It is a fundamental assumption of all kinds of Christians. I don’t know if this is true for other religious communities, so I’ll keep this assumption as limited as my experience as a Christian. We Christians believe the words of our prayers, songs, and the Bible: read, sung, and studied in community, literally make us in the most important ways. Words guide us to becoming followers of Jesus.
We Christians say that God through words creates the world as we know it. “Let there be” is the articulation that begins the world as we know it. God communicates to us through words. God encourages and rages with words. Mary becomes the God-bearer through words, “impregnated through her ears that hear” says an early church poet in Syria. The impossible becomes possible through words. We say that Jesus is the embodiment of that Word of the holy interruption of the evil powers of sin and injustice in this world made human and particular.
Words matter so much.
We Christians must stop overlooking or glossing over the evil in our history, expressed in words. We must stop excusing evil in the words of those who we often say were “of the culture or of the time,” the slaveholder, the anti-abolitionist, the racist, the fascist, the anti-Semite, the misogynist, whose writings continues to inform who we are today, because they are recorded in our history and theology as our heritage.
As James Cone reminded us almost weekly at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, when one of us tried to defend a theologian that had a good argument but said nothing about the systems of domination of their time, if you look at the newspapers from the past there are always those working on the side of what we understand as just and right today. There have always been people who with words and actions challenged the injustices of their time. It is a caution to the church today to recognize that we often inherit the legacy in our theology of those that went along and not those that resisted injustice. It is truly a cautionary tale; if we look with intention, we will see that other voices not just existed, but were recorded, reported, published and known by many in their time.
Let this not be another time where it can be said of us, we were of our time. Fascism was taking over the globe, and we turned inward and chose to spend our energy on defending the righteousness of our tradition or the church. I can imagine a generation scratching their heads at why we thought that creating opportunities for all sides to speak, civilly, whatever that means, was our best response. I suspect it will be so obvious that we protected our perceived privilege, as evil and terror became the norm. We Christians decided we were not for the public square, or only for people we respect and not for the most vulnerable.
We are people of the Word, a Word made flesh. We know that words made us and are making us, collectively. We must face down those words of Evil and Hate that surround us, the old hymn says, and bring a Word of Power on the side of humanity, love, and justice for people terrorized in our land and around the planet by violence that tears at their flesh, the result of the words of our leaders.