Swaggering words and the Commonwealth of Heaven

By Jill Segger
August 15, 2017

“Actions speak louder than words”. “ Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. We have all heard these axioms from childhood and may trot them out from time to time. But in their dissociation between means, end, and truth, they mislead us.

With regard to the first, most of us will of course know the smooth talker whose promises bear no relation to delivery or reality. However, equally disconcerting, and arguably more significant, is the answer which does not soothe our desires or sensibilities but is nonetheless a precursor to right action. The parable of the two sons of the vineyard owner (Matthew 21) reminds me that the ways of the Divine do not always wait on human etiquette and the words of Empire cannot not build the Commonwealth of Heaven.

There remains the inescapable fact that words have immense power to injure, damage trust and to inflame hostility. By employing aggressive and/or military metaphors, the basest instincts of individuals, communities and nations may be engaged with potentially catastrophic results. Donald Trump's “locked and loaded” – military jargon for fitting a magazine to an automatic weapon – carries a weight of swagger and truculence which is utterly different to conveying a sense of preparedness with integrity. “Fire and fury”, like “shock and awe”, are simultaneously risible in their crudity and terrifying in their careless indifference to potential consequences. These are words deliberately chosen to provoke profoundly destructive actions by the volume and coarseness of their braggadocio. In depending upon the domination of rhetoric over discernment, they reverse the relationship of the old saw.

 For these “easy speeches”, decried by GK Chesterton, do more than “comfort cruel men” because they have the power to break more than bones. As carefully targeted stimuli to hate, division and violence, they wound our capacity for living harmoniously, for seeking solutions and nourishing whatever is good in our relationships. They may destroy our ability to build a better future for all.

There are very few words and phrases used by politicians which do not have some element of dog-whistling woven into the texture of their intent. This is less than honourable but it does depends upon a recognition of the charge and weight of words, their power and often their beauty. These units of sound and print are the building blocks of great poetry and prose, of spiritual and intellectual enlightenment and of the transmission across age, class and gender, of love and truth. Their employment in exploiting whatever is insecure and frightened in the human heart is the nearest I can come to understanding sacrilege.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Keywords:words | War | violence | Power | hate | division | abuse
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