“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” At least, that’s what we tell our children to help them cope with schoolyard bullies. And at the schoolyard level, it may be true. Unfortunately, it is not always true. Sometimes words do cause harm, great harm.
And who utters the words matters. A schoolyard bully is a peer, an equal. We can easily muster sufficient resolve to survive a bully’s onslaughts with a minimum of emotional damage. But if the speaker is someone who has real power over us, words can be unbelievably harmful. Just ask anyone who as a child faced the terror of a verbally abusive parent.
If the words are spoken in public by a community leader, we must take account of an additional effect. We are no longer dealing with just emotional abuse and the impact that language may have on an individual’s self esteem. Political power and public visibility combine to legitimate abusive language, rendering it socially acceptable.
Sociologists observe this process repeatedly in instances of genocide. First, there is a steady progression of state-sponsored verbal humiliation. Systematically, words are used to portray a despised group of people as something less than human. Once a group is effectively dehumanized, they can be violently dispatched without conscience.
There is a principle of faith, as well as democracy, that challenges the use of words as a means to legitimate hate and violence. The dignity of human life is affirmed in Scripture, and in our laws. As a free and faithful people, we cannot in good conscience allow the systematic dismantling of the dignity and worth of any person. Even those who may be designated by certain religions as “sinners,” remain first and foremost human beings valued and loved by God.
Apparently Judge Roy Moore, the so-called Ten Commandment judge, does not believe this, or else he has forgotten. In a recent judicial opinion, Moore used words such as “inherently evil” and “detestable” to describe gays and lesbians. These are not technical, legal descriptions. They are verbal assaults, the purpose of which can only be the deliberate demeaning of a particular group of people.
These are not the words of a private citizen, speaking from his own religious and personal preferences. These are the words of the chief justice of Alabama’s highest court. They are words which, because of his office, carry with them the weight of legal sanction. They are words which engender hate. They are words which invite, perhaps even encourage, violence.
In fact, the words seem to have taken Moore to that point already. He wrote, “The State carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution. It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle.”
Moore’s words have brought us to a dangerous place. We must proceed carefully. A social order is a fragile thing. It is not bound together with unbreakable cords. A social order is loosely woven and is held together by the most delicate of threads. In our case, those threads are a consensus belief in the inherent dignity and value of all people.
If that consensus begins to unravel, God help us all.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.