At the Gate: Word Wounding

Sitting at the gate, we hear all sorts of conversaions. Some are formative; others are deformative. Some build up; others tear down.

Whoever coined the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was dead wrong. Dead wrong. Words wound. Words do harm.

Of all people, Christians should know this. We are products of “the Word” made flesh. We are incarnational people, not only in relation to Christ, but also in our recognition that our words engender behavior. Affirmed faith becomes enacted faith.

Years ago, a seminary student from Princeton took one of my classes during the January term. I do not know what about the course led him to write his final paper on the link between language and behavior, but that’s what he chose to do. It was an excellent paper, one that I kept and referred to. Sadly, it has gotten lost in my comings and goings, but I remember the essence of it to this day.

Drawing on research from linguistic studies, Jim (I think that was his name) showed how language influences behavior…words generate ideas, ideas create impressions, repeated impressions become beliefs, beliefs lead to convictions, and convictions are enacted. He went on to say that cultures behave on the basis of this evolution of their language.

The recent shooting in Colorado Springs (to say nothing of other innumerable examples) has brought Jim’s paper to mind once again–in this case, the way language leads to violence, how a society’s use of words creates a culture of harm.

In this context, it is telling that some anti-LGBTQ+ Christians and Christian ministries have denounced the Colorado Springs murders, but stopped short of acknowledging culpability for using words, developing theologies, and establishing ideologies that shooters use to justify their actions. Some of the wounding words are in their publications and social media; others are spoken at their gatherings. When these words fall on some people’s ears, they create ideas, impressions, beliefs, convictions….and actions.

I am thinking today about Jim’s paper in my class. We are living in a time when words are wounding others figuratively and literally. That any segment of Christianity would contribute fuel to the fire through deformative language is to our shame and to the dishonoring of Christ. Sticks and stones do break bones. Words do too.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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