It’s been a nightmarish week or so, days that sink beneath the weight of infamy while also feeling like a prelude to something that future historians will endlessly debate. And while the causes of the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and the murder of MP Jo Cox in Yorkshire will be endlessly debated, there seems to be an undercurrent making itself known about the words we use and the stories we tell.
See, we’ve been telling stories that turn people into targets. We print newspapers that talk about fellow human beings as “swarms” and “invaders”; we preach sermons that reduce individuals to a faceless mass of enemies, or a theological challenge, or the root cause of hurricanes and earthquakes. We offer up these stories, and then something terrible happens and we offer up our thoughts and prayers. But those affected by tragedy have also been affected by our stories, and our thoughts and prayers are viewed with suspicion and scepticism because they’re asking what we’re thinking and praying about the rest of the time.
We’re guilty of telling polluted stories, poisoned narratives that divide and dehumanised, that legitimise violence of words and actions. We can’t then look shocked and innocent when our words of war play over scenes of death and carnage as a toxic soundtrack.
“Hatred stirs up conflict but love covers over all wrongs.” That’s from the Book of Proverbs and it’s a reminder that the words we use have consequences, they get magnified and strengthened, they get shared and transmitted and charged up. If the underlying emotion behind those words is hatred or fear or disgust or idolatry, the result will be conflict. That’s not a rarefied philosophical idea, it’s the reality we’ve been living out this week.
So what happens if we shift towards words built on love, on grace, on hope? What would happen if we allowed a different story to resound throughout our echo chambers? What would happen if we were less interested in proving or superiority, our orthodoxy, our idolatrous security and more interested in reflecting compassion and community, justice and Jesus?
We may think we’re telling visionary stories of a golden age to come, but if the road to that golden age involves walking past symbolic camps in which we lock away those who aren’t like us, if we get there by stepping over the bodies of those we want kept out of our glorious future, then the stories are a poison and human beings, all made in the image of God, will suffer as a result.
We need to tell better stories. We need to sing songs of justice and retweet tweets of hope. We need to go to the pub and chat about our lives and struggles, even when those lives are different to our own; we need to sit around the campfire and remind ourselves of all the times the light won and the sun came up. And we need to pray that the Holy Spirit would tell those stories and bring us together in peace and grace.