'Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words can never hurt me.'
Do you remember that little rhyme from childhood? I wonder whether kids today still sing it when they are confronted by name-calling in the playground today? Of course, whatever bravado we might ahve wanted to exhibit when we said that in public, the truth is that words do hurt. How often, whether as adult or child, have we been wounded by the words of another to the point of tears or worse?
I grew up in the North of Ireland at the height of the so-called Troubles. The 1970s were a brutal time for that part of the world, marked by a large army presence and increasingly segregation of the two communities. One of the factors that lay behind the Civil Rights Movement was the blatant discrimination shown in the allocation of council housing. As soon as direct rule was imposed in 1972, social housing was removed from the control of local politicians and put in the hands of an independent Housing Executive.
When I was four
years old, my family and I were rehoused in a brand new Housing Executive estate. It was exciting to be in a house with a bathroom for the first time! The day after we moved in, slogans were painted on our house: 'Fenians out!' (Fenian is a derogatory word for Catholic). I was too young to remember that but I did end up becoming friends with one of the only two Catholic families on the estate. Looking back, they probably sought me out as a fellow Catholic, little realising that I was a Methodist! So I grew up on our estate with the name 'Fenian lover' being shouted at me, as my Catholic friends and I were regularly harrassed and even beaten up by local gangs.
I wonder how the Canannite woman - not even allowed a name in the Gospel narrative - felt when Jesus talked about 'dogs'? There's a story in Methodism that once a liberation theologian asked a great liturgical scholar why there wasn't more of Uur Lord's CV in the Creeds. It all seemed a little thin on the details of Jesus' earthly life. 'What, like the story of the Canaanite woman,' came the swift reply, 'When Our Lord was shown to be a blatant racist?! Perhaps it's well to stick with what we've got.'
I told that story a number of years ago in a church I served which was an LEP. The congregation didn’t say much to me about it after the service but the following week my colleague from the other denominations preached a sermon on why Jesus wasn’t a racist. Make of that what you will.
If we take nothing else from this gospel story, it is that racial slurs and name-calling are nothing new. To the first hearers of this story, we can only imagine they saw little to complain about. Yet today, for modern Christians, it paints Jesus in a much less favourable light than perhaps the writer intended. Jesus is shown here to be a person of his time, a first century Palestinian Jewish man whose culture told him he was superior to women and to other ethnic groups. It is clear that he saw his mission as one to the Jewish people - 'the lost sheep of Israel' - and was therefore reluctant to include others. Yet, this unnamed woman persisted and argued her case.
Words have power.
There are not many examples in the Gospel of Jesus being surprised. In fact, he can sometimes come across as a bit of a know-it-all, with privileged information kept from others. But here he seems to be genuinely surprised by the faith of the Canaanite woman and so relents and changes his mind about helping her. It is her words and what underlies them that bring change. By her words she demonstrated her faith in Jesus’ healing power:
‘… what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart …’
But it can also defile.
We live in a world filled with words – written, spoken, broadcasted, tweeted and retweeted.
Within seconds, we can know what is on the mind of the US President or a slum-dweller in Mumbai. Within minutes of the latest atrocity, we have witnesses and analysis, often in the absence of any real knowledge. Speed seems to have replaced accuracy in the world of modern reporting and the appetite for more, faster, seems insatiable.
Whatever the public clamour, the need for reflection is greater than ever. To know the true power of words ought to lead to circumspection, the idea that a response should be offered only after careful thought. Otherwise, the danger is that our utterances simply add to the pile of platitudes, offering comfort to no-one but ourselves.
Careful – in its original sense – words, spoken clearly, are needed in the light of Barcelona and Charlottesville and Turku. This is not a time to be silent forever and we cannot hide away; such hatred and destruction demand a response. Such racism and other perverted versions of ideological purity, defiling the whole notion of our common, shared humanity, must be faced.
Words have power to hurt and heal.
As always, we must begin with ourselves, in the words of the Corrymeela Community, by 'acknowledging our own complicity in the fractures of our world.' True transformation begins with repentance, a serious inspection of the logs in our own eyes, of the times when we have used words to demean, hurt, even dehumanise. They say that hatred must be taught, and it is words that convey such hate into the hearts and minds of others. Unless we can see that we, too, in our own small way, have been part of the problem, then our attempts at solutions will fail.
Words have power to hurt and heal.
In acknowledging the hurt we have caused we also see our own power. We have long convinced ourselves - and others - that our actions and thoughts do not matter, will not make a difference. In the face of great problems, we can but stand and stare. What we say and what we believe matter and change the world around us. Christian faith tells us that, if words hurt, they can also heal.
In the coming days,
Amidst the words of anger and anguish,
Tales of simple heroism,
Bravery in the face of hatred,
Pronouncements and proclamations,
Strong words for serious times:
Let there be a word of healing.
When the broken bodies
Have finally been laid to rest,
And news crews gone
To film another hate-filled act,
Hushed streets have filled with life,
Bouquets withered and candles burnt out:
Let the word of healing come.
Life, love, friendship, faith,
Kindness and laughter,
Forgiveness and mercy,
Gentleness and peace:
Buried in the rubble of hatred,
But not destroyed;
Germinating in the days to come,
in lives of hope.
(A sermon preached at Kenilworth Methodist Church on Sunday 20 August 2017.)