The Power of Words
The Bishop of Wolverhampton’s pastoral letter for March 2018
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration was ‘The Power of Words’. We were encouraged to reflect on words as a channel for perpetrating evil, as a means of articulating protest and as a way of recording testimony. Part of the enduring reason for the shadow that the Nazi Holocaust continues to cast over our world is the amount of written documentation that we have from that time. The countless examples of German propaganda depicting the Jews and other minorities as sub human, and the chilling edicts ordering their persecution. The luminous courage that shines from the writings of such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, incarcerated for conscientiously objecting to evil. The incomparable power of the personal testimony, as in the Diary of Anne Frank.
Even when the last person with direct experience of the Second World War has passed away, the power of words will ensure that the truth of what happened in the Holocaust is never forgotten.
But what happens if words are suppressed or their power is in other ways undermined?
The recent film ‘The Post’ is all about the power of words. It tells the story of the attempts by the New York Times and the Washington Post to reveal the truth about successive US administrations’ attempts to cover up what was really happening in the conflict in Vietnam. The film dramatizes the conflict between press and president, between the right of the newspapers to publish and the right of the State to suppress.
The events described took place nearly fifty years ago and one of the striking differences between then and now is the authority of the newspaper. In that era, the written word that rolled off the presses conveyed huge authority. Newspapers had massive circulations. No wonder the president would want to do everything in his power to stop publication.
We live in a very different world. Words are flung at us from all directions but a diminishing number come via printed newspapers. More and more, people’s views are being formed via online and social media platforms and as we are becoming all too aware, the danger is that authoritative news and fake news become indistinguishable. I recently clicked on a FaceBook link which purported to carry a news story about the death of a famous celebrity. In fact the link was a portal through which someone tried to hack my computer.
The journey that Christians follow through Lent leaves us in no doubt as to the power of words, for good and evil. On Palm Sunday we are reminded of the crowd, baying for blood, like modern day social media trolls; ‘Crucify Him, Crucify Him’. On Good Friday we recall Jesus’ words from the cross, words which have set countless people free from hatred and bitterness, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’.
More than ever, in an age where words are becoming cheap, expendable and untrustworthy, there is hunger for a Word which is authoritative, dependable and life-giving. As Christians, we are the bearers of the Word. We carry ultimate responsibility for the power that the Word conveys. During Lent we often focus on hearing and reading instructive words, to help us deepen our spirituality and nurture our faith. It might be an equally important discipline to monitor our social media accounts for the words that we are actually speaking, in a variety of forms. Are they words that could come back to haunt us, as words suspended in timeless limbo on the web always have the power to do? Or are our words ones that could stand forever, as testimony to the faith we hold and the Word we live to share.