I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news: The world isn’t safe.
The world seems safe and solid when you look at it, but the world is a remarkably malleable and volatile thing. Consider what words can do to it.
The words we utter do not land in the world benignly. They make ripples we cannot control.
Someone somewhere said immigrants are a problem. The unstable surface of the world carried the ripple.
Another person said brown people are a problem. Another ripple.
Someone else said brown immigrants are a particular problem. Another ripple.
The ripples converged and grew into waves and currents, eddies and vortexes.
Someone somewhere may have absorbed it and written a manifesto. He didn’t like the world he saw and decided to do something. Some believe he drove hundreds of miles to kill people. They were buying groceries and school supplies.
‘In the beginning was the Word’
Dehumanizing actions follow dehumanizing words.
This is the hard place between the bad news and the good news.
I remember the first time I used the n-word. It was the summer after my second-grade year, and I was at a YMCA summer camp. We were standing in line, maybe to get a drink at the water fountain. A couple of boys next to me told me to call the girl in front of us the n-word. They were laughing.
I’d never heard the n-word before. I didn’t have a clue what it was or what it meant, but I said it … to her. I called her “n—–.”
I remember the look on her face, and I remember getting in trouble and not knowing what was going on. I was hauled into the office. The adults were angry. My parents were called, and my mom picked me up early.
My mom told me what the n-word means, and I was still confused. Mostly, I was hurt. I was hurt that two boys would use me like that. I was hurt that they used me to hurt someone else, someone I had no animus toward, someone I didn’t want to hurt.
I wish I could say that experience changed me for the better, but it didn’t. I didn’t go on to use racial slurs. I did, however, continue to speak ill of people and to hurt people with words.
Perhaps being the editor of the Baptist Standard, where I have to be really careful with my words, is like penance.
The unpleasant truth is we all have touched the surface of the world with dehumanizing words about someone. They make ripples we cannot control. Our words travel further and longer than the shooter did.
‘The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any sword.’
The good news: Jesus changes things. And not just on the surface.
More than any other word rippling the surface of the world, Jesus set the world atremble. In response to the human penchant for dehumanizing others, Jesus took on human flesh. And we’re still unsettled by that.
Jesus cast words into the world the likes of which had never been heard before, words that still shake the world. He told us to love our enemies. He told us to forgive. He told us we are forgiven.
For such words, Jesus was dehumanized, and when his dehumanization was almost complete, he said, “Father, forgive them … . It is finished.”
With that, Jesus took the very worst that we are into the grave. Then he rose, marked but unencumbered by humanity’s worst and inaugurated the restoration of all things.
I am changed because of it, and I am being changed still. And I am far from the only one.
‘Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.’
The change Jesus works is beyond the surface, beyond the symptoms, even beyond words. The change Jesus works is in the depths of who we are. To get to such depths requires more than talk.
We can talk about gun rights and gun control, but none of that talk has gotten us anywhere, and it won’t get us anywhere because it’s talk about symptoms. We can talk about video games and mental illness, but it’s just more of the same talk about symptoms.
After all the talk, we are and will be right where we were when we started. We still will be people with rot in our hearts out of which we set the world atremble with our words.
Does this mean we should throw up our hands and quit? Should the gun control folks cede to the gun rights folks, or the other way around? Should we forget about violent video games, mental illness, online message boards and social media? Should we not institute smarter policies to make it harder for horrors like mass shootings to happen? No, no, no and no. Danger doesn’t have to be inevitable.
Compelled by Christ into the ministry of reconciliation
We do need to be smarter about guns. We do need to be more judicious about video games the internet and social media. We do need to provide better care for those with mental illness. We need to do these things as an expression of the fact that God has invested humans with infinite worth.
We also need to do these things and more while knowing such actions won’t change who we are. Legislation cannot get to the depths of our problem. Our talk and legislating around race has shown us that much. Despite decades of legislation—including constitutional amendments—race still is a dividing line between us. Consider Charlottesville, Charleston and El Paso among many other examples.
The world is unsafe not because the dad next door has a gun in his house. The world is unsafe not because the kid down the street is in despair. The world is unsafe not because the neighborhood includes more brown families than it used to.
The world is unsafe because we dehumanize one another. The world is unsafe because our hearts are rotten.
That’s the bad news, and it’s very bad news.
The hard truth is the rot is in us all.
The good news—the very good news: The world as we know it isn’t safe. For in Christ, “God was reconciling the world to himself,” making all things new again (2 Corinthians 5:17).
May his work reach completion.
Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP. The views expressed are solely those of the author.