"In the beginning was the Word", the first clause of the theological masterpiece which is the Gospel of John. "And God said, "Let there be light....", the first words of God at the beginning of all things, according to that equally remarkable meteor of theology, the creation story in Genesis. For Christians, those two moments of divine articulation should be enough to teach us respect, indeed reverence, for words. Whether written or spoken, words have performative power, they make things happen, they have an impact, they influence for good or ill, persuade of truth or lie, affirm or diminish, enlighten or deceive, liberate or oppress, heal or hurt.
As a Christian I have a responsibility to give an account of my words; indeed Jesus warned that the day would come when we will give an account of every word we have spoken. Now there's a warning for the biblical literalist self-righteously ramming their words of truth down other people's throats. Elsewhere in the Gospels there's a quite different scenario; of a Roman Centurion, a man of few words and most of them were orders to other people. His personal servant is about to snuff it, but he has heard Jesus is a healer, someone who speaks with authority. So he uses his networks and his influence, he sends Jewish Elders to bring Jesus. To cut a short story shorter, the centurion gets a message to Jesus, "Say the word and my servant will be healed." Now there's a man who knows what words are for, who understands the power of the spoken word, someone used to seeing the performative power of words.
We live in a culture buried under words and blinded by an endless supply of new or familiar flickering images. We hear so much, we are losing our hearing; we see so much our sight is blurring from image overload. But stayng with words for the present, Marilyn Chandler McIntyre in her book Caring for Words in a World of Lies states with prophetic frankness, "Like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants."
I am persuaded - I like the confidence and settledness of Paul's phrase in older translations - "I am persuaded" that an ethic of language, a care for the words we speak and for the words we hear, is a crucial aspect of Christian witness. From the praise songs we sing to the texts we send; from our conversations at work to the confidences we hold in trust for others; from the jokes we tell and laugh at to the lies we refuse to tell; from the clever put downs of those we dislike to the caring affirmations of other people's worth; language carries with it obligations the follower of Jesus has to attend to.
That's why this Lent - only a week or two away, - I want to consider the nature of language, what it is that we do when we speak words to each other, how to endow words with sacramental significance so that speech becomes a means of grace, a strengthening of the soul in ourselves and others, and an influence for good, compassion, truthfulness and conciliation in our society. I'm tired of cliche and spin, of the conspiracy, not of silence, but of unworthy words spoken in half-truth, evasive rather than clarifying, cruel rather than compassionate, empty of human communion rather than full of attentive human presence.
I've just bought James Boyd White's book, Living Speech. Resisting the Empire of Force. I've read some of his writing before. As a Professor of Law at Harvard, and an accomplished literary critic, and a Christian, he knows about words. At a time when the Western world near absolutises freedom of speech and expression, it's time to examine much more closely the proper constraints on speech and expression; time too to recognise the power of language to dehumanise and diminish other human beings in the interests of our own agendas, prejudices and unacknowledged as well as confessed enmities.