I didn’t know what was more troubling: what he said, or his nonchalant gaze through the windshield as if what he’d said was OK. He was driving. I was in the passenger seat. He was the parent of a high schooler at the Baptist church where I was the youth minister. We were driving around, picking up items for a yard sale to fund the youth group’s mission trips and summer camp. We observed some well-kept lawns, and I commented on how expensive the landscaping must be. He used a derogatory term for Hispanics to describe how to make lawn upkeep affordable.
Wow. Did he know that I was the child of an interracial marriage between a white woman (whose ethnicity is far richer than just calling it “white” — Dutch, Irish, Russian, etc. — but that’s the case for everyone with light skin) and a Latino man? That my paternal lineage had crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico? Anyway, I thought that Jesus-following church people weren’t supposed to use language that promotes racist ideologies. He and I were Christians, after all, which means we’re supposed to love our neighbor — regardless who they are or where they come from — as we love ourselves. Take toxic words about people with brown skin out of the narrative, and the absurd injustice of it all is exposed: “I’d just get a couple of human beings to do it, get a couple of my neighbors to do it to keep it cheap.”
Words matter. I learned that at church. During the week, I’d hear kids spew derogatory things about gay people (popular comedians of my middle school years used the six-letter F-word with impunity), tell jokes about minorities and say contemptuous things about girls. I confess that I participated in some of that talk. It was the world I lived in, and I wanted so badly to belong. But then I’d go to church and learn about God’s world; what Jesus called the kingdom of God, and how he envisioned it for all of us.
I learned that God calls us good, that God calls Jesus “Beloved” and that Jesus doesn’t call his followers mere servants, but friends, and why that’s important. I learned about people in Jesus’ time being more concerned about strict handwashing before putting something in their mouth than about the words spoken from them, and how Jesus explained that it wasn’t what goes into our mouths but what comes out of them that can do serious harm. I learned that death and life are in the power of our language (Proverbs 18:21), and that the words we say seem small, but they’re like a bit in a horse’s mouth that can control all thousand pounds of it, or like a ship’s rudder determining the direction for the entire vessel or like a tiny flame with the power to burn down a forest (James 3:3-6). Church taught me that the words we use and the language we honor form a narrative that guides our actions. It instilled these truths in me: that God means for everyone to belong, that love must be our guiding principle and that the extent to which we will love one another is determined by the things we say and allow to be said.
Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is partial at best in an ideological dystopia where saying hurtful, dangerous things for millions to hear on the radio is awarded the highest honor bestowed upon a civilian in our country. I don’t mean to vilify Rush Limbaugh. I don’t think he’s a terrible man. Like everyone, he is redeemable (see Acts 9). However, I do think the radio celebrity awarded the Medal of Freedom recently has said terrible things. On his program, he has said that “the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons;” that “women still live longer than men because their lives are easier;” and that “when a gay person turns his back on you, it is anything but an insult; it’s an invitation.” His words have encouraged an environment where women, people of color, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities are subhuman. Rewarding such language teaches, “That’s not only OK; that’s aspirational.”
This is about more than offending sensibilities. A new report from the Anti-Defamation League finds that white supremacist propaganda is spreading nationwide and even hitting college campuses, with more than 2,700 cases tracked in a year. The propaganda means to create fear and anxiety in communities and to indoctrinate individuals with a fearful hatred of their neighbors. Last weekend, a white supremacist group responsible for 66% of these propaganda incidents marched in Washington, D.C. Oren Segal, the vice president for the ADL’s Center on Extremism, says, “Whether it’s in schools [or] the public square, we need to remember that this is the narrative that starts in terms of outreach, but it can lead to much broader consequences.”
A preacher once put it in a way I’ll never forget: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can kill a person.” Words matter. We Jesus-following church people can’t be cognitively dissonant about that.
There’s a simple mantra in the United Church of Christ: “Be the Church.” What we learn, the words we use, and the narrative we form inside our sanctuaries about the kingdom of God — a realm of life-affirming compassion where neighbors are defended and all belong — cannot be left at the door when we go into the world. There’s a troubling narrative we’re called to dismantle and reform using language that honors the complete image of God in which we are all made.
The Rev. Dan De Leon is the pastor of Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, College Station.