As I write this article, word has come of the death of poet Maya Angelou. Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Angelou’s life began in a context of poverty, racism, and fear. In her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou recounts the trauma of being sexually abused at age 8 by her mother’s boyfriend. The abuser was arrested; he spent one day and one night in jail and was released. But soon after his release, the man was found dead. He had been kicked to death by Angelou’s uncles. And when people came to the home of young Maya to tell her mother of the man’s death, Maya overheard the conversation and she concluded in her young mind that she was responsible for the man’s death. As she says: “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”
She remained nearly mute for five years. Ironically, Angelou would grow up to become a master of words. And while her words did not kill a man, she was right about this notion: words have power. The old adage: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is, in fact, a lie. Words have power to inspire, to injure, to lift up, to tear down. I think about Angelou’s care of words in light of the church’s vocabulary. We have words to speak. And we are called to be good stewards of the words given to us as the community of Jesus. Some of our words have been abused in the history of Christianity.
Not that there are not heavy, hard-to-bear words in our faith. Consider these: sinner, judgment, death, fear. These words are a part of our vocabulary. But they must be used with care lest we face the temptation to hurl them at another in order to build walls between who is in and who is out. I’m struck by the judicious use of words of judgment by Jesus. He was not afraid to toss out phrases like: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28).
I’m struck, however, by the way Jesus reserves his words of judgment for those persons who are like me: religious leaders. Jesus often seems to hold up a mirror to the folk who profess religious faith and invites them to consider why they are so bothered by his association with “sinners,” those persons to whom Jesus often speaks words of welcome and hospitality. Words matter. And as a church community we are called to tend to our words with care, especially when we are speaking about the other.
Jesus came and spoke words of hope and help to those who were seen as “the others” by the religious folk. And he calls us to embrace a community where we see the power of our language and where we, with care and compassion, speak words that proclaim the presence of God-with-us in hopeful and redemptive ways. As Angelou says: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”