Words matter!

There was a book by the great science fiction writer Robert Heinlein that I loved to read. Methuselah’s Children was originally a story which was expanded into a novel. It was the story of an incredibly long-lived family and the struggles between them and the “normal” people who believed that the Howards had discovered a secret of long life and were keeping it from them.

Ultimately the Howards were forced to leave earth…partially driven out by the subtle use of words. The words in and of themselves were not problematic, but when they were put together in specific ways, they were weighted in a way against the Howards that built walls and created separation between members of communities.

We have found out again tonight that words matter. Twenty people have lost their lives–and more may yet die.

Why?

We don’t have all the information yet, but it seems that the young man was angry about what he saw as a Hispanic “invasion” of Texas and hated the thought of “race mixing.” Where did he get those ideas?

When the president of the United States calls people with non-white skin rapists, vermin, criminals…when he separates children with non-white skin from their parents and puts them in cages…when he calls the countries occupied by people with non-white skin “shithole countries”…when he tweets concerns about people with non-white skin “breeding”…he is setting a mood and establishing a perspective that says that people with non-white skin are somehow “less than.”

When he refuses to specifically disavow ideology that raises people with white skin to a superior position over everyone else…when he says that there were “good people on both sides” at a rally where people were killed protesting that ideology…when he refuses to shut down a chant of “send them back” towards women with non-white skin who are American citizens…he is signaling that white Americans are more important than anyone else.

He–and we–cannot have it both ways. The words that we use matter, and when individuals use our words as a reason to harass, assault, or kill any other person simply because of their ethnicity or race, gender or sexual orientation, or religious belief, it is hypocritical to then send thoughts and prayers to the families of the victims and the survivors.

Our words matter…and we have to take responsibility for them. That responsibility starts at the top, but it also includes us. If we do not speak out against those words that build walls, that raise one group of people to a superior position over another, then we are also culpable when someone takes those words to heart and decides that those who are “less than” should be killed.

In the words of a leading Jewish rabbi of the 20th century:

Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.

We can choose to make our words end in good deeds…or they can end in tragedies. Which will it be?

Not an enemy of the people

“Enemy of the people.” That’s a phrase that has become a favorite of Donald Trump when he doesn’t like something in the news…and it’s a phrase that should concern each of us.

A free and open press is not the enemy of the people. In fact, it’s the opposite. We might not like what someone reports–but without the ability to question…to challenge…we are limited to what any particular administration wants us to know. And that is not democracy; it’s what authoritarian governments do.

Do I think that all reporters are neutral in their questioning? No. They’re human beings like the rest of us–with biases and warts. But by and large, they are doing their best to help us (the people) know what’s happening in our government…how our tax dollars are being spent…the stories behind the decisions that we hear about.

You can find a list of what are considered the most credible and least biased news stories here. It’s a long list–and there are probably a number of them that you’ve never heard of. I know that’s true for me.

I also know that I don’t have time to go through all of them. So I try to at least be aware of the perspective of the news sources I do look at–and try to look at the news from different sources in order to get a more balanced view. Here’s a graphic that might help:

But I think it’s extremely important for all of us–whatever our political leanings might be–to push back whenever we hear newspapers and other news media being called the enemy of the people. That’s the phrase of someone who wants to be able to do whatever he/she wants without being held accountable to we, the people–and that’s not democracy!

Pursue peace.

In my faith tradition, the two words in this title are part of our contemporary scriptures. “Pursue peace.”

That sounds so simple…but what does it really mean? I’ve thought a lot about that recently, especially in light of (1) the lectionary scripture for this last weekend in May and (2) the fact that this is Memorial Day weekend in the United States.

Part of the lectionary scripture says this (John 14:27): “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Memorial Day–while often the “kick-off” celebration for summer in the United States–is actually a memorial for those who have died in the service of their country.

And so, as I think of these two things–and “Pursue peace”–I wonder. What does Christ’s peace mean?

I appreciate those who have served in the military. My husband was in the Navy during Vietnam. Two grandsons also served in the military–one a Marine who is now buried in a veterans cemetery, and the other in Afghanistan in the Army. They did what they believed needed to be done to try to bring peace.

But does it?

How many wars have been fought to try to bring peace? And how long has any of those times of “peace” lasted?

The peace that Christ promised (and promises) is not what the world expects. It’s a peace that is so much more than merely the absence of conflict! It’s right relationships… wholeness…reconciliation…completeness…wellbeing…a willingness to give back.

We’re never going to get that through force. Violence begets nothing but violence.

Pursuing Christ’s peace is not going to be easy. It’s counter-cultural. It requires us to see those we disagree with as people of value…people we need to be willing to listen to and work with the find common ground. It requires us to let go of our insistence on our own way and our confidence that we are right and have all the answers.

We don’t.

We can’t go on the way we have. Our world is hurting–desperately–and needs Christ’s peace.

Let’s pursue that peace.

Shalom is what love looks like in the flesh. The embodiment of love in the context of a broken creation, shalom is a hint at what was, what should be, and what will one day be again. Where sin disintegrates and isolates, shalom brings together and restores. Where fear and shame throw up walls and put on masks, shalom breaks down barriers and frees us from the pretense of our false selves. –Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick

Practicing Christian…believing Christian?

I was recently at a retreat where our presenter, Jane Vennard, talked about the way she described herself in the forward to her book Fully Awake and Truly Alive. Her description intrigued me, and I’ve been thinking about the meanings of the descriptions she used.

She describes herself as a “practicing Christian” rather than a “believing Christian.” A first response might well be, “Then how can she describe herself as a Christian?” But as I’ve thought about those words, the more sense they make…and are words that I want to claim as my own descriptors.

While others might have different reactions to the choice of words, here’s how they strike me.

Describing oneself as a “believing Christian” has been the default for many of us for many years–and is perhaps the simplest way of defining oneself. That means that there’s a specific list of beliefs that we agree with. It doesn’t necessarily require anything other than saying, “Yes, I believe that…I agree with that.” It allows me to sit comfortably in my pew (or chair) on Sunday morning, nodding my head in agreement, and then going back home until the next time the church doors are open.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to identify as a believing Christian…but I think it’s incomplete.

To be a “practicing Christian” is harder. It’s not that there is a specific list of beliefs that I have to agree with. Rather, my focus is on trying to emulate the example of the one we call the Christ…being with people…listening to them…bringing healing when possible…sharing good news…and all the other things that Jesus did when he walked on this earth. Beliefs may (or may not) grow out of these actions–but if I am working at being a practicing Christian, then my relationships with the people I meet will certainly have more in common with the kinds of ministry Jesus brought.

Ideally I can be both a practicing and a believing Christian…if my beliefs call me to actions that emulate the One whose name I claim. But if it comes down to a choice between them, I will choose to be a practicing Christian because I think that is much more in line with the challenge given to us in Matthew 25:31-46 (this is The Message version):

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.”

Then those “sheep” are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?” Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, “Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.”

Then those “goats” are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?”

He will answer them, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.”

Words hurt…or heal

I’ve been thinking a lot about words recently…about words and the impact they can have on us.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the wars the United States has been involved in–or whose parents or grandparents told us about them–can remember the ugly names we used to describe our enemies.

Those words were designed to dehumanize those we were fighting…to keep us from seeing them as human beings like us…with families who loved them…who had similar dreams and hopes as we did. And it succeeded–far beyond the war(s). Many of those words were used to describe people from those countries well beyond the end of the “official” war.

The United States is not the only country that did this. Others did as well. The example that had one of the most horrific results was Nazi Germany–with its description of “the other” (handicapped, Jews, Roma) as “vermin,” “mongrels,” “subhuman.”

The sad thing is that we see much of that being repeated today. People fleeing violence and poverty are being described by the current administration as “criminals” and “rapists” who are “infesting” the United States. The truth is that less than 1% of those seeking asylum are people we might fear. The rest are families or individuals who are trying to find a safe place–and who want to build better lives for themselves and their families.

I’m reminded of a book I loved by Robert Heinlein–Methuselah’s Children. It was the story of a particularly long-lived group of families…people who lived long enough that they became resented by those who lived “normal” lifespans. At one point in the book, as the families are gathering to try to find a safe place, Lazarus Long (the patriarch of the family) is watching and reading the news–and shows how subtle use of language is separating them from everyone else and demonizing them…making them “less than” and also someone to fear.

Yet words also have the power to heal and to bring us together. We have to be intentional to do this…to use words that include “the other”…to call out those words that are intended to divide us and foment hate.

It’s our choice. It’s easy to join the mobs that call out for separation…for dehumanizing and fearing those who are different. It’s more difficult to stand for those who have been marginalized…to delight in diversity rather than fear it.

But one brings death…the other brings life.

Having a dream

There are phrases and sentences that plant themselves in our memories and never go away. We may not always be aware of them–but they tend to surface at unexpected moments.

Sometimes they come from books and movies:

  • Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. (Gone with the Wind)
  • Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick)
  • We need a bigger boat. (Jaws)
  • A great man is passing by. (To Kill a Mockingbird)

Sometimes they come from songs:

  • The sound of silence (Simon and Garfunkel)
  • When will we ever learn? (Peter, Paul, and Mary)

And sometimes they come from political speeches:

  • Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. (John Kennedy)
  • We have nothing to fear but fear itself. (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
  • I have a dream… (Martin Luther King)

While they come to us in a context, we make them our own. And these last few weeks/months, the quote that keeps rattling around in my mind is Martin Luther King’s: “I have a dream…”

I dream of a day when we will see each other as brothers and sisters…when we will delight in our diversity–of color, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, age, religion…when we will honor what each one can bring to the table.

I dream of a day when economic disparities are a thing of the past…when each one has enough to meet their physical needs…when money is no longer what makes someone “important.”

I dream of a day when we understand the interconnectedness of all of creation…when we realize that we are not called to “subdue” the earth, destroying the environment we live in, but that we are called to be stewards.

I dream of a day when learning and knowledge are seen as important…and are available to all…when we see that both religion and science have something to teach us.

But all of this has to be more than merely a dream. Dreams can be ephemeral, vanishing in the morning when we wake up. For dreams to be more than words, actions have to be added to words.

Sometimes it’s difficult to determine what those actions should be, because each of us is different. Some of us are able to be activists, in the forefront of pushing for change. Some of us work better behind the scenes. Some of us are wordsmiths, creating blogs/plays/poems/stories that challenge who and what we are and call us to be better.

And so I say with Dr. King,

I have a dream today….I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope….With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will he able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will he free one day.

 

Romanticizing our history…

For the last fifteen years or so, I have enjoyed going out to the Kansas City Renaissance Festival. There have been wonderful shows of all types…fun visiting with “royalty”…and I have a number of friends who perform out there.

I also enjoy medieval murder mysteries…plays (think Lion in Winter) and TV shows (think Merlin).

It is fun…but it’s also not real. It’s a romanticized view of a very real history.

When we think about living “back then,” I would imagine that most of us dream of being a king or queen, prince or princess—or at the very least, a member of nobility. Who would choose to be a peasant?!

But do we think about what it was really like? The challenges and concerns a king might have had…of maintaining a wealthy façade…fears of being poisoned…fighting frequent wars. Or the challenges and concerns of a queen…being “sold” in marriage…possibly dying in childbirth. Those concerns (and others) aren’t part of our romanticized history.

Sometimes it’s just fun to “play” history. But sometimes doing that has very real—and lasting—impacts. We forget what really happened and ignore the damage that the real history caused (and may still be causing).

We romanticize our religious history, and by so doing, we continue to believe that those whose beliefs we support were always in the right…and those whose beliefs are different from ours were (and are) heretics who don’t deserve the same rights we have.

Even in our own specific faith traditions, romanticizing our history keeps us from really understanding how that tradition developed and keeps us from letting it grow.

We also often romanticize our own country’s history at times and do that to our peril. When we are not honest about past behavior, we ignore its continuing impacts…the breakup of families…the feeling of race superiority…the genocide of indigenous peoples…

Romanticizing history can be an enjoyable amusement. But it’s not a healthy way to live in a real world.