I wrote the article “How to ‘Argue’ Christianly” (p. 32) in December. Back then, I was mainly thinking about how toxic online arguments among Christians have become. Since then, intimidation toward denominational justice and mercy staff have been reported. If I were to write that article now, I would add that our words can cause us to sin. Specifically, our words can break the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13).
Heidelberg Catechism’s Q&A 105 explains that God’s will for us in the sixth commandment is that I am not to “belittle, insult, hate, or kill” anyone, “not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds”; nor am I “to be party to this in others.” According to the catechism, then, if we belittle someone, such as by calling someone an idiot or implying so, we are guilty of murder. Similarly, Jesus said anyone who is angry and insults another “will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt. 5:21-24). When our disagreements lead to bullying, insulting, or even intimidating words, in God’s eyes we are guilty of murder and must repent.
What ties verbal insults to physical murder? I think the common link is dehumanization. When through our words we reduce people made in God’s image to objects of derision in our minds and hearts, we have made them less human. When we imagine them as less human, it becomes easier for us to abuse or even kill them.
This is why Asian-American Christians have taken issue with the terms “Kung Flu” or “China virus” in reference to COVID-19. From verbal abuse to physical attacks, acts of anti-Asian racism, especially toward women, have risen since the start of the pandemic. Between March 2020 and February 2021 in the U.S. there were 3,795 Anti-Asian incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate. How many more were not reported?
With this backdrop, most Asian-Americans feel the March Atlanta shootings, where six of the eight victims were Asian women, had racial overtones. The shooter denies it, claiming his motive was to eliminate temptation for his sex addiction. But this is still dehumanization. It reduces Asian women to sex objects to be eliminated. We can find other examples of how words can foster death, but anti-Asian racism hits close to home for me.
From late-night talk shows to social media memes, we live in a culture where mockery and insults are normal. We no longer see the harm in carelessly “throwing shade” on others. We also live in a world where words—spoken and written—surround us everywhere. We can hardly escape from words. I wonder if that inundation of words makes us care less about how we use them?
In the Bible, words matter. “The tongue,” and by extension written words, “has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Prov. 18:21). Using words well is a grave responsibility for writers and editors like myself. God knows I might have sinned with my words or been party to others doing so, even unintentionally.
Words can foster life or death. We need to be more serious and careful with what we write and say and consider the possible impact of our words beyond our intentions. Let us seek to foster life with our words.