By Boz Tchividjian
Words matter. They restore. They wound.
Words have opened the eyes of a blind beggar and welcomed a rejected tax collector. They have also sent millions to death camps and taught children to be terrorists. Perhaps Scripture communicates the power of words best when the Apostle James writes, “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.”
In the past weeks, I have witnessed a seemingly new boldness to communicate incredibly wounding and cruel words to victims of abuse. Such words are not confined by ideology, politics, or religious beliefs. Just a few weeks ago, liberal agnostic “comedian” Bill Maher told Jimmy Kimmel, “When I was twelve, I was once brutally beaten on the playground by two bullies. One held me down, and the other just punched me in the face and if I could trade that, if I could go back to 1968 and trade that experience for being gently masturbated by a pop star I would do it in a heartbeat.”
What is just as disturbing is the fact that these cruel words were repeatedly interrupted by laughter from Maher, Kimmel, and the studio audience. Words matter.
Last summer, conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson told his audience that it should not be a crime when an adult female teacher has sexual contact with a minor male. Carlson stated, “It’s ludicrous that we are calling this a rape. Are you serious?” Words matter.
These wounding words have even spilled into the realm of politics.
This past week, republican presidential hopeful, Mike Huckabee, released a new book that includes a chapter entitled, “Bend Over and Take it Like a Prisoner.” Regardless of the chapter’s subject, when the words “bend over”, “take it”, and “prisoner” appear in a chapter title, it is obvious that it is a vulgar and demeaning reference to sexual assault.
Even if it was not intended as such a reference, the fact this repugnant chapter title has understandably disturbed many who have been sexually assaulted means it’s wounding. Words matter.
We’ve even come to the point where those who have been accused of sexual offenses have become emboldened to joke about it. As a female audience member of was getting up to get a drink at a recent show, Bill Cosby jokingly quipped, “You have to be careful about drinking around me”, which was an unmistakable reference to his alleged sexual assaults of numerous women. Again, these disgusting words were followed by audience laughter. Words matter.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to grasp the traumatic reality that these words are terribly cruel to real people who have suffered through the real horrors of rape. These words shame victims and demean their very humanity. These words tell victims that they are worthless and expendable. These words curse treasured souls who are made in the likeness of God.
We all know that cruel and wounding words to abuse survivors are not limited to famous comedians, political pundits, politicians, or offenders. We wound with our words when victims are told that they are being “overly sensitive” or are “too close to the issue” for us to take their concerns seriously. We wound with our words when survivors are warned that talking about abuse or warning others about abusers is sinful “gossip”. We wound with our words when suffering victims are told to “get over it” or “move on”. We wound with our words when those who have been assaulted are told that the reported offender must be given the benefit of the doubt. We wound with our words when we perpetuate the lie that abuse victims have a greater likelihood of becoming perpetrators. We wound with our words when victims are told that they are responsible in any degree for being abused. We even wound with our words when we lash back at victims who have hurt or offended us. The list can go on and on. All around us are suffering children of God who sink deeper and deeper into a dark and hopeless abyss while the rest of us move on with life, seldom realizing the devastating impact of our cursed words. It is so tragic.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where our words actually bring healing and hope? Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where an agnostic comedian actually weeps for the shattered lives of boys and men who have been raped? Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where a conservative commentator curses female teachers who use their position to access and sexually victimize students? Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where a presidential candidate grieves and publicly apologizes for the words in his book that trigger dreadful memories in the lives of survivors? Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where a sexual offender actually turns himself into the authorities and finds nothing funny about his abhorrent criminal behavior? Words matter.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where our words ask survivors to help us understand their pain? Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where our words actually encourage survivors to speak about their abuse and to warn us about those who abuse? Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where our words actually facilitate healing of survivors in their timing, not ours? Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where our words assure survivors that we believe them and that we give them the benefit of the doubt? Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where our words are never used to degrade survivors into believing that one day they may become perpetrators? Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where our words repeatedly reassure survivors that they are never ever responsible for being victimized? Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a world where our words comfort even those survivors who have offended or hurt us? Words matter.
I have yet to discover such a world, but I haven’t given up searching and will never give up hope. You see I am not the only one on this search. Each day I am blown away as I encounter more and more beautiful souls who are also searching for a world where words transform lives and fuel radical selflessness and love. Perhaps that discovery begins with these encounters and will become more and more contagious to the watching world. It’s worth a try.
I know such a world exists because I have seen a glimpse of it in the One whose words healed the sick, welcomed the rejected, empowered the powerless, and brought hope to all. What is almost incomprehensible to me is that he didn’t stop with life transforming words, but was the embodiment of radical selflessness and love.
He gives me the hope that such a world will one day be discovered and we will call it amazing.
Boz Tchividjian is the founder and executive director of GRACE.
This article was originally published on January 30, 2015 for the Religion News Service (RNS). Used with permission.