Words, Words

    In the hours following the attack on New York and Washington, several words kept popping up in discussions and descriptions of the events: "tragedy," "fundamentalist," "madmen," and "senseless." If taking note of this seems trivial, it's not. The words we choose have moral significance and shape how we see the world around us. Take the word "senseless." The attacks were many things including uncivilized and evil. But they were not "senseless." They made good sense to the people who ordered them and carried them out. Calling them "senseless" and the perpetrators "madmen" or "cowards," strongly suggests that we can't imagine that there are people in the world who think differently than we do. And how do you defeat a foe if you can't understand what motivates him? And make no mistake, the terrorists and their masters are motivated by words and the ideas behind those words. Too often we've lost sight of the fact that what a person thinks and believes always dictates how he acts. Ideas always have consequences. And ideas are expressed in words. Another thing that our inattention to the precise meaning of words has cost us is language that makes clear distinction between right and wrong, good and evil. How many times have you heard the word "tragedy" used to characterize what happened on September 11? But it wasn't a tragedy at all. When a child is accidentally struck by a car, that's a tragedy. When the car deliberately runs down the child, it's murder. Likewise what happened on September 11 wasn't a "tragedy." It was an act of war. Calling it a "tragedy" drains it of moral significance. And this matters because people react differently to a tragedy than they do to an act of war. Then there's the word "fundamentalist." A knowledge of the history the church in the twentieth century reveals that "Islamic fundamentalist" is nonsense. It's like "Buddhist Pentecostal" or "Hindu Calvinist." The term "fundamentalist," you see, came from little booklets that orthodox Christians, in response to the pressures of modernity, used to lay out the basics, the "fundamentals," of the faith. It was a good term, used for those who were defending the truth of Scripture. It's a term that had absolutely nothing do with politics, much less violence. Despite this, the word "fundamentalist" today has been transformed into a synonym for "unthinking fanatic," regardless of beliefs. Use the word in this way long enough and you'll begin to think that conservative Christians are the same as some violent, extremist cult of Muslims -- a case of very bad thinking, as George Orwell noted, preceded by a case of very bad language. In upcoming months, Americans will be will debating issues that will not only determine our national security, but also what kind of people we are. The stakes will be higher than they have been in most of our lifetimes. We can't afford sloppy thinking and therefore we cannot afford sloppy language. Our words must reveal, rather than obscure, the truth. Christians, who worship the savior who John called "the Word," must not only set an example in this regard, we must help those around us understand the importance of the words they use. The old ditty is wrong: it is not sticks and stones that really do harm, it's the words that can grievously mislead and hurt us.


Chuck Colson



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