Ingrid Christensen, one time Director of the board for the Division for Church in Society of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said that when the church has done its best work it has done three things: had courage, listened to the people’s stories and kept God’s story of grace and mercy at the center of our work. Listening to the stories people tell is a way of giving validity to the lives we have lived. To listen is to tell people they matter. To listen to the words is to create a living monument to humanity. Our stories, our words matter. In this election year I am reminded of the power of words to sway our emotions, touching our deepest fears and attempting to give us easy answers for our greatest yearnings. The mis-use of words when they are used to manipulate and control is something about which we must always be aware. I recently listened to two professors discuss language and how it is being used to bring about decisions that influence not only our lives in this country, but also the world.
The language of fear is one that our enemies use with deliberation. Ask a child who is the victim of bullying what fear means -- non-acceptance, not being a part of a greater group, isolationism. Unfulfilled yearnings, desperation, lack of hope spill out by way of the power of words. It is the power of a language of fear that can cause us to give up our liberties into the hands of people who clasp the power for their own.
The language of isolationism is the idea that by staying out of the affairs of others we can protect ourselves. In this day and age that is not possible. But it is also a powerful language when dealing with religious and racial unrest, when we are talking about creating a kind of racial purity. When those of like mind isolate themselves from the “marketplace of ideas” their tenets harden and there is no room to breathe.
Appeasement had a meaning all its own when Hitler was seizing parts of Europe and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain came home to England with the words, “We have peace in our time.” Today appeasement is directed at affairs in which we are not directly involved whether in this country or another part of the world. “It is not our problem.” As if saying the words will make everything with which we are uncomfortable go away.
The world needs to listen to the language of the poor and downtrodden which is often a voiceless language. We need to combat words of racial and religious intolerance. It took lawmakers and this country over one hundred years before we finally heard the words of our fellow Americans and understood their words, “I have a dream.” When that dream was claimed by all it meant equal rights for all people regardless of race or gender. For a refugee the only words may be the quiet sobbing of a frightened child in a language we don’t understand or the huddled body of someone who has lost hope.
We need to fear when there are no words at all. The shallow tumble of words we text, Twitter and Tweet makes us numb to the deeper words we need to listen to and act upon. We can shut our ears and turn our backs, but the murmur of voices and the power of words are never silent.