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Stewardship of our words: Bringing
civility to discourse

Reflections placeholder
placeholder April 30, 2012   •   VOL. 50, NO. 8   •   Oakland, CA
Letters from Readers
Stewardship of our words: Bringing civility to discourse

As one who tries to stay informed, I've been dismayed by the deplorable lack of civility that seems to characterize much of our public discourse these days.

One example of this phenomenon is the 2012 presidential campaign. Political writer Daniel Sullivan stated the case quite eloquently when he wrote, "What's no laughing matter is the dangerous foray into the politics of "severity,"… The art of compromise and the virtue of civility have been replaced by a virtueless partisanship of opposition at all costs. … the 2012 election must commence a return to civility and statesmanship if we are to realize [the hope that] our best days remain ahead and not behind us."

Having made a similar observation, former First Lady Barbara Bush called the current state of politics "… the worst I've ever seen in my life ..." Differences of opinion over important issues are not new, but the extent to which we will go to condemn and demonize our political, social, ideological or religious opponents has become heart-sickening.

With Rush Limbaugh's venomous characterizations of Georgetown graduate student Sandra Fluke, it's clear we've reached a new contemporary low — and I think it begs the question "Is there anyone to whom we are responsible for the words we use?"

Christian stewardship and the biblical texts both speak to this issue. Christian stewardship says that, along with everything else we produce, our words matter. They are real and make a real difference in the world and in our hearts. Words are granted to us from God, our Creator. They are opportunities to do good or harm, and we are responsible for our choices.

Otherwise stated, "… Life and death are in the power of the tongue …" Proverbs 18:21.

In the Ancient Near East, many cultures understood that words, once spoken, changed the world in real ways. This principle is illustrated in a dramatic way in the story of Isaac and his twin sons Esau and Jacob.

Though the aged and feeble Isaac had intended to give his primary blessing to the eldest of the two brothers, Esau, he mistakenly pronounced it over his son Jacob. Though the mistake is revealed in short order, the blessing that Isaac had already spoken could not be rescinded. It was done. No laws or regulations were involved. No property had changed hands. Nothing at all had happened except a spoken blessing, but that was enough.

Today we seem to be much more careless and cavalier with our words. We say things, and attempt to take them back. We misspeak, misrepresent, mischaracterize and say all manner of things, especially when we think no one will notice. We justify (i.e., free speech), excuse (i.e. "I was just joking") and rationalize (i.e., "They started it") our harmful words.

These attitudes lose sight of the idea that we are responsible to God for every word we speak, the words we say can have a real effect on our own spiritual health and well-being, and our choice of words also affects the wellness of others.

As Jesus expressed quite pointedly in the Gospel of Matthew, "It is not what enters one's mouth that defiles the person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one." (Matt 15:11) President Obama seemed to capture this same spirit when in the aftermath of the attack that wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and killed and wounded others he poignantly urged us to, "pause for a moment, and to make sure that we are talking to each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."

Along with our politicians, public figures and pundits, it would serve us all to remember the words of the psalmist who prayed, "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer." (Psalm 19:14).

(Walt Sears is director, Pastoral Year Program, at St. Patrick's Seminary and University in Menlo Park.)

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