The other day, as part of my Sunday School preparation, I came across a word that I had no idea what it meant: remonstration. It turns out that remonstration is the act or process of saying or pleading in protest, objection, or disapproval. It is a good word, a word whose definition I never would have guessed on my own; I would have proposed that it meant “a repeated demonstration”, which we now know would be wrong, thus incurring an aware reader’s remonstration. It is a good reminder that words have meaning and the words we utter must be treated with respect.
Anthropologists contend that words are the containers of culture. We frame our communities by our words. My geographic community is shaped by words like rotary, bureau and cellar. My religious community is shaped by words like sin, savior and faith. My social community is shaped by words like gender, inclusion and sanctuary. The same is true for my financial community, my educational community and my familial community; each has its own words with their own nuanced meanings that those in my community understand like inside jokes. Therefore, the words we use in very conversation have both conventional definitions and cultural meanings.
The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18
The wisdom of Solomon, recorded nearly three thousand years ago, stands in stark opposition to the present-day adage about sticks and stones. Words, improperly handled, can hurt us. Words, properly handed, can heal us. This requires that when we communicate with others, we use our words accurately (conveying the correct definition) and contextually (conveying the cultural meaning). That means we need to be careful about our word choices and our audience’s perceptions. That means we need to pay attention to what we are saying as well as what is being heard. We need to be reminded every once in a while that it is a lie when we say that words can never hurt us.
Every Sunday, I wrestle with words – both with what I want to say and what the congregation will hear – as I seek to share the truth of scripture. The Bible is filled with terms that can be troublesome: what is heard when we utter words like slave, miracle, submission, murder, sin, church, prophesy, tongues, evil or perfect. It is a constant battle to be accurate with the biblical text and be relevant with the listening culture. We need to be careful that we know what we are saying and that we know what we are being understood as saying. I encourage you to grapple with words, too.
This brings me back to remonstration, or what I would classify as the contact sport of the internet. We certainly owe those we hold dear the responsibility of voicing our opposition to wrongdoing. But we owe them the respect of remonstrating without injury. We need to choose our words carefully, making sure we know what we are saying and what is being said.