A supporter of President Trump was asked about the president’s rhetoric and the violence and division it causes. He asserted that the president doesn’t really believe everything he says. He concluded: “They are just words.”
No, they are not just words. There’s power in them. Words are our primary form of communication. All human activity began with words, as God spoke the world into existence (Gen. 1:1-31). Words have ordered the destruction of nations, and words have forged relationships to created peace.
There’s more to words than uttering them. Words are like troubling waters but also a fountain of wisdom (Prov. 18:4).
The phrase “words will never hurt me” is wrong.
Words have consequences.
We are witnessing the consequences of the president’s words. His words appeal to people’s fears — specifically, to the fear of people unlike them. His words have contributed to fear and hatred, leading to violence and exclusion against people deemed outsiders, who seek a place to live without fear.
We all possess what I call “personal truth,” which emanates from our cultural biases, religious upbringing and associations. This affects how we respond to each other. The president understands this. Many people have acquiesced to untruths and corruption as a result of believing his deceptive words.
Words can be weapons of mass destruction. They can also be used to reconcile. We are left to choose.
A friend told me he becomes enraged when vile words become weapons. He and I agreed that we often feel the urge to express uncontrollable anger, even hatred. But Jesus teaches us that what is spoken is a manifestation of what’s in our hearts: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matt. 15:19).
A follower of Jesus should refuse to utter words that cause hostility. Everybody should.
The prophetic words of past and present workers for justice teach the true meaning of righteous obedience. These prophets — both in the Bible and in recent history — did not relent but kept speaking truth to power until they were heard.
Today, even when things look hopeless, these voices of truth spur us on to create a life-giving future. They teach us how to respond to aggression with nonviolence and to answer prejudice with kindness.
It is said that the written word is mightier than the sword. Yes, the sword has the power to temporarily deter freedom. But the word of truth will win in the end.
If we believe the words of Scripture, we will reject hostility and embrace peaceful coexistence with everyone, despite our differences.
Guided by Jesus and other truth bearers, we will embrace a future built on honest words. By our truth telling, many will be shaken from their apathy and forge communities that resist fear and falsehood.
Jim Wallis, president of the Sojourners faith community, has said: “Hope is believing despite the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.”
I pray that these words will empower us to harness the power of truth.
Let your truthful voice be heard. Because words have consequences.
John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., has worked as a pastor, preacher and teacher in Mennonite churches and institutions.