One of the stickier parts of becoming an adult is learning how many of the truisms from your childhood were outright lies. Today, I’m reminded about a particular favorite from my youth: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What a bawdy lie!
To be fair, the saying attempts to give kids a well needed lesson about self-esteem and the need to ignore the #haters. Plus, it’s an annoying rebuttal in a pinch. Still, along the way, we all come face to face with the searing reality that words can cause a great deal of harm.
Whether it’s a colleague speaking ill of your work to a superior, a rumor-monger spreading juicy gossip, or a conspiracy theorist venting to the internet, we are all aware that words can indeed cause real harm.
Pipe Bombs and Political Speech
While some may not like to acknowledge it, this is essentially the case we find ourselves in with the recent rash of pipe bombs. Words, of course, did not create, package, or send the various bombs that have continued to show up on the doorsteps of prominent opponents of the President. A deranged individual took those actions. Yet, we would be woefully naive if we pretended that words did not help create the atmosphere which engendered and directed the hatred of the bomber.
Namely, the bombs were directed at individuals who were favorite whipping posts of the current President of the United States. Obama, the Clintons, Soros, and the “fake news network” formerly known as CNN appear over and over again in his vitriolic attacks. The same names that appear over and over again in tweet storms, rallies, and speeches also, somehow, ended up being written on the deadly packages.
Every politician has political opponents, but rarely do their supporters end up sending them pipe bombs. Trump cannot be blamed for having political rivals, but he can be blamed for the sort of rhetoric he uses in his encouragement of political action, and on this note, the President has regularly applauded the more violent political engagement of his supporters. A quick sampling shows how Trump has lauded the body-slamming of reporters, promised to pay legal fees for those who assault liberal protesters, and even encouraged police to be more violent in their policing. The list could go on. When such encouragements bear fruit, the President will, of course, provide a formal statement decrying political violence. Soon after, however, he predictably undermines such statements when the teleprompter and well-meaning staffer are away.
Trump, if you were not paying attention, likes a good bar fight; but bar fights provide a poor foundation for political community. Trump did not send the packages, but his fear-stoking, anger-inducing tone has not helped create an environment which discourages those prone to acts of violence. The blame does not rest solely on Trump’s shoulders. The combative propaganda of right-wing media outlets (and lesser known left-wing outlets) have taken the belligerent words of an embattled President and turned them up to eleven. Yet, as the President of the United States, Trump has continually helped set the tone of conversation. Like the economy, Presidents must take responsibility for the impact of their actions, for better or worse. Today, Trump as helped create an atmosphere in which fighting words are all that many Americans seems to recognize as political speech.
Spirit-filled people seldom take “words will never hurt me” at face value. While the Word of Faith movement often takes this to the extreme, Pentecostals recognize that words matter. Was it not God who spoke the world into existence? Did not Jesus command demons? Has not James reminded us that the tongue can set the whole body afire? In the biblical tradition, words can change things. They create, transform, and even destroy.
Of course, our words are not God’s words, but it seems clear that by virtue of being made in the image of God, our words continue to have power. Our President knows this, he relies upon the power of his words to foment anger, fear, and hatred. He utilizes words, regardless of their truthfulness, to lampoon fellow Americans and to belittle those who oppose him. While the state of American political discourse cannot be blamed on Trump, his words are no balm to our political divisiveness. James’ warning about the power of the tongue to “set on fire the course of our life” has proved true in our own time.
Words did not catch the pipe bomber. Thankfully, some quick acting law enforcement officers have found the alleged culprit. Yet, I fear that the bomber is just a harbinger of things to come unless we as a national community can learn to understand and respectfully wield the power of our tongues. In this, I hope Spirit-filled people might repent of their past-misdeeds and lead the charge in forming a political discourse that is filled with words of compassion, grace, and humility.
The writer of Proverbs reminds us that “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” If this recent rash of pipe bombs has taught us anything, it is that swords will follow when people use words that “pierce like swords.” Perhaps we might employ our pneumatological imaginations to find words that bring healing, or at least, to help us cast votes for people who are more willing to use words wisely.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.