The Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross: Linguistics of humanity: how words can heal, and how they can hurt
PITTSFIELD — During a PACC (Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations) meeting, I was intrigued by a recent conversation regarding a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in December 2017, "When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean?" However, this opinion piece is not about religious or non-religious belief patterns, but more about what was initiated during this discussion relating to the linguistics within the study, and how words are always significant to receivers and reviewers of words.
I will add a disclaimer as the pastor of First Baptist Church of Pittsfield, and a PACC member, that I will include a Scriptural passage or two regarding my hypothesis that words can heal or hurt. Yes, it is documented in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Bible — Old Testament) and New Testament Scriptures, that words heal and hurt.
Accuracy of language
Bi-monthly PACC meetings entail invited guests educating members on the status of religions and faiths in the 21st century church, with a focus on social justice issues at the local, national and international levels. After the Pew presentation on research findings, group members interacted in a discussion and I referenced the importance of bringing into any conversation a person's contextual history, inclusion of current perspectives, along with an unambiguous understanding of those factors. All must be infused into how words are delivered and received.
Impossible, right? Maybe, but in order to conduct accurate (and helpful) research or to ensure that critical understanding during a conversation occurs, especially during this social media age, language and the use of it must be as accurate as possible.
The discussion led to my "aha" moment — an epiphany. "What if we, as human beings, will actually consciously work on the words we use and how we use them with others and even to ourselves?" Yes, "freedom of speech" is important; one's right to think independently is critical. But, what about the importance of having caring hearts for "all" of humanity and being respectful even when there are differing ideologies? We are losing our caring hearts in America with so many of us wielding hurtful words that may take a lifetime to heal.
Here is my disclaimer regarding Scripture usage. The Bible, with its offering of religious information, can also be viewed as a book of history. It offers support that Bible writers, in ancient times, perceived that the use of words was significant, as exemplified in one of my favorite Hebrew Bible Scriptures from Proverbs 18:21 which states, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat of its fruit." (New Revised Standard Version Bible, NRSV). The Ancients understood something of importance.
When words come from our lips during conversations or from our fingers through social media and technology, we are oftentimes viewed as crude. Yes, death of one's spirit can come about with hurtful words. For example, telling a child he or she may not amount to anything because of where they are from is speaking death to that child's spirit. Think about it. Even familiar phrases can be hurtful to some, such as the phrase "You guys" when there are women in the midst of the addressed group. Are we not then continuing patriarchal traditions?
Currently, it seems that people in America are promoting a lot of hurtful words across situations and issues, as well as among various people and ethnicities. Are we eating negative fruit repercussions with our words? Do we all need an introspection intervention to examine our choice and use of words? Lately, have you truly listened to words offered you, and were they hurtful? Were the words unnecessarily critical or condescending? How did this make you feel? Yes, death and life can be in the power of the tongue — and now, in the 21st century, with fingers and "send" buttons.
But just as hurtful words can wound, words of encouragement can be life changing and healing.
My next favorite Scripture coming from a New Testament text demonstrates this. "But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way " (Ephesians 4:15, NRSV). Many of us have problems with one's "truth." And, even if there is a misconception regarding one's personal truth, it is definitely not spoken in a loving manner, and so we are not growing in human kindness and respect of others.
The time has come to take a realistic look at ourselves and recognize that words are important. Be the person whose words, however presented, offer healing instead of death and hurt. Be the person who seeks truth and is not led by mere dislikes of a people who do not look like or act in ways that you do. Yes, speak truth, but allow that truth to come from a person infiltrated with love towards humanity. Have a lasting positive impact upon another person.
Make amends for mistakes
That PACC meeting opened my eyes and enabled me to examine my use of words, whether in a conversation, through emails or texts. I am more closely watching the use of words within my outlets. I want all of my words to humanity to be healing and not hurtful; however, I am imperfect. So, when mistakes are made, I am willing to accept responsibility and make amends.
Are you? Many may think this is not a critical matter, but I assure you it is. Have you given up watching the news or unfriended or blocked someone on your social media outlets? Why? Maybe it's because the messages are hurtful and they crush your spirit.
Are you a healer or do your words hurt people? Maybe it's unintentional, but then it's your responsibility to do a self-examination and figure out what is hurtful and fix it. Maybe this piece will assist. From this day forward, have a caring heart, and express that care through the use of your words. PACC is an organization focusing on healing. We hope you connect with us and receive healing as we grow as a people in this community.
The Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross is senior pastor, First Baptist Church of Pittsfield.
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