Words Matter

Don’t trust leaders;
don’t trust any human beings—
there’s no saving help with them!
Their breath leaves them,
then they go back to the ground.
On that very same day, their plans die too.

[Psalm 146:3-4 Common English Bible]

On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, my wife and I sat down to watch the broadcast of the inauguration ceremonies from Washington, D.C.

Both of us had been eagerly anticipating this day and were obviously caught up in the euphoria of the change from all the tension and controversy of the past four years, which culminated in the attack on the nation’s capital just a mere two weeks earlier.

We were overcome with joy as we watched the swearing in of Kamala Harris, the country’s first woman Vice-President, and the first woman of color to hold the second-highest office in the United States. The oath was administered by Justice Sonya Sotomayor, who in 2009 had been appointed to the Supreme Court, making her the first Latina to be named to the highest court in the land.

As a Puerto Rican and a black person, the significance of that moment was exceptionally inspiring and deeply and personally meaningful. So much so that I took photos of the television screen with my phone and shared them on my Facebook timeline. No caption, just the photos.

I was fully expecting the positive reactions that are typical of the echo chamber that social media posts have become. After all, our Facebook “friends” are normally limited only to those who share our values, as well as our social, spiritual, and political views.

Therefore, I was taken aback by one stinging reaction that had the impact of a slap in the face. It was simply one word, “Barf!

My first impulse was to delete it, but I was curious as to why this person felt as he did. So I engaged him in a brief public back-and-forth. I could see that this was a conversation worth continuing, but not on that forum. So, I quickly cut off the exchange and let him know I would be calling him later.

I realize none of us agree on everything. (Recently I had posted my struggles with trying to be understanding of those people with whom we worship, who embrace a vastly different interpretation of our common faith. That post generated another written exchange with another “friend” which is still ongoing.)

But back to my telephone conversation. Without revealing the details, we basically agreed to disagree. It wasn’t my intent to convince him, but to simply hear him out and let him know that I would have been more accepting of his opinion had he chosen to express it in a less insulting and dismissive way. I repeated to him a phrase that has become a mantra of mine, “Words matter.”

I read somewhere recently that we delight in celebrating such “firsts” as the election of a woman Vice-President because we are keenly aware that up to that point, there have been forces – whether individual, corporate, or systemic – that have conspired to prevent that achievement or accomplishment from happening. When it finally does, opponents double down to obstruct it from reoccurring. Though these accomplishments signal progress for society in general, they pose a threat for the people or groups in power. They view it as an erosion of their dominance and strength.

We all remember the words of one Senator, Mitch McConnell, who vowed that he would amplify his party’s efforts to ensure that Barack Obama would be a one-term President. I am confident the same goal has been established, although perhaps not so boldly or publicly uttered, for the current Vice-President.

But it begs the question, why are people elected to public office? Is it to serve the rest of society or to accrue authority over others and personal financial gain? Imagine both scenarios and decide what would be most beneficial to our life together as people of God?

Lately, I’ve been quoting a couple verses of Psalm 146 quite frequently (you can read them at the very top of this entry). I prefer the CEB translation because it makes my point a little more clearly. Along with the thoughts of the psalmist, I am also reflecting on the words of Jesus in our Gospel readings from the first chapter of Mark during the final Sundays in Epiphany. Jesus is not afraid of challenging authority, speaking truth to power. It was his mission to serve others, not himself, and he calls us to walk alongside him in that mission to change hearts and minds and proclaim the good news of God’s Kingdom among us.

To that end, in retirement, I have made a pledge to myself to be more vocal when I encounter an action or an opinion I find offensive or distasteful. Up to now, my tendency has been to apply diplomacy, often withholding my feelings and increasing my frustration. But it takes time to live into this new liberation. I ask God to help me to live according to God’s purpose. Would that we all search our hearts and do the same.

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