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The power of words

At the top of the pass in Glacier National Park, there are the requisite ranger station, gift shop and restrooms. Most visitors stop there for a break because the Going To The Sun Highway is always nerve wracking. 

But out back behind the station is a trail most people miss or avoid. The trail looks steep, and at 6600 feet elevation, many folks already feel the lack of oxygen. Still, if you hike the trail you will find yourself in an alpine meadow. The colors of the flowers are bright yellows, light pinks and purples. And while everything is wild here, nothing grows too tall. Beauty in miniature.

The trail itself sits on stilts. You walk above the meadow. The meadow is too dangerous a place to walk. The meadow isn’t a danger to us. We are a danger to it.  The alpine flowers are so fragile that if we were to step on one, it would not grow back for 50 years! One misstep can destroy generations of life.

Years ago, I was the dean of an elementary church camp. We had separated the kids into family groups—one girl cabin and one boy cabin. At one of the family group sessions, we asked the kids to share some words that hurt.

Once they discovered that the leaders would not censure their words, the hurting words poured out. Each family group easily had six poster-sized pages of words that hurt. Not only were we overwhelmed by the amount of hurt, but when we asked the kids to give us words that healed, no group filled more than one page.  

In an age where Internet “trolls” can say anything hurtful they choose to without much penalty, in an age when the presidential debates sound more like schoolyard fights, in an age where teens often kill themselves in response to bullies, in an age where armed gunmen can stand across the street from a mosque and yell hate speech, in an age when even international relations seems more belligerent all the time, it’s time to go back to the meadow.

We seem to have forgotten that words can harm and hurt and even mortally wound us in ways from which we never fully recover. We are as fragile as an alpine flower. Or maybe we haven’t forgotten at all. Maybe we think that if we make someone hurt more than us, then it will make us feel better.

If we make “them” responsible, if we blame them, if we attack their humanity, then perhaps we think we will gain back what we have lost. But this never works, because rage always devours the user as its victim. 

Jesus offers another way. It’s quite remarkable, really. He tells us to get rid of anger by being gracious to the person who caused our anger. I know that sounds nuts! Who really ever does this? But Jesus says, “If you are compelled to carry another’s burden for a mile, carry it a second mile.” Are you kidding me? This never works, right? It’s just a theory.

The Romans were great at practicing what I call restrictive injustice. They could legally take advantage of others, but placed limits on how much a person could be oppressed. The army could compel people to carry the troop supplies and armor, but only for a mile. By volunteering the second mile, you not only saved someone else from being compelled, but also demonstrated mastery over the injustice.  

Maybe Jesus’ way isn’t realistic. But frankly, there are too many words that harm, too many alpine flowers being crushed and too much blame being generated to not give it a try. Perhaps we shall see beauty we have missed before, and even find our souls refreshed.

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