The Power of Words


“Desmond tutu 20070607 2” by Elke Wetzig (Elya) – Own work. Licensed under CC By SA 3.0 via Commons

In Genesis 1 God spoke the world into existence. Whatever you believe about this, the narrative suggests how powerful words can be. Contrary to the old rhyme, words can hurt us, even though they leave no physical wounds. Consider the phenomenon of cyber-bullying. Youth have taken their own lives because of the hurtful words of others. Disagreements reach an impasse over words as simple as “always” and “never” that presume the worst of the other, and that things can’t be different.

Those of you who follow this blog because you love books know the power of words. Writers can speak a world into existence, evoke a mood, or in a propaganda work like Mein Kampf, stir a nation to war and genocide. Likewise, words can stir people to a noble vision.

In 1993, after the assassination death of Chris Hani, a black South African leader, Archbishop Desmond Tutu help avert a race war by leading a crowd of 120,000 in chants of “We will be free!”, “All of us!”, “Black and white together!” This exemplifies both the power of words and a singular example of “the speech of freedom.”

Tutu’s words were ones that suggested that the end of apartheid would mean freedom for both black and white. His chant wasn’t an incendiary one of us versus them but one that included those who would consider themselves his adversary. Apartheid was a burden for white as well as black. Ending the systemic racism of apartheid could lead to something different than a race war–a new South Africa where white and black could flourish together. And when apartheid fell, Tutu incarnated his words by heading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission–an effort to replace vengeance with penitence and forgiveness. And while no one would argue that post-apartheid South Africa is perfect, without the “speech of freedom” of leaders like Tutu and others, it could have been quite different.

The speech of freedom is speech that is conscious of the power of words. It recognizes that incendiary words can lead to the lighting of real fires. It recognizes that belligerent words can lead to real fights and wars. It recognizes that words are not something to play with to get more blog views, better ratings, or higher polling numbers.

When we truly exercise the speech of freedom we use the power of words to seek a more perfect union even with our antagonists. It might mean:

  • Owning one’s own contribution to the antagonism
  • Expresses grievance honestly without presuming motive
  • Looking for a resolution that is a win for us all
  • Learning what the other fears
  • Articulates the hope and vision of a world where “you” and “I” become “we” and “us”.

I wonder if we consider that there will be a reckoning for how we use the power of our words? It may be a reckoning with our own conscience. It may be with our children who will bless or shun us because of our words.

In my own case, I am aware that my life is an open book to God, one in which no word is hidden. I’m sobered by the words of Jesus:

I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter;  for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.(Matthew 12:36-37, NRSV).

To practice the speech of freedom, to be thoughtful of the power our speech has to promote the flourishing and freedom of others, just may be the thing that in the end makes us most free.



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