The Power of Words to Shape Reality
As a lover of words, I have always found the description of Jesus as a word fascinating. When I was a young Christian, I found the whole concept curious and a bit confusing—the idea that a feathery light word could become flesh seemed incomprehensible. How could that be?
In the prologue to the Gospel of John, the writer says that the Word was in the beginning and then became flesh and dwelt among us (1:1-14). This Word (or logos in Greek) described the principle of divine reason which caused the natural creation to grow. The odd thing is divine reason, in this case, is a person: God in the flesh.
Sticks and Stones
I remember an elementary school teacher teaching all of us to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” She was, I am sure, overwhelmed by tattling little kids complaining of name-calling and wanted to give us an easy way to respond that would leave her out of it. And “sticks and stones” might have helped when someone called you a “ball hog” during recess or said the lunch packed by your immigrant mom smelled funny. Those words were airy and easy to cast away.
But overall, I found “sticks and stones” to be… unsatisfactory. It did not soothe my injured soul when a classmate said I had “icky brown skin,” nor did it make me feel better when another said, “Go back to your country!” These words were powerful; so much so that I did not recover from them easily. In fact, sometimes I still feel their sting. They reminded me that I am “the other”–a perpetual outsider.
Looking back on those events, I recognize that had I been more aware, it would have been easy to understand that words had power because those words spoken to me in childhood lingered and wounded my own heart for years.
There are so many terrible words in our world, and they shape our realities.
The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano recognizes this truth in his poem, “The Nobodies,” where he describes the way Spanish colonialists used carefully chosen words to dehumanize and devalue indigenous peoples in the Americas:
Who are not, but could be.
Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.
Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.
Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.
Who don’t have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have faces, but arms.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the police blotter of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.
Sadly, this seemed to be the understanding of the terrorist responsible for the shooting in El Paso that, to date, has taken the lives of 31 people. He feared the “Hispanic invasion” of Texas, reflecting the racist language used by the current president. Rather then seeing the humanity he shares with Latinx people and Mexican-Americans, many of whom are brown-skinned, he saw an invasion, a threat to himself and the survival of his own. Words have power, and there’s little doubt in my mind that the president’s xenophobic language influenced this man; violent rhetoric has violent consequences. That’s the way that horrifying words take on flesh.
Giving Power to Good Words
Now that I am older and know how deeply words matter, I know it is important to say “God” and not “He” because God is not male; to say “enslaved human beings” instead of slaves and “undocumented immigrants” rather than aliens or illegals in order to declare that they are people, image-bearers of God; and to say “neighbors” instead of “brothers and sisters,” because gender is not only limited to two possibilities’ I recognize how changing my words has the power to reveal grace and truth, just as it has the power to harm or kill. Still, there are so many words to unlearn, to divest of flesh and their destructive power.
The beauty of this process is that while we unlearn the old words, we learn new words and re-create the world around us. There is no vacuum. But the Gospel writer says that The Word was not just born but dwelled among us.
I think of so many words that I want not just to speak but to dwell, make a home, in all our hearts–words that have the power to transform, to speak life, freedom, and inclusion. Words that are core tenets of the Gospel. They are words like love, justice, forgiveness, mercy, and truth.
John’s Gospel says, “…What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people” (1:3, 4). I know those words are life, and yet I still struggle to let these dwell in me.
Why is it so hard for the good words we desire to dwell in us?
I don’t think there is just one answer to that question. But part of it may be the way the Word himself embodied humble flesh: he was full of “grace and truth.” And at least in speaking life-giving words of grace and truth, whether they fully dwell within us or not, we recognize and call out the image of God in one another. That, in itself, is always good. And it’s one way to resist violent dehumanizing rhetoric.
What are some good words you’re learning? What are some you have let go?
A version of this blog post was previously published on The Mudroom Blog.