The Violent Power of Words: A Franciscan’s Response
This post was originally published at DatingGod.org on January 10, 2011, and is reprinted here on the occasion of the first anniversary of the Tucson Shootings.
In the beginning of this weekend was a word. And this word was not of God and this word was not God. This word was legion, not singular, and it was divisive, caustic, disrespectful and violent — both in substance and, as we so unfortunately witnessed, in effect.
At this point I have become entirely disenchanted with the “he said, she said” pseudo-conversations that have filled the cable-news airwaves for the better part of today. I will be very honest and say that I do not wish to indict anyone other than the gunman as the immediate cause of Saturday’s tragedy. However, as the Greek philosophical tradition — appropriated as it has been by the medieval theological synthesis and passed on to us today — makes very, very clear, there oftentimes several causes in an act.
No one will dispute the mental instability of Saturday’s gunman, something for which not even the “Tea Party messiah” Glenn Beck (a title bestowed to him in a Vanity Fair article I read today) nor his kindred spirit Sarah Palin could be responsible. But the contemporary political climate marked as it is by the increasingly vitriolic discourse, violent imagery and disrespectful rhetoric should not be so easily dismissed, regardless if it is or isn’t the direct impetus for that young man’s murderous action.
The use of words in this country is a problem and, tangential as it may be presented by those who defended firearm cross-hair diagrams and violent rallying cries, it has made this country and the world less safe and our civic arena into a veritable tinderbox of fear and distrust.
As the adage goes, it is true that sticks and stones (and bullets) break bones, but (contrary to popular belief) words are actually much more powerful. It is through propaganda, the cunning use of language and narrative that political messages are conveyed to the masses.
Some will say that it is the violent action that needs to be the focus, but such people neglect the significance of a hostile environment saturated in fear. Those who defend the public discourse of late offer a myopic reading of twentieth-century history that discards European, African and Asian genocide and war. Words, language, violent imagery are what was used to capitalize on the fear and uncertainty of post-war Germany. Hitler (as Joe Nangle elegantly noted in the last post on this blog) did not rise to power by force, he was put into power because of the political milieu that arose from deliberate use of words.
Violent, hostile and divisive words are the seeds of violent, hostile and divisive action, planted in the collective and particular psyche of a nation’s citizenry. Rush Limbaugh argued earlier today that his and others’ discursive style is not a problem because shootings — like the one that took the life of 6 people, including a 9-year-old girl, and wounded 20 others — are the “exception” to the rule and if vitriolic and violently hyperbolic language was really a problem, then there would be shootings everyday.
Such absurdity and defense of an indefensible position continues to enable the cycle of violence, fear and distrust among the country and world’s populations. Need I even mention the outbreak of bullying in our schools this year and the tragic suicides that followed — so much for irrelevance of words!
I was deliberate in my Johannine allusion above. The reason I wanted to capture your attention with that implied reference to the prologue of John’s Gospel is to dramatically draw your attention back to the centrality of the word (logos) in Christianity. It doesn’t simply begin in John, but the creation and wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) also frequently refer to the “word of God” as God’s creative and redemptive action in this world.
How we use words is very, very important. Words are revelatory, they show us something that was previously unseen. They make present a reality that was not present prior to their speaking or being written. THE Word did this for God, the Incarnation revealed to us God as God had never before shown us — it is decisive, it is complete, it is indeed Holy.
The way we use words should take on similar sanctity. I will be the first in line to admit that my use of words has, as often as they can be comforting or edifying, also been caustic and hurtful. For those who have ever experienced that from me, know that I continue to apologize. However, I know that what I have done in those occasional instances is wrong and will not defend my behavior. That is what is, to begin with, what we need from those political and media figures who refuse to admit their use of words has been wrong and is, in some part, responsible for the mess that we find ourselves in today.
This mess is not just a shooting in Arizona, but the political and cultural ethos of animosity, vitriol and disrespect.
St. Francis of Assisi actually has much to say to us today in these political matters. In his famous Canticle of the Creatures, Francis first mentions human beings within the context of peacemaking and forgiveness. For the Italian Saint to be human is to be a peacemaker, ushering in the Kingdom as God had in Christ. That verse arose as Francis’s response to a political battle involving the Mayor and Bishop of Assisi. Where are our peacemakers in the political arena today to remind Palin, Beck and others that to be human is to make peace and to do so with both actions and words?
In another place, his Letter to all the Faithful, Francis wrote:
Let us, moreover, bring forth fruits worthy of penance. And let us love our neighbors as ourselves, and, if anyone does not wish to love them as himself [or herself] or cannot, let him [or her] at least do them no harm, but let him [or her] do good to them.
Acknowledging the reality that not all can live up to God’s commandment to love one another, Francis exhorts all those who call themselves “Christian” to at least do no harm. This includes our words.
Our choice of language does indeed have consequences and these consequences cannot be ignored. No one who dares to bear the name “Christian” can speak about his or her brother or sister in Christ the way so many self-professed faithful have in recent years, months and weeks. It is time to remember the meaning of conversion and live it.