Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
The old rhyme that so many of us were taught growing up is being turned on its head in our current culture, where we advocate for second chances for those accused, or even convicted, of violent crimes (domestic violence, for example), while we forever blacklist anyone who has ever used a word that we don't like.
In the blink of an eye, one word muttered under your breath or something you said twenty years ago in a different place and time can completely undo the testimony of a lifetime. It doesn't matter how upstanding, generous, gracious a life you live - if your tongue gets away from you for one second, there's no such thing as grace.
And while some cases seem clear-cut (specific key words that are completely unacceptable today, though not always the words that you might expect them to be), others are more complicated. In some cases, it doesn't matter what you actually said - what words actually came out of your mouth - but what happened next. Even if you didn't say it, if someone took it the wrong way and acted disagreeably on it, that's your fault, too. You never should have said those words.
It's complicated, and it's enough to keep most of us biting our tongue altogether. More and more, we are becoming afraid to speak because we just never know what's going to offend someone, what's going to ruin our reputation, or how our words are going to be acted upon by someone who might hear or perceive something other than what we intended.
To make it more difficult, there is no defense in our world for a transgression of words. There is nothing we can say to change the way that what we've already said has been perceived. We could play a video tape and have a verbatim transcription of a full dialogue, and it wouldn't matter one bit. What was heard was, forever, what was said, whether it actually was or not.
The answer for many has been to tiptoe around language. We are afraid to say anything at all, lest we say the wrong thing or lest our words be twisted into something that we didn't mean. Even in terms of the Christian faith, as soon as we attach 'Christ' to anything that we say, a certain caricature and stereotype creeps up in the culture and drowns out the actual words that we've used. We become 'just one of those Christians,' whether what we said reflected what the culture despises about Christians or not. Whether it's actually merited or not.
I think this is one of the reasons that, as a global church, we've been trying to put more emphasis on acting, rather than speaking. It's why it's easier for us to reach out and do a good work and just hope that others understand our reasoning rather than our actually starting a conversation or inviting someone to church. We have even convinced ourselves that it's possible to make disciples (the Great Commission) by action alone, that we never have to actually speak a word of the Gospel - despite the fact that Jesus's disciples all came to a word: Come. Follow me.
The way that language sets us, and our culture, so much on edge is important for us to pay attention to. It's important for us to engage more deeply than our mainstream media (or even social media) invites us to. We have to dig down into this and discover what our world is really doing with words; we cannot just accept what they tell us they're doing or what seems obvious on the surface. We cannot afford to be undiscerning in this matter, nor can we afford to be disengaged.
It takes a certain level of humility and authentic engagement. It takes us being willing to not take the first line that is fed to us, but to look honestly at what's going on and the context around it. We cannot simply jump on the bandwagon or hide in the ditches, hoping that the bandwagon doesn't find us. And why not?
Because our very faith depends on it.