It is likely irrefutable, if given adequate time to reflect, that the childhood chant, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is categorically false. Words do hurt, and they can be used to wield a great deal of power. How we use our words matters. The Near East Rhetoric scholar, Jennifer Wright Knust, affirms, “Assigning meaning to words, [such as] signaling virtue or vice, is a power-laden process, a site of conflict and contention within which the dynamics of power relations are negotiated.” How does this inform how we see ourselves as followers of Christ during Lent, and the way in which we use our words?
Julian of Norwich saw the body of Christ as whole. That is, Christ, fully human (body) and fully Spirit (soul—though, the division of spirit and soul is a subject of some theological discussion, it is beyond the scope of this reflection). By embracing death on the cross, Jesus ruptured the division of time and eternity, thereby making it possible to walk the way of Jesus here and now. And, Jesus’ way was/is one of peace giving, grace bestowing. It is one that does not distinguish between gender, ethic origin or vocation. And in this way, borders and boundaries do not need to be defended. But it is far too easy to feel compelled to draw the boundary, defend oneself. The most prevalent method is to distinguish and exploit differences—using categories—calling names.
French social scientist, Pierre Bourdieu, concludes, “there is no social agent who does not aspire, as far as his circumstances permit, to have the power to name and to create the world through naming: gossip, slander, lies, insults, commendations, criticisms, arguments, and praises are all daily and petty manifestations of the solemn and collective acts of naming.” Indeed, from the earliest volumes of earliest Greek and Roman literature an ancient rhetorical category of blame predominates. Of course, the very first response to confronting the initial act of separating from God was to blame. To place blame on another has the effect of deflecting one’s own culpability. Words matter. Even if it is untrue, making an accusation always imprints on the accused—and all who hear it. It is so beautiful that our justice system maintains the clause that all are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Sadly, no one can assert that once an accusation is uttered, no suspicion is present until the proof is set forth (within the constraints of reasonable doubt). Even when uncontested proof is presented for innocence, a question nearly without exception remains.
When God created humankind, God made them in the likeness of God, male and female God created them and blessed them and named them Adam (Gen 5:1, 2). The first Adam then named the woman, Eve (wife). And we have ascribed names to others ever since. Now, God is creative and we are made in that image. God also blessed by naming. Adam: of-the-earth, created-from-creation. Jesus summons Simon (to hear), who is quick to follow, an apt name. But Jesus sees a different future for him and renames him Peter (Rock). It takes some time before he lives up to the name, but the blessing wins out. How many of us live under the burden of an unfair name—good-for-nothing, daydreamer, easily-distracted, lazy? When is that we begin to use names as a curse instead of blessing? How often am I paralyzed by the belief that I am not-good-enough?
Language, when used to draw boundaries, creates an imbalance of power. Words are used to make categories, assign labels, gossip, slander, praise and flatter. Segments of society are kept in line by rhetoric that seeks to shame and control, dominate. When those who are dominated attempt to come out from under that control, the same language is employed to regain some power. Nothing has changed regarding the system or operations; it is only that the power has shifted. For change to occur at the fundamental, systemic level, new language must be drawn upon or even created. An entirely new modus of communicating with one another has to occur if we are to truly live/walk after the resurrected Christ-Body—perhaps, it is even just by being silent. If we are to be whole, body and spirit, reconciled to our Trinitarian creator, how we speak to/of one another must be transformed from the making-distinctions-assigning-blame speech to blessing and peace. As a spouse and parent I am especially mindful of how my words affect my children, my husband.
Please use this Lenten meditation to consider the words that you have heard in your lifetime—words that blame, that hurt your feelings, that keep you ‘in your place.’ Let us consider together the words that we use to do the same to others. Listen to the heart of Jesus, the words of this God of Love who gave everything to elevate us into this Holy Presence. Imagine with me ways that we can be a part of a transforming movement, a new practice of speaking a new language.
 Ibid., 17.
 Jennifer Wright Knust, Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander & Ancient Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)., 10.