“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This old playground chant is as false as the Tooth Fairy, and far more damaging. It’s possible that many people told me I was smart and pretty and capable when I was a child. That’s not what I remember, though. I remember the cruel words of classmates, and harsh comments made by family members. These were the things that reached deep into my being and grabbed hold with a surprising strength. It’s taken many years to heal the wounds these words left, while the physical injuries healed in a matter of days.
There is a reason that Jesus is the Word-Become-Flesh. It’s hard to ignore the Word of God when flesh and blood are involved. The Incarnation can remind us that words take on a life of their own as soon as we speak them (or write them). Our words should echo the Word, filled with abundant life and love. However, that is often not the case. We become complacent or ambivalent or even apathetic, and let the words flow without regard to who might be listening.
Some reporting around the most recent celebrity death by suicide shows how apathy (or ignorance?) can create language that is risky. A few news outlets reported the method of suicide. Those of us not at risk for suicide may think nothing of this other than that it is a tragedy. Others who live with suicidality or are at increased risk at this time may have different thoughts entirely, thoughts that can lead to suicidal behavior or another suicide death. Reporting that someone dies by suicide is fine. Naming or describing the means spreads contagion: increasing the likelihood that others may engage in the same behavior. Naming the means of suicide helps no one and, potentially, harms many. Naming suicide as the cause of death breaks the silence and the stigma surround suicide, and may enable someone to reach out and seek help. Our language matters.
Language has always mattered. When we look at the text in Mark where Jesus is accused of “being out of his mind” and being possessed by Beelzebub, we have to wonder how to phrase these things today. We might be tempted to say that people thought Jesus was “crazy.” There was a time when this would have been a fine description. Yet the word “crazy” is not what it once was. It’s a derogatory word for many who carry a mental health diagnosis, even if we choose to use it to describe ourselves or our own family systems. However, when the label is pasted onto us by others, it doesn’t feel good. In essence, “crazy” is a word I can use to describe my own mental health, but not a word that you can use to describe me (unless you, too, carry a mental health diagnosis and we have an agreement that “crazy” is okay to use between us).
When Jesus’ family sought to “get hold of him” because there were people saying that he was not in his right mind, it’s possible that some in the crowd meant the description to be derogatory. It’s also possible that they were trying to protect him because he was putting himself in danger with what he was saying and what he was doing. They could have been saying, “he’s unwell” like we might say of a friend who was engaging in risky behavior because they were experiencing symptoms of mental illness.
On the other hand, when the Temple Authorities accuse him of being possessed by Beelzebub, there’s no question of what they meant. They were saying he’s evil, unpredictable, and dangerous. They were trying to discredit his teaching and his healing in much the same way some people might try to discredit the work of someone who lives with a mental health challenge. The Temple Authorities were afraid of Jesus and what his teachings could mean for the many who lived under Roman oppression. The easiest way to diminish Jesus’ power was to call his sanity into question. In this case, it meant calling his goodness, his godliness, into question.
Jesus, of course, was having none of it. In response, he claimed his own power and authority and challenged those who sought to discredit him. He redefined family and claimed his position as God’s Beloved. This is the Word-in-the-Flesh. This is the Word that heals and brings abundant life.
Those of us who claim to be followers of this Word, need to be ever mindful of our words. Now is not the time to be careless with our language. We are called to care for the vulnerable among us. We are called to confront the bullies who seek to soothe their own fear and insecurity by demeaning others. Let’s pay attention to the needs of those around us and speak words of healing and hope and abundant life.
We know now that words matter. They can wound deeper than any physical injury. Yet, words can also extend hope to the hopeless. It’s our responsibility as the Body of Christ to choose our words carefully so that harm comes to no one. Let’s remember that all of us, maybe especially those who have mental health challenges, are vulnerable to the power of words. May we emulate the Word and speak Truth to power and speak Love to the most vulnerable among us.
RCL – Year B – Third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20 with Psalm 138
Genesis 3:8-15 with Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Photo: CC0 image by Ralf Kunze