Sticks and Stones

We teach children the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” to equip them against hateful and harmful things that people say. The saying means to remind people – the adults passing it on and the children learning it – that what people say about us does not necessarily have anything to do with who we actually are. Unfortunately, the saying ultimately proves to be only partially true. Words are powerful: they can hurt or help, harm or heal.

In fact, contemporary “speech-act theory” calls attention to the many ways in which words/speech fulfill “performative” functions. Without going into the intricacies of it, the theory recognizes that speech does things. It creates. Children grow up in speech-rich environments and the tenor and tone of these environments play major roles in creating the world these children grow to inhabit. A hatred-shaped environment creates a world in which children learn and exercise hatred; if they are the targets of the hatred, they will learn fear. If the discourse that surrounds them categorizes and valorizes people according to accidents of birth such as gender or race, or according to extrinsic properties such as social status or wealth, then children will mature into adults who regard the value Christianity places on every life and the democratic ideal of the equality of all as platitudes, statements designed to placate and pacify those “lower” on the hierarchy.  In these ways, words can break bones just as surely as sticks and stones do. Words can shape people into hateful, fearful, arrogant harm-doers.

God created the good world via the word. Human words can create pseudo-worlds of perception and deception, worlds that are not good but harmful. People create such worlds when they spread unfounded rumors about others, whey they attack another’s personhood by name-calling, and when they define an entire person by a single characteristic (poor, black, redneck).  This power of words, of course, is why, even in a society that prizes freedom of speech, we still have laws against libel, slander, and incitement – all uses of words that can destroy careers, reputations, families, and even lives. Every lynching in the awful days of the post-reconstruction, pre-civil rights South began with words.

“For as one thinks in one’s heart, so is one…” (Prov 23:7).

The insights offered by speech-act theory, however, do not address another function of language: the capacity for revelation fundamental to the ability to communicate. A speaker formulates an idea that he or she wishes to convey to another. Aside from behaviors such as gestures, the only medium available is words.

In this sense, words reveal the speaker’s internal world. In fact, by virtue of the nature of personhood, one can never fully know the subjective experience of another person; one can only know it imperfectly if the other person chooses to disclose it, to reveal, to communicate. Words reveal the inner world of a speaker – albeit only to a degree.

Whew! Speaking words , the paragraphs about contain a lot of them, and dry, theoretical ones, at that. Words create conditions (good or bad); words reveal their speaker.

It seems to me that the moment (I write on the eve of the third and final presidential debate) calls for reminders of these two functions of words. The locker room is one of the places where words shape pseudo-worlds in which it is permissible for “boys to be boys” (which I perceive as an insult to any and all decent men) and in which women and girls are playthings. The campaign podium is no place for words that I will not print here. People do and say deplorable things, but no one is deplorable.  Calls for violence will elicit violence (on both sides: witness the recent firebombing in Orange County, NC).  Threats intimidate, as they mean to do. Talk of rebellion leads to rebellion.

I hope not to sound Pollyanna-ish.  I do not expect to live in a society that tolerates only that speech which would have passed my mother’s test of decency.  I do long, however, for less foul, less rude, less derogatory, less demeaning, more elegant, more polite, more elegant, and more loving public and private discourse.  Moreover, I fear that if we continue down the path we are now pursuing, we will pay heavily.

Meanwhile, not because I am eager to judge others, but because one must exercise discernment, I am going to operate on the theory that one’s words reveal one’s heart, and that hurtful words, therefore, reveal hurtful intentions.  Most of all, however, I am going to return to a practice of my childhood and pray regularly with the psalmist,

“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart,

                       be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”

Would you consider joining me?

Dirt to Dust

Do Unto Others

Read in tandem, Genesis 1 and 2 state perhaps the most fundamental polarity of human existence.  Genesis 1 describes God’s creation of humankind in God’s very own “image and likeness.” It is difficult to imagine a more definitive declaration of the dignity and significance of being human. Humans bear God’s image; every human being is like God. Of course, being like also entails being unlike. Likeness is not sameness. ?As if to answer the question concerning the difference implied in likeness, Genesis 2 recounts God kneeling in the dirt to mold Adam (Hebr. = “humankind”) from the dirt (Hebr. adamah = “earth, ground, red clay”) and to breath into the clay figure the “breath of life.” Human beings are creatures with all the limitations, fortitude, and mortality inherent in that station. Indeed, as God reminds the first human pair later, “You are dust and you will return to dust.”

Recently, I assigned my Old Testament students the task of reflecting on what it means to be a human being in the light of the poles of human existence established in Genesis 1-2. Somewhat to my surprise, almost without exception, my students devoted their essays to discussion of the glorious dignity, responsibility, and possibility promised human beings by virtue of our god-likeness. Most virtually ignored the Genesis 2 reminder of human finitude, and some expressed discomfort with the image of the animated clay figure, arguing that it undermines human dignity as bearers of God’s image.

I grew up in a Christianity still perceptibly under the long shadow of “sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God” theology. In my youth, we sang hymns about what ‘wretched worms’ we were. We celebrated that God extended love and grace to vile, depraved, unworthy beings such as ourselves. In the early phase of my theological education, observations that, in fact, God called all of God’s creation “good,” and that the notion of redemption involves God’s determination not to abandon God’s good creation, explicitly that part of it stamped with God’s image and likeness, came as a liberating recognition. The shift from one imbalance to the other is still imbalance, however.

Like many, I hope, I have become increasingly perplexed and alarmed by the growing incivility evident in contemporary American society – No, that puts it too blandly – by the growing rudeness, crudeness, coarseness, and downright meanness evident in contemporary American society. A presidential candidate brags that he is not a gentleman. (I chose that phraseology on purpose because the fact that it sounds to old-fashioned highlights my point.) Worse, his attitude only replicates the attitudes of many men across our country, an attitude that finds rich soil for replication in the jock and fraternity cultures on our high school and college campuses. Ethan Anthony Couch, after driving drunk on a restricted license and plowing into a group of people, killing four, violates the already lenient terms of parole at an under-age beer pong party and flees to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  His attorneys had argued that he suffered from “affluenza” and should not be sentenced at all, but be given rehabilitation instead. Internet/online shaming , slut culture, sexting, and a host of other digital phenomena represent other examples of the arrogant disregard for the dignity of others, or stated in the converse, a denial of one’s own finitude. Perhaps in reaction to our Puritan cultural heritage, for at least the last half-century, we have emphasized self-esteem, self-assertion, self-definition – in a word: self. Should there be any surprise that a culture of “you’re not the boss of me,” “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me,” “I want what I want when I want it,” “My mind is made up,” “Me first, you take care of yourself the best you can” thinking produces arrogant, rude, uncompassionate egocentrists?

The biblical definition of human nature as a polarity reminds us that, in fact, we are finite, limited. At least two dimensions of this finitude provides an antidote for rampant selfishness.  First, while I may be somehow like God, unlike God, I am not absolutely capable. I am often wrong (and so are you); I have talent in some things, but even in them, I can still develop further, learn more. In fact, one could argue that the supreme expression of human wisdom is a healthy awareness of what one can and cannot do.  Healthy self-esteem reflects both recognitions. Second, my ego meets a firm boundary when it encounters yours. I bear the image of God, but so do you. If I assert my will without regard for that boundary, I violate the dignity and respect due another created in God’s image.

Human existence involves a polarity, but not a dichotomy. (Appropriate) pride and (appropriate) humility are not opposites; they are complements.

I hope that we can remember this truth the next time we drive on the interstate, jockey for a parking place at Walmart™, or post something political on FaceBook™. Please God, may we remember to teach our children how to have dignity and how to behave with it.

“Do unto others” might be a good starting place.

The Syntax of Discipleship

Matt 28:19

The pendulum swings to and fro in the field of (higher, including theological) education from extreme to extreme, returning briefly to the center only to pass through it again. Early in my teaching career, the watchword was “transformational education.” The primary object of education, according to proponents of the philosophy, involves changing Continue reading The Syntax of Discipleship

A Little Leeway

1 Kgs 19:14; Exod 4:1; Acts 5:38-39; Amos 9:7

On a recent rainy weekend following a particularly demanding work for both of us, my wife and I spent a significant portion of Saturday afternoon watching a “Matlock Marathon” on cable TV. I found it amusing that, quite formulaically, the moment came in every episode we saw when Matlock would stop cross-examining the witness (invariably the true Continue reading A Little Leeway

By our Fruits

Luke 16:19-31

Several years ago now, when I had been teaching undergraduates for a few years, I said something (demonstrably true) in class about the text-critical problems with a particular passage of scripture that caused a minor disturbance among students.  It soon reached the ears of the administration.  Nothing came of it in the long run, I am happy to say, except for Continue reading By our Fruits

Because he could

Gen 32:28

Translating from one language to another always involves imprecision and a degree of informed speculation.  Such is especially the case with dead languages since the translator cannot have access to a native speaker for advice.  One passage in Genesis has long intrigued me because the almost universally accepted translation does not seem to fit the Continue reading Because he could

Grace: Transactional or Transformational?

Exod 2:24; Judg 2:16; Luke 17:12-19

This time of year means preparation for facing first year students. Most have never engaged in rigorous academic study of the Bible. They come to seminary as I came to my undergraduate religion major, innocently expecting that the Bible says what they have always thought it said and that serious study of it will only confirm what they Continue reading Grace: Transactional or Transformational?

“Be Angry and Sin Not”

Eph 4:26 (Ps 4:5 [4])

My parents had a mixed marriage of sorts.  My mother had Quaker and strict Methodist heritage; my father was (still is, he would say) a United States Marine.  Mother taught me that I should avoid conflict, bear insult and injury with quiet grace, and, above all else, maintain control of my temper.  In her view, anger was always and only as dangerous and Continue reading “Be Angry and Sin Not”