In January of 2011, seven and a half years ago, 19 people were shot and six people died in Tucson, Arizona. The target was a U.S. representative, Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head. She survived, but her life will never be the same. The tragedy caused a nation that was hyper focused on how to be as uncivil as possible to each other, particularly in disagreement, to pause and, for a short time, put away the rhetoric.
Barack Obama was president at the time, and he spoke words that were praised across the political spectrum at the Tucson Memorial Service.
Among other things, he said this:
“At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
I reread these words this morning, and I am again challenged by them.
Words that heal are rare and critically important in moments of tragedy. But they are just as important in everyday life. I look around as I walk the streets of my city and I see the “walking wounded”. I go on social media, and I see more wounds. Yet our default mode is not to speak healing words, but rather words of criticism and disapproval. I’d love to blame just the media for words that wound and criticize, but I know differently. I am far more guilty than I want to admit. The power of language and the way we put our words together is up to us; the way I put words together and how I use them is up to me.
My faith tradition has strong admonition and warning about the tongue. An entire chapter in the New Testament is devoted to talking about the tongue. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” And elsewhere I am exhorted to watch what I say, make sure it is gracious and seasoned with salt. “Let your speech be always full of grace, seasoned with salt.”
These are sobering challenges for me. Just recently I was called out by someone, and appropriately so. She knows what I believe, and what I believe was not reflected in what I publicly wrote. She held up a mirror to me, and what reflected back was not pretty.
Our world is desperate for healing words. Desperate. Anxiety, depression, and suicide are all on the rise. Public bullying is at an all time high, and we have a plethora of poor public examples and a dearth of good ones in every area of life – whether that be politics or faith.
We can’t change what other people choose to say. But we can change our own words. We can choose to speak words of hope and grace. We can choose to disagree with civility and respect.
We can choose to share words that “make souls stronger”.*