The power of words

(Photo: Unsplash/Volodymyr Hryshchenko)

It's tragic to see a family falling apart in front of your very eyes. Right and wrong are very subjective judgements and the search for the truth can often prove a pretty impossible task. We can mishear, misunderstand, and misquote so easily, and if you add painful memories and damaged emotions to the mix, you have all the makings of a car crash.

Meghan and Harry's cosy chat with Oprah got me thinking like this because I can't see how anyone can come out of this sad affair with their reputation untarnished. In fact, I get the feeling that we and they are going to feel the repercussions of this interview for years to come.

I feel sorry for everyone involved in this sorry mess because they've all suffered in one way or another. It's tough enough going through a family 'bust up' but to have dirty linen on display for the whole world to see must be nothing short of a nightmare, not least for the Queen. It's not what anyone would want at her age, especially when your husband is recovering from heart surgery.

If there was ever a time to heed the apostle Paul's advice to pray for the royal family, it must surely be now. And it seems to me that it should serve as a reminder that we ought to think carefully before we open our mouths, too, given the impact our words can have on others.

As a Jew, Jesus would have understood this better than most. William Barclay's observation is helpful here: "To the Jew a word was far more than a mere sound. It was something which had an independent existence, and which actually did things. As Professor John Paterson has put it, 'The spoken word to the Hebrew was fearfully alive...It was a unit of energy charged with power. It flies like a bullet to its billet.' For that very reason, the Hebrew was sparing of words. Hebrew speech has fewer than 10,000: Greek speech has 200,000." 

Is it any wonder then that Jesus put it this way: "For whatever is in your heart determines what you say. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you." (Matthew 12:34f)

It didn't take me long to conclude then that the Sussexes' decision to "tell all" in the way they did was neither wise nor caring. But that doesn't mean I think we should always stay silent, it simply means we should examine our hearts before we open our mouths.

I would defend their right to voice 'their truth' of course, but I would equally defend Piers Morgan's right to say that he didn't believe a word Meghan said. Some have found his comments upsetting but it's worth remembering what happened to brave souls in Stalin's Russia when they voiced their dissent. You can find a chilling description of it in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago.

There was a large meeting, he writes, in which everyone began to applaud "Comrade Stalin" and the clapping continued for an unbearably long time because no one wanted to be seen to be the first one to stop. As you might guess, people like that simply disappeared.

We'd be naïve to think it couldn't happen here. We are living in an increasingly suffocating culture in which it is becoming more and more difficult to voice your opinion if it doesn't echo the prevailing orthodoxy. Christians especially who want to hold to the Church's traditional teaching on such issues as sexuality and gender, for example, are increasingly in the firing line and I'm beginning to wonder how long it will be before we are hauled up before the courts.

In the meantime, whatever we think of such contentious issues, I think we would all do well to heed the wise words of Henri Nouwen: "Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone's face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come."

Wise words indeed and hopefully not too controversial either.