Ellen Seidman is on a crusade.

Her efforts have caught the attention of thousands of YouTube viewers, educators, 250,000 petition signers, and even past presidents such as President Obama. Her crusade doesn’t focus on ending poverty, racism, global warming, or sex trafficking. Her crusade is to end the use of a single word. Seidman and her followers seek to “spread the word to end the word.”  What’s the word that has captured the attention of so many?  Retarded. Her efforts first started by posting a video on her blog, Love That Max.1 Max is her 9-year-old son who has cerebral palsy and has experienced the emotional pain and isolation caused by the “R-word.”  Watching Max withdraw from others and question his sense of worth due to this word has been heart breaking and infuriating for this editor and mom. “It is a demeaning word even if it’s meant as a joke,” states Seildman, “because it spreads the idea that people who are cognitively impaired are either stupid or losers.” Dr. Stephen B. Corbin, senior vice president for community impact of the Special Olympics agrees. While Corbin acknowledges that “you can’t ban terminology any more than you can ban thought” the goal is to educate others of the dehumanizing impact language has on others.2

One of the significant problems of modern society is our careless handling and tossing about of words. How do we begin to cultivate civility in a communication climate immersed in vitriol?  To start, we must remind ourselves of the ability of our words to deeply confirm or disconfirm another. As Christian communicators, we must particularly embrace how seriously God takes human language.

God’s View of our Speech

In the sixth chapter of Proverbs we encounter a remarkable list of what God hates and finds detestable. The word hate is a Hebrew word often associated with disgust and represents God’s emotional reaction to certain human actions. Seven actions evoke disgust from God: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to shed evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who stirs up dissension among brothers (6:17-19). What is interesting is that of the seven mentioned four have to do with our communication. Haughty eyes refer to an arrogant stance towards others as evidenced by a non-verbal posture that is meant to intimidate and demean others. A lying tongue and false witness both pour out lies. Last, God reacts to anyone who uses communication to foster dissension among individuals. The first step to respecting communication is to realize the emotional response speech acts elicit from God. Far from being a stoic deity, God is deeply moved by our verbal and nonverbal choices.

Christ continues this emphasis on language when he declares that we all will be held accountable for every word uttered. At the end of our lives each of us will have to give an account of the millions of words we have spoken (Matt.12:36).  Why are our words so important?  Christ explains: “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). For the biblical writers the heart represents the center of a person’s personality, emotions, intellect, and volition. It is through our communication with others that we glean a robust picture of a person. While all of communication exposes our inner person, Christ particularly isolates “careless” words that are spoken with little forethought (Matt. 12:36). The Greek word argos, translated careless, refers to words we deem insignificant.

A few years ago, my university starting filming courses for promotional reasons and posting sections of lectures on YouTube and other social media platforms. Two of my courses were selected and the effect it had on me was profound. Standing in front of my class and seeing the red light above the camera was a constant reminder that every word, joke, impromptu comment, critique, and response to students would be recorded and posted on the web the next day. Being recorded helped me understand that there are no careless comments—all are recorded and reflect who I am. When Christ tells us that our words reflect our heart, he was mirroring the attitude of many Roman and Greek philosophers who taught, talis oratio, quails vita (“As the speech, so the life”).3

A key motivation to reclaim the power of words is found in an unsettling statement about language found in Proverbs: “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (18:21). Our speech has the power to deeply build up or tear down others. In a culture that often uses language to demean and hurt, let’s focus on how words can build up others.

Imparting Life

Inherent in language is the ability to create closeness with God and others. Concerning God, have you ever wondered why he created us?  What do human communicators have to offer an all-knowing, all-wise, and self-sufficient God?  Perhaps, as many argue, we were primarily created to worship God?  Yet, Isaiah informs us that the chief responsibility of six-winged angels called seraphs is to hover above God and shout out, “holy, holy, holy” with such force that it shakes the doorposts of the temple (Isa. 6:2-4). Surely, we cannot out-worship seraphs. How can we engage God in a way that seraphs can’t?  Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic and recipient of the United States President’s Medal of Freedom, argues that one of God’s greatest miracles is endowing us with the ability to communicate: “If the Word of God is the source of God’s entire creation, then that part of God’s creation which is the human race exists as such only thanks to another of God’s miracles—the miracle of human speech.”4  However, doesn’t an all-knowing God already know our words before we speak them?  David boldly states that “before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord” (Ps. 139:4). So, why even bother to communicate with God?  The answer can be found in understanding that all communication exists on two levels—the content and the relational. The content level consists of the words we use to convey a message, while the relational level consists of the amount of acknowledgment and respect between two individuals. When it comes to our content God already comprehends our words as soon as we conceive of them and is intimately familiar with all of our thoughts (Ps. 139: 3). The uniqueness of human speech is that we can use words to interact with God on the relational level. The Scriptures inform us that “the Lord would speak to Moses face to face [acknowledgement], as a man does to his friend [respect]” (Ex. 33:11). The ability to focus on the relational level is not merely limited to God. Life is imparted to others when we focus on the relational level with those we care about.

Understanding how words impart life plays a significant role in fostering community. Social critic Marilyn McEntyre argues that foundational to forming relationships with others is our ability to reclaim a sacred perspective of language.

A large almost sacramental sense of the import and efficacy of words can be found in early English usage, where conversation appears to have been a term that included and implied much more than it does now: to converse was to foster community, to commune with, to dwell in a place with others. Conversation was understood to be a life-sustaining practice, a blessing, and a craft to be cultivated for the common good.5

Imparting life through our words is a craft that involves the ability to offer a blessing rather than curse, seeking common ground rather than exploiting differences, and being committed to dwell with others in community. Seen in this way, our conversations can be life-sustaining.

The most dramatic example of life-sustaining speech came at a church-wide prayer meeting I attended for a gravely ill pastor. While living in North Carolina one of our pastors, Greg, was in the last stages of succumbing to a long fight with cancer. In desperation, the church gathered to pray for healing. While Greg was too sick to attend, his two sons came to the meeting. For various reasons, the two boys had stopped attending church and were struggling with their faith. At the end of the meeting it was announced that Greg had unexpectedly shown up and wanted to address the crowd. He looked frail as he slowly walked to the microphone. In a weak voice he thanked us for coming and our prayers.

I will never forget what happened next. He specifically singled out two great men of faith who had stood by him during his illness and treatment. “These godly men are here for me and I lean on their faith.”  We all assumed he was speaking about the other two pastors in the audience. He then invited these two men—his sons—to come up and join him. The father knew they were struggling with faith, but made the decision to publicly impart life into them by speaking to their reality as children of God, not their immediate state. He reminded them who they were, not how they were currently struggling. Watching them stand next to their father—literally holding him up—I saw them transformed into Christ-like comforters.

The same strategy is used by the apostle Paul in his shifts between the indicative and imperative moods in his writing. The indicative mood indicates the way things are, while the imperative mood focuses on the potential fulfilling of commands. For example, in his letter to the Colossian church the first two chapters are written in the indicative mood reminding the readers of the freedoms they have in Christ. The next two chapters shift to the imperative mood; laying out commands for holy living. The turning point in the letter comes when he starts chapter three by stating, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ [indicative] . . . put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature [imperative]” (Col. 3:1;5). Like Greg with his two sons, Paul reminds his readers of who they are and what they can become.          

Similarly, could we not strike the same balance when disagreeing with fellow believers?  As we acknowledge the anger, hostility, and often raised voices surrounding our discussion of CRT, the past election, and vaccinations (imperative), could we not also remind ourselves of the lofty calling as peacemakers (indicative)?

Adapted from, I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations in Truth and Love (IVP).

Footnotes

  1. To learn more visit: hhttp://www.r-word.org.
  2. Ending the R-Word: Ban it or understand it?, Emanuella Grinberg, CNN. www.cnn.com/2012/03/07/living/end-r-word/index.html?hpt=hp_c4 (accessed October 19, 2012).
  3. Jeffery Hultin, The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment (Boston: Brill Publishers, 2008), p. 67.
  4. Quoted in, Barry D. Proner, “A Word about Words,” Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2006, 51, 423-435.
  5. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 2.

Tim Muehlhoff

Biola University
Tim is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, CA and is the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project which seeks to reintroduce humility, civility, and compassion back into our public disagreements.  His most recent book is Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without Dividing the Church (IVP).

One Comment

  • Brian Scoles says:

    Tim,

    You had me at hello.

    From 1990 – 1993, I served as a social worker helping people who have developmental disabilities. Both my twin brother and my sister-in-law have worked in the field for more than thirty years now. A single word matters, for good and for ill.

    I can still vividly recall Jim coming to see me one morning. On the way to work that morning, some of the kids at the middle school he passed called him the R word. I just wish that I had the words at the time to help Jim. I did not. I’m not sure that there were any at that moment.

    A person finds joy in giving an apt reply— and how good is a timely word! (Proverbs 15:23)
    Brian