As rejoinders to bullies go, the old rhyme about “sticks and stones” being more physically harmful than words is true on its face, but fails the test of civil engagement for a self-governing people.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” It’s a chant often recited through barely-held-back tears. A more true rejoinder might be: “I’m rubber, you’re glue; bounces off me and sticks on you.”
After all, our words often say more about us than those at whom they are directed.
I thought about those while reading an excellent book by Rev. Eugene Peterson, “Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.” He begins by noting that the word “Torah” – the Jewish name for the first five books of what Christians know as the Old Testament – comes from the same root as the word for “javelin.”
Peterson wrote, “In living speech, words are javelins hurled from one mind into another. The javelin word goes out of one person and pierces another.”
In politics, it is easy to use words as javelins. As someone whose professional life has been spent stringing together nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, I know that better than almost anyone… except a middle-schooler. The average sixth-grader knows how to sling verbal javelins better than almost anyone!
Earlier this summer two of my colleagues were publicly shamed for directing hurtful words at the governor in their anger over a series of disasterous policy decisions. It doesn’t matter whether some considered the anger justifiable; the personally-directed words were not acceptable, as I said at the time.
The words used were not acceptable because words actually matter; whether it is the words we write or the words we say. Our words reveal our heart as surely as our actions.
As a self-governing people, as the sovereigns in this Republic, we must always remember that our words carry great weight. We can and must be passionate about public policy; our Republic cannot afford the luxury of civic indifference.
Our Republic also cannot withstand citizens who take, and make, the actions of public officials as personal slights. If the mayor rams through a city council resolution declaring tomorrow “Joe Smith Should Be Shunned Day,” then maybe ol’ Joe can take it personally; for everyone else, the matter must be reviewed with an eye towards a corrective cleansing at the ballot-box.
If self-governance is to survive and thrive, we must be able to passionately and civilly discuss public policy in a way that directs our javelins in service of building the future we want. We must use our passions, ideas, words, sticks, and stones in the service of constructing a stronger Republic. In doing so, we will shine as a testament to the powerful gift of self-governance given to us by God.