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Wordcraft vs. warcraft

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I write in jest (mostly), but by the time these words see print it may not be a joke. A “shocking” poll from YouGov indicates that over half of us fear civil war—actual armed conflict—within months of this election. Some are even stockpiling food and ammo against “civil unrest,” whatever that may mean.

In the summer of 2018 Rasmussen published a similar poll indicating a similar worry among 31 percent of us. The rhetoric has become even more heated since then, so the rise in tension is no surprise. But when do words become war?

Or do they? Does the old saw about sticks and stones breaking my bones still hold up? The free-speech battles continuing on college campuses are about violent words, or words as violence. Surprisingly or not, those who claim to be the most sensitive to verbal violence use the most violent words, like Nazi, Fascist, bigot, racist—usually with colorful adjectives attached. In March 2017, when sociologist Charles Murray was scheduled to speak at Middlebury College in Vermont, intemperate speech did lead to violence, even though Murray wasn’t the one speaking. He couldn’t speak. The protesters shouted him down, and later physically assaulted him.

Words come so easily to us we forget where they come from and what they do.

The protesters proved their point: Speech can be violence. Speech can also be love, pain, motivation, inspiration, peace, and war. Words come so easily to us we forget where they come from and what they can do.

Where they come from, originally, is God. What they can do is create. And destroy.

It’s no mere metaphor that Genesis shows a Creator who brings into being by speaking. “Let there be” forms the bridge between His infinite mind and the finite universe, stretching out time and space and calling into being things that were not. His word is power.

We as His image bearers, finite though we are, share a bit of that power. Our spoken words are puffs of air, shaped by breath and spit, riding sound waves to reach a receptor composed of tiny bones and membranes. Spoken words are a common-as-dirt example of the spiritual becoming material, as it did when “Let there be light” produced energy waves.

In something of the same way, Jerk! or Nazi! can produce a punch in the nose. Words become flesh, every day.

That’s why sins of the tongue get more coverage in the Bible than any other kind. James 3:1-12 is only one example. You can open the Psalms anywhere (as I just did) and find: “How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?” (Psalm 4:2); “You destroy those who speak lies” (Psalm 5:6); “They flatter with their tongue” (Psalm 5:9); “For there is no truth in their mouth” (Psalm 5:9). And why does Jesus say we’ll be accountable for every word we speak? We’d like to think He didn’t really mean that. But why wouldn’t He mean it?

Destructive words are easy, quick, and effective. Constructive words are not as easy and quick, but can be just as effective. Back to the Bible:

“Your sins are forgiven” (multiple passages).

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1).

“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people’” (Romans 9:25).

“[He] called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Words create realities on legal contracts, peace negotiations, architectural blueprints, declarations, and speeches. Families begin with them; cities build on them; churches are sustained by them; peace returns with them; hope rises on them.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think civil war is at hand, or not yet. But words are always on our tongues to say, hurtful and helpful. Enough of them can bring about a shooting war—it’s happened. But enough of the right words can restore peace. Here in the world we are walking around familiars and strangers every day, whether on the street or at home or even in our heads. What words do we have for them?

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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