The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2003-2004

The Power of Words
James 3:1-12

Religious words

James understood the power of words. In his letter to believers scattered abroad, he cautions people against becoming teachers because of the power of the words.  Teachers have the power to shape the words that a child uses, the words that a child believes, and the words that shape a child’s action.
Teachers are faced with a formidable responsibility but James does not restrict this responsibility to just teachers.  Everyone should carefully guard the words we use because the power of the tongue.  His specific reference is to the destructive role of gossip and rumors in community relationships.  However, I would like to apply his warning about the danger of the tongue more broadly to the general use of words, especially words with religious overtones.

Religious words inspire some men and women to great deeds of technological achievement, valiant heroism, and personal sacrifice.  But religious words may also be used to twist minds and distort hearts driving a person into deeds of mean spirited prejudice, passionate bigotry, insatiable greed, and a dominating arrogance.

The Words of 911

This week we remembered an event that demonstrated the power of words.  The words of ideological hatred and bigotry compelled 19 men to fly two airplanes into the Twin Towers, another into the Pentagon, and a fourth plane was heading toward the White House before it crashed in Pennsylvania.  In the two years that have followed those tragic events, journalists, reporters, professors, and other self-designated experts have flooded us with words to give understanding and meaning to that day.  They probed into the psychological mind of the terrorist.  They analyzed the theological framework of Islam that the fundamentalist lunatic fringe has twisted to justify their bizarre violence.  And they have written words to explain the social-political conditions that fostered such acts of terrorism.  But all the analytical rhetoric, and all the journalistic reports, and all the political speeches have not been able negate the religious words of rage, resentment, and revenge that have been planted in the hearts and minds of young men by extremist teachers.
The Attack on America is not the only act of violence driven by the words of religious fanatics in history.   One hundred and forty six years earlier, on September 11, 1857, a group of immigrants were traveling by wagon train across the western plains.  They were attacked in a remote section of territory called Mountain Meadows.  The details of the ensuing battle are vague and the “eyewitness” accounts untrustworthy but most scholars support Mark Twain’s description of the attack as outline in Roughing It.

Twain explains that a large party of men who were painted and dressed as Indians attacked the wagons.  The setters defended themselves gallantly.  At the end of five intense days of fighting the attackers regrouped at the upper end of the meadows, washed themselves and exchanged their Indian apparel for their settler attire.  Then they rode down to the wagons, heavily armed and bearing a flag of truce.  When the wagon settlers saw white men coming, they threw down their guns and welcomed them with cheer after cheer and were promptly slaughter. The attackers only spared a few children who were under the age of seven and were too young to tell any tales.

This attack was not prompted by a range war or a family feud but by religious words.  The attackers were Mormons and even though the Church of the Latter Day Saints vehemently denies the complicity of its leader Brigham Young, the evidence appears to support his connection.  The Utah pioneer strongly advocated for the “blood atonement” when a crime has been committed by a sinner for which forgiveness is possible only through the shedding of the sinner’s own blood by a Saint.  Brigham Young also refers to the blood atonement revivals in a speech.  While this evidence does not prove that the religious leader directed the attack, it serves to illustrate how religious words could inflame the buried anger and hostility into deeds of murder.[1]

The Massacre of Mountain Meadows and the Attack on America were both performed by men who had every reason to despise their victims.  The Mormons had settled in Utah to protect themselves from persecution from people like those in that wagon train.  They had been ridiculed, ostracized, and driven from town to town because of their religious beliefs.  Their founder, Joseph Smith suffered a martyr’s death.  The al Qaeda terrorists view Americans as the source of a decadent West that is undermining the morals of Islamic children with its television shows featuring “hunks and babes cavorting on California beaches.”  Americans are the people who build helicopter gunships for Israel soldiers used in missile attacks against Palestinians.[2]  And America is the country that sends its missionary to proclaim a gospel of salvation that challenges their most sacred religious beliefs.

Examining Our Words

I do not mention these stories to ignite flames of vengeance and animosity toward Muslims or Mormons.  Rather, we should use their stories to prompt us to examine the religious words we use with our children and with one another. Parents have the responsibility to teach their children their values, beliefs, and morals.  As members of the body of Christ, we have a responsibility to teach one another,  We need to ask ourselves, “What are our words teaching?”  One researcher in Northern Ireland found evidence of religious prejudice in children as young as toddlers.  He suggests that government sponsored educational programs alone will not reverse the years of hatred between Catholics and Protestants.[3]
The most significant teaching is not done in a formal classroom but through informal serendipitous moments.  By our snide comments, are we telling our children that people of different ethnic origins are deficient in certain character traits?  By our innuendos, are we implying that the world would be better off without people of other faiths?  This applies across religious, racial, and ethnic barriers.  I am not sure if any group of people can truly claim a complete absence of prejudice or bigotry.  James warns us that must be careful about the words we use not because it is politically correct, but because our words have the power to destroy others.

Some within the Christian community accuse the Church of fostering religious prejudice by clinging to the ancient belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.  They advocate for a more inclusive doctrine by stating that Jesus is not the only savior.  There are many paths to God and everyone must come to understand their own path and find their own savior.  These critics also maintain that we must be more open and accepting of the lifestyle of others and refrain from offering words of moral judgment.

While James tells us to carefully guard are words, he does tell us to compromise our beliefs or remain silent about our faith.  Our Lord was most emphatic with his disciples when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the light.  No one comes to the father except through me.”  He did not say I am a way.  He did not say that truth will vary depending on the circumstances and the person.  He did not send his disciples out into the world to help people discover their own path to God.  The Christian’s claim that Jesus alone is the Savior of the world is not an arrogant statement in itself.  The exclusive claim of the gospel message does not by itself incite acts of violence against people of other faiths.  The Biblical teaching that sexual fulfillment is only truly found between a man and a woman through a marriage relationship is not judgmental.

Condemnation is not shown by what we believe but how we treat the other person.  I may believe that salvation for the Jew or Muslim will only come through their profession of faith in Jesus Christ but I can still join with them and walk to raise money for hunger or life a board to build a home for the poor.  I may also believe that a person cannot honor God by living in an adulterous relationship but I can still invite them over to my home for a barbeque or play a round of golf with them.  Simply because another person is uncomfortable when I expose values and beliefs that contradict their does not mean that I must change my own or pretend to be a deaf mute.  However, the commandment to love my neighbor as myself, calls me to treat the other person with dignity and respect. 

The apostle John began his gospel by telling about the coming of the Word of God.  John writes, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.”(John1:5)  The light of God that shines in Jesus is not a tiny flicker but a brilliant beam that illumines the darkness.  Let us not hide that light under a basket simply because some people are uncomfortable by its penetrating, exposing radiance.  If we believe what he said, he gave all those who receive the right to become children of God.  Yes, we should careful guard what we say and how we treat others.  Religious words will only ignite a firestorm of prejudice when they are misused. If our words are offered in love they will inspire, heal, and reconcile.

[1] Chris Armstrong, “Christian History Corner: Learning from the other 9/11,” Christianity Today, Online:, September 12, 2003.
[2] Phillip Yancey, “Why They Hate Us,” Christianity Today, April 1, 2001, Vol. 46,No. 4,Page 80.
[3] “Religious prejudice infection toddlers,” BBC, Online:, September 12, 2003.

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