I've been heartbroken by these same stories and they have reminded me of a conversation in Bible study from a couple years ago. We had been discussing the Apostle's Creed and someone had raised the question of whether it had any real meaning for most Christians anymore. A woman in the class changed the whole conversation when she said, "When I say the Creed, I think about the fact that there are people who are persecuted for being Christians around the world and my reciting it is showing solidarity with them."
I replied to the email this week by saying that since ISIS's crimes against humanity have been in the news, that conversation has been in my mind whenever I recite the Apostle's Creed in worship. For some people saying those words is dangerous and that makes them more meaningful for me. I ended the email with the only words that made sense: "Lord, have mercy, indeed."
As I ponder this more, I think about the fact that I will likely never face death because of stating my Christian faith, and the question that inevitably comes to mind is, "What can I do?" Knowing there are those who die for their words in this world, what difference can my life make?
At this point, many people might start listing off various charities and causes that are working in this arena and I encourage anyone moved by these things to pursue that angle. (I certainly have several charities I support beyond my congregation.) But even though good agencies need financial support, I also want to believe that my ability to affect good in the world extends beyond my wallet.
And so in the process of writing the past several paragraphs, my efforts to answer "What can I do?" settled on a different question: "How do I make my words dangerous?"
You see, all my thoughts about the Creed and martyrdom kept coming back to one thought -- the words we say matter. I can forget this because words are cheap these days. Many of us send thousands of texts and emails a month, watch dozens of hours of television of people talking, and read books, blogs, and sports columns daily (sometimes doing several of these at once). We are surrounded by words to the point that everything is background noise.
But our words can be meaningful--and dangerous.
The book of James in the Bible has a lot to say about our words. Most of what James says is negative ("The tongue is a restless evil..."), but he also makes the point that the tongue is powerful, comparing it to a rudder that turns a large ship. Words can affect change and challenge the status quo--for good or bad--and that can make them dangerous for anyone who uses them.
When we say things like "I love you" or "I'm sorry" or "I forgive you" we are making ourselves vulnerable because we don't always know what someone will say back. When we reply to gossip or hateful speech with the words, "I don't feel that way," we risk feeling very alone. We may never risk our lives for the Gospel, but we can risk other things that are precious to us: pride, power, status. (Although those might not always be a bad thing to lose.)
Within this world, there are people who are dying for the words they use. How will I be mindful of mine to make them meaningful? Will my words carry the dangerous vulnerability of love and mercy? In what direction will my tongue steer the ship? On the eve of St. Francis's commemoration day, I remember his words, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace..." Amen.
(I ask that if you pray, please join me in using some of your words today to pray for innocent martyrs of all faiths.)
“Speak louder than the words before you and give them meaning no one else has found.” -Ian Axel, "This is the New Year"