We were milling around in the church, waiting for the wedding rehearsal to start, when my friend’s husband-to-be blithely joked about murdering my fiancé.
Of course, my friend’s husband-to-be didn’t know that my fiancé was undocumented when he regaled us with tales of shooting for game during his bachelor weekend — or when he mentioned, as an aside, that they didn’t shoot any “illegals” this time, but maybe next time.
My face burned, but I said nothing. We were in Texas, after all. I didn’t want to make a scene, policing other people’s language on their home turf. Later that night, I confided in the maid of honor. Should we tell the bride what her soon-to-be husband had said? We decided not to; she was too nervous. The next day, as the pair vowed to love and cherish one another, the groom’s words from the day before played over and over in my mind.
How could some words carry the promise of faithfulness until death, and others be so flippant? How do we determine which words are binding?
In recent years, some have challenged the argument that speaking certain words can be an act of violence. Language is not violence, they say. It may incite people to violent action, but it is not itself violence. I used to agree. But as I reflect on scripture in the aftermath of the El Paso shootings, I’m not so sure.
In Genesis, God brings the world into being by his very words. Let there be light, God says, and there was light. God’s friendship with the Hebrew people is enacted by his oath to Abraham, the words of promise that his hand would guide Abraham’s descendants.
“My word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it,” writes the prophet Isaiah as the mouthpiece of God (Isaiah 55:11). As a Christian, I believe that words wield power beyond our comprehension. This is the essence of my faith in the Incarnation: the embodied Word of God who spoke volumes with every action.
Scripture affirms that words are agents of creation, but that the taint of sin also enables them to wreak havoc. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire,” James writes. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:5-6). An ill-timed word is like a spark in a forest of dry kindling; it can set off a chain of events we never intended.
As Emma Green writes in the Atlantic, after the recent shooting in El Paso, Texas, many Christians hesitate to challenge the words that spur the violence. We denounce racism and yet defend the language of those in power, even when their espoused nostalgia — the “again” they long to see — is nostalgia for when white supremacy was the law of the land.
The words of the president of the United States carry the weight of action. When powerful people feel it advantageous and welcome to say such things in public, we should not be surprised when a gunman feels emboldened to open fire on a largely Hispanic population in a shopping mall. After all, our leader has given tacit approval to shooting immigrants on sight. Nor should we be surprised that our Hispanic brothers and sisters die from neglect in detention centers, when our president has said that they are criminals anyway.
Those who cover for him — including many of my brothers and sisters in Christ — want to equate Trump’s words to jokes and vain chatter. They want him to be the antidote to “PC” culture that feels oppressive to people who have been allowed to ridicule and dehumanize others with impunity for centuries. But this is not about political correctness. It is about basic human dignity, and the consequences of careless words, as we saw in El Paso, can be deadly.
Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, Jesus proclaims (Matthew 12:34). This verse has haunted me all my life, especially after I say things I regret. Our words reveal who we are and what motivates us; our silence reveals the same.
It is not enough to condemn abstractions like racism or white nationalism; we must speak out against the moments of speech — the actions — that give license to what happened in El Paso. Preventing young people from being radicalized starts with changing the way we talk and think about those who have come to live among us. And according to scripture, these men, women, and children are our neighbors.
Words that describe immigrants as anything less than the very image of the triune God are lies, and we as Christians are duty-bound to speak the truth of our neighbors’ belovedness.
I wish I had confronted the groom. I wish I had discreetly taken him aside, told him that my fiancé was undocumented, that his words hurt and angered me. I wish I had said something.
But I did not. Only when we — when I — have the courage to speak truth to power will our nation’s wounds begin to heal.