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The Violence of Language

By Alun Brookfield.

(This article began life as a sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2010. Further reflection led the author to realise that, with a little extra work, it might be of interest to Ministry Today readers)

It would be easy to believe that we live in extraordinarily violent times. We don’t, of course, but, because we are bombarded night and day with not just rumours of wars, but actual live footage, beamed directly to our TV screen, computers and smartphones, we are much more aware of how much violence there is in the world. Less than 200 years ago, most people living in my parish would hardly have been aware of a violent incident five miles down the valley, much less receiving up-to-the-minute information about battles and disasters in far distant lands.

In all honesty, life is nothing like as violent as that which was experienced by most of our ancestors. One doesn’t need a history degree to know that much of our past has been quite atrociously violent. I’ve recently watched the Channel 4 dramatization of Ken Follett’s epic story of life in the mid-12th century, Pillars of the Earth, and realised afresh how random and indiscriminate was the violence of everyday life 800 years ago. Watching Ian Hislop’s excellent series, The Do Gooders, reveals just a little of the violence that was regarded as normal - even beneficial by some - as recently as Victorian times.

But there is still violence all around us. Whether fuelled by alcohol, mental illness, crime, drugs or something less easily labelled, violence is part of our lives. There are still wars in various parts of the world as men (and it usually is men!) fight for scarce resources or political power. And the question which comes to my mind is this: how can we be authentically Christian in a world where violence is a fact of life for too many people?

In Luke 21.5-19, Jesus told us to expect wars and to expect conflict in our own lives. So the issue is, if violence is unavoidable, how should we then live? Do we become hawks, demanding ever more aggressive offensives against the enemy? Or do we become doves, pleading for negotiation, compromise or (that most misunderstood of words since 1939) appeasement? Or do we adopt pacifism, eschewing violence in all its forms.

I suggest that none of these is particularly Christian, if by that we mean Christlike behaviour. I suggest that the Christian response is to listen to Jesus’ words in Luke 21, noticing what he didn’t say as much as what he did.

First, he says, “Don’t be afraid”. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t feel fear - few of us have as much control of our emotions as that would suggest - but it does mean that we should not allow fear to dominate the agenda of our lives. The opposite of fear, in this context, is not courage, but faith, hope and love, the three great Christian virtues to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 13. Armed with such virtues (or, perhaps more realistically, the pursuit of those virtues will mean that) the Christian can live boldly, energetically, creatively and generously even when our life may be in danger, knowing that this life is not all there is and that our times are in God’s hands.

Second, Jesus says, “Don’t listen to false prophets”, by which he means people who offer instant, simplistic, comfortable answers. This isn’t just spiritual advice - it’s also starkly pragmatic, for Jesus, who could teach our politicians a thing or ten, knew perfectly well that there are no simple answers to the complex challenges of daily life. So ‘Don’t listen to false prophets’ is also a call to stay focussed, rather than be distracted by following plausible, but pointless ideologies.

Third, he says, “Live well”, which, for me, sums up the rest of this passage in Luke’s gospel. It’s not spoken in comfortable terms - Jesus talks about persecution, pain, death - but at the heart of what he says seems to be that we are to follow his example of non-retaliation when we find ourselves under personal attack for our Christian faith. Notice that Jesus says nothing here about whether or not we should join the army, take up arms, attack the enemy. He is simply telling us not to fight back when we’re being persecuted, lied about, mistreated (and what Christian pastor has not experienced that sort of maltreatment?). He simply tells us to live well, and be examples of all that’s best in the Christian faith. For some in a time of war, that will mean taking up arms. For others it will mean the opposite. But it will always mean being driven and guided by faith, hope and love.

There is, it seems to me, one very simple and practical way in which, in a world of random and indiscriminate violence, we can be examples of what it means to live well. It is to mind our language. I’m not talking specifically about swearing - that, for many people, is merely a normal part of their speech. I recall one man I once knew, converted to the Christian faith in mid-life, who was so accustomed to peppering his speech with the language of the road gangs with whom he had worked all his adult life, that he quite naturally used exactly the same colourful language in his prayers - private and public! I don’t think God was all that concerned, and nor was I because I knew his prayers came from the heart, but it was all a bit too fruity for some of our very traditional churchgoers!

But that’s not I mean when I encourage us to mind our language. I entitled this article “The Violence of Language”. It’s more common to speak of the ‘language of violence’, but I have come to the conclusion that violent language hurts both the speaker and those we speak to. So I speak of the ‘violence of language’, the violence done by language to our own souls and behaviours and to those whose lives we share.

Let me give some examples. In our quite appropriate desire to stress how passionate we are about a particular cause, we too easily slip into violent language. We talk of ‘fighting’ - not a war, but fighting for peace, for a particular drug to be available on the NHS, for an end to cruelty for some group or another. We too easily speak of battling for justice, winning the war against poverty, and gaining ground against an invisible enemy. Football and rugby matches are described as clashes or battles. Even in preaching this article’s predecessor as a sermon on Remembrance Sunday, I caught myself saying (unscripted!) that “words are the most important weapons at our disposal”, and immediately had to apologise to my congregation for falling into the very trap I was warning them to avoid!

Even those of us who are peace-loving, who would never dream of taking up a weapon against another human being, find it so easy to fall into this violence of language, without a thought for what it is doing to our own souls and the souls of others. Even pacifists - people who are ideologically committed to non-violence - sometimes speak of campaigning or fighting for non-violence, with an apparent complete lack of awareness of the irony, the contradiction between their words and their beliefs.

Translate all this to the international arena and careless talk by an American president about ‘crusades’ merely exacerbates the challenge of international terrorism. Similar careless use of language by Christians makes it all the more difficult to win the trust of those of other faiths, and, without that trust, what hope have we of winning them for Christ? Have we forgotten the appalling experience of ‘crusades’ for those of Jewish or Muslim faith? How dare we forget the events of 1099, when the soldiers of the First Crusade finally took Jerusalem and set about slaughtering thousands of Muslims and Jews (with an unknown number of Christians as collateral damage - it’s doubtful whether the blood-crazed Christian soldiers conducted a careful questioning of each person before killing them!) - that massacre makes the awful events of 9/11 look almost trivial by comparison. On Remembrance Sunday, we need to remember that there is a lot of blood on our hands too.

And I, for one, am not sorry to see hymns such as ‘Onward, Christian soldiers’, and ‘Soldiers of Christ, arise’ fading from our hymnbooks. Yes, there is a fair amount of military analogy in the New Testament (Ephesians 6, Philippians 2.25, 2 Timothy 2.1, Philemon 2), but that doesn’t excuse our careless use of violent, aggressive language. Those military references need to be read in the context of Paul telling his readers to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4.15).

The fact is that words matter. If we want to make a peaceful world for our children and grandchildren, the place to begin is with ourselves, our attitudes and our speech. This is not to become doormats. There are times when it is quite correct to plant our feet firmly and say with Martin Luther: “Here I stand - I can do no other”. As a Church leader, there have been moments when my people have been threatened by circumstances and it has been my privilege and responsibility to defend them against those who seek to do harm to the flock of God.

A colleague of mine put it this way: “I never look for a fight, and always try to avoid it if I can, but if someone attacks my people, they need to understand that I will defend them to the death if need be”.

It seems to me that this is all about disciplining ourselves to mind our language. Can we not learn to speak of supporting a cause, rather than fighting for it? Resisting evil, rather than battling against it? Pursuing a just cause, rather than battling for justice? In other words, using words as tools, not weapons? It’s not as though our language (English or Welsh) is so poverty-stricken as to lack softer words which convey the same intent.

Let us learn once again to speak peaceably in all things.


Alun Brookfield

Editor of Ministry Today

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You are reading The Violence of Language by Alun Brookfield, part of Issue 50 of Ministry Today, published in November 2010.

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