Just Words, You Say

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still. Shrieking voices

Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,

Always assail them

-- T. S. Eliot, "Four Quartets, Burnt Norton"

Have you ever listened to someone talk on and on until they think of something to say? I sometimes find myself lost in the avalanche of their words -- big words, small words, profoundly strung together in a meaningless cascade of noise. Big words tumbling over each other, their meanings diminished in thoughtless, reckless sound as the speaker prattles on while no one has a clue what he is really saying or what she means.

"Say what you mean and mean what you say," is very helpful advice. As human beings we live in an environment of words. Sometimes we use words with integrity to express the truth and to say exactly what we mean. At other times we use words to camouflage and skew the truth, and to say one thing while meaning quite another thing or even its opposite. And sometimes we just use words without thinking, without knowing their meaning. By words we uphold truth and justice, goodness and beauty. But by using those same words we can just as easily undermine truth and justice, demean goodness and diminish beauty.

In his recently released book, "Payback," Thane Rosenbaum suggests that when most people speak of justice what they really mean is vengeance. Revenge, he goes on to say, is inextricably linked to justice and is a deeply internalized human instinct. It was not his argument for vengeance that caught my attention but the fact that the word "justice" is losing its meaning. It has become a euphemism, a civilized and socially acceptable way of saying "revenge" without having to say "revenge" or declare hatred for an offender. Justice is becoming another word for naked vengeance because people feel better about saying justice than saying revenge is what they're after or that retribution is what they really want. The more we speak of justice when all we mean is vengeance, the more remote the idea and meaning of justice becomes until we no longer understand that its meaning has more to do with "fair play" than with "payback." The real meaning of justice is not found in revenge but in reparation, reconciliation, and restoration -- in peace-making and redemption.

Whenever I speak of justice, even with judges and lawyers, I find it necessary to clarify that the meaning of justice is more than a forensic determination of guilt or innocence, that it is beyond crime and consequence, and that it is not simply fairness and equality and proper procedure. I am trying to become more careful with the words I use because the meanings of words like justice, love, hate, grace, honesty, truth, good, evil and morality are critically important in our world of contemporary tolerance. Words aren't ours simply to fill a quiet space; or to cast aspersions and insinuate suspicion without sounding negative; or to build sentences and paragraphs that are dense and stupid but sound profound; or to say one thing while meaning quite another. Words are not "just words" unless they are used transparently with integrity, grace and meaning for the common good.

It was said of Jesus of Nazareth that he was the ultimate Word of God -- the flesh and blood embodiment of God's love and justice, "full of grace and truth" (St. John 1:14) -- and what he said, is what he meant, and what he lived.

"And don't say anything you don't mean.
This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions.
You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk,
saying 'I'll pray for you,' and never doing it,
or saying, 'God be with you,' and not meaning it.
You don't make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace.
In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true.
Just say 'yes' and 'no'.
When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.
(St. Matthew 5:33-37 -- The Message)