Those who have worked with abused spouses and with domestic disturbances know that long before the physical battering ever occurs there exists a history of verbal abuse. Verbal violence always precedes physical violence. Whether it is domestic violence, the stereotypical bar fight, wars between nations, or mass murder, it all begins with words. This is not an original thought on my part. Jesus got to the heart of violence in his Sermon on the Mount.
“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, ‘Don’t murder, and all who murder will be in danger of judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
This kind of language might seem somewhat over-the-top from Jesus. After all, it could be argued, this is just a bit of name calling; I have a right to be angry and let those #*%!’s know about it! But here’s the deal: Whenever we resort to altering a person’s identity by not calling him/her by their actual name, then we make a significant change in how we view them. By using words like “moron” and “airhead” (the literal meanings of the words condemned by Jesus) then people become monsters and something other than people. Like the conquistadores justifying genocide toward “savages” we go after our gold agenda by whatever means necessary. We can’t justify the murder of people, but we sure can wipe out idiots and fools and those who are not civilized and enlightened like we are. There is no conscience if there are no people involved. Murder results from objectifying others, which begins with the hate speech of name calling. Actual physical homicide is committed after first verbally decapitating others, whether to their face, or not.
Now as soon as I say this it ought to become clear that the current use of words by many people surrounding the mass shooting in Las Vegas needs to change. I have seen the “f” word thrown around more than ever, with less than kind responses between differing views of gun control. Whenever we resort to name calling we actually become complicit in murder. It is far too easy to get sucked into the wide vortex of using violent words toward others, not realizing that it is a one way road to murder, to hell. The narrow path, instead, involves something different.
Jesus doesn’t just identify where murder begins, he also gives the solution as to what to do about it:
“Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23)
Atrocities begin with words, and end in carnage. The feeling of moral and religious superiority over others only exacerbates the situation. Before it gets to the point of physical violence, we can stop the progression through sincere reconciliation. That takes a willingness to engage in civil discussion, real dialogue, and genuine listening. If we do not create avenues to authentic relationship that eschews name calling and hardened opinions of others, we are no better than the people we vilify.
So, how will you use your words today? Do you have the humility to admit when your speech is hateful? What will you do to forge bonds of connection?