My weapons of choice are words.
A friend once told me that, as a youth, he would torment his brother verbally until his less articulate sibling hit him. Then he’d get sympathy from his parents and his brother would get in trouble. Think “Billy Budd” and the otherwise innocent Herman Melville character’s fatal blow against a harassing shipmate.
Freedom of speech is one thing. License to offend, bully, denigrate, deprive, manipulate, panic, incite is another. Think falsely crying “fire” in a crowded theater or “hellfire” from a pulpit. Think “n-word” or “faggot” or “towel-head” in any context. Think “misrepresentation” or “stereotype” or “innuendo” in the media.
To me, freedom of speech is for responsible use, not a license to say anything we damn well please. Because words may serve as weapons too. Virtually all the injuries I have inflicted or endured have been done with words (and sometimes the withholding of words): hurting, offending, rejecting, excluding, profaning, degrading—the list goes on.
I’m not talking censorship here—I’m talking self-restraint and respectful engagement. If there is little or no respect for the opponent, at least respect for those who might be caught in the crossfire.
Jesus was concerned with thought as much as deed, and so addressed the violent use of words: “If you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” He says this in the context of the obviously grievous sins of murder, anger, and offense contrasted with the virtue of reconciliation. (Matt. 5:21-24)
The epistle to the Colossians urges, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God,” and advises, regarding “outsiders”: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt [spiritual understanding], so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Col. 3:17, 4:6].
Mahatma Gandhi’s ahimsa, non-violence, included words equally with deeds. He wrote, “Non-violence is therefore in its active form good will towards all life. It is pure Love. I read it in the Hindu scriptures, in the Bible, in the Koran.”
In a subsequent essay, he exchanged the word love for benevolence, “Non-violence in its positive aspect as benevolence (I do not use the word love, as it has fallen into disrepute) is the greatest force because of the limitless scope it affords for self-suffering without causing or intending any physical or material injury to the wrong doer. The object always is to evoke the best in him.”
He then goes on to say, “To practice non-violence…is to bring heaven upon earth. There is no such thing as the other world. All worlds are one. There is no ‘here’ and no ‘there.’”
Christian agape is benevolent love that may be visited even upon adversaries in Jesus’ view and in light of the spiritual commonwealth of God, whether Yahweh or Allah.
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