I have been thinking a lot in the past few days about words. After all, the events in Charlottesville this past week were based on words. There was a rally, which should be people standing around yelling words. Then there was a counter protest which should have been people standing near the other people, yelling words that spoke against the message the initial group was speaking. When everyone has spoken the words they came to speak, everyone goes home.
We, of course, know that didn't happen. Because in the midst of people speaking their words, people were intimidated, surrounded, threatened, beat, and killed. The sad reality is that 3 people did not go home after this, and others went home battered and bruised. Several physically, many more emotionally.
It is no mistake that Jesus stilled the storm with his words. Because even God understands that words spoken have great power. Sometimes that power is used for incredible good. Unfortunately, often times, it is not. As with all speech, the consequences are very real. The deaths of Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, Trooper Berke M.M. Bates, Heather Heyer, and the other injuries that occurred remind us just how much power words have. Words have very real, life or death consequences. Words matter.
"In this country, we are guaranteed the right of free speech." I have seen many bring up this argument over the past few days, and they are correct. We do legally have free speech. However, legal does not always equate itself with right. The issue we have is not one that lives so much in the legal realm as it does in the societal realm. Though white supremacist language and hate speech may be legal, it does not make them right. And though legality may say it is ok, we as a society must make clear that it is not.
Because words have such dire consequences, words and those who speak them need to be held accountable for the actions they inspire. The recent rhetoric in our country and throughout the world have not awoken a sleeping demon, it has always been awake. But the recent language has emboldened it, allowed it to sound more reasonable, and made it ok to come out of hiding. This hatred no longer lurks in the quiets of peoples' hearts. It now boldly and unmasked carries torches to a college campus, surrounds a church where a prayer meeting is going on, and gets behind the wheel of a car and barrels into a crowd, killing a young woman.
When faced with the reality of death, the legality of speech seems trivial. But do not lose sight of what enabled this death to be possible: words. So while speech may legal, killing is not, and one leads to the other. And regardless of legalities, it is not right.The consequence of speech this time was death. Those who enabled it should be held accountable.
But there's something else important to consider. Silence also has power. The ability for hate speech and fringe movements to be heard is only through the silence of reasonable people quieted through niceties and complacency. It is only in the absence of people of reason speaking up that the unreasonable become mainstream. It is in that vacuum that they become reasonable. The silence of millions, including my own, should also be held accountable.
So what are we to do now?
Understand that lives are at stake. Understand that speech and silence are both extremely important, and both have consequences.There will be more rallies, there will be more fights, and there will probably be more deaths. Because of the seriousness of the consequences, we cannot be silent. We cannot be complacent. We must be vigilant. We must be vocal. Our job is to ensure that everyone knows that the hatred is not welcome here. We all have to make sure that we are not only not part of the problem, but that we are actively part of the solution.We must stand up for those who cannot. We have to speak for those who cannot. We must not be intimidated by those who seek to strike fear in our hearts but stand boldly and unafraid against the hatred and injustice of our world. We have to fill the air with love and acceptance so that the voices of hatred are drowned out.
While the hate speech of others will go on, they need to know it is not an option to do it around us. We need to call out those whose language and actions enable any version of supremacy or discrimination. We must hold those around us accountable for their words, not through legalities or violence, but with our own words and actions of love and acceptance. Be clear and be direct; this is evil we are dealing with. It's time to stand up, and it's time to speak up. Silence is not an option, and our words must be used well, because words have tremendous power.
The eyes of history are watching, and history will speak our legacy. When the question of who fought against evil and hatred is posed, what words will be spoken of us? Of you? Or like the actions of so many in this time, will there only be silence?