The Power of Words

Whoever said “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words don’t bother me” was not living in the real world. Words have incredible power to cut and hurt or bless and heal. It’s not only the Word of the Lord which is a “two-edged sword,” but everyone’s words have the power to stab and to heal.

Take Don Imus. He’s not doing anything now, so he’s available if you want to take him.

The paper says this shock-radio talk-show host did so much good for children. When he “opened mouth and inserted foot” the other morning, he was in the middle of a fund-raising thing for children. He’s built a ranch out west and brings inner-city children there to experience a different kind of life. But he brought all that good work to an abrupt halt the other morning when he off-handedly referred to the women of the Rutger’s University basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.”

I was never a big fan of Imus, even though we picked him up locally on the MSNBC channel and I tuned in occasionally. Some people must like him but I could never figure why. I will never forget a banquet he spoke before some 10 or 15 years before–seems like it was during the Clinton presidency–in which he was filthily crude and vulgar and offensive before the president, his family, his staff, congressional leaders, and the press. It was a disaster of the first magnitude. What I could never figure out was why anyone thought this guy was something special.

Forget Don Imus. The question that ought to be asked is what it says about this country that he was tolerated for all these years, with sponsors paying big bucks for him to do what he did.

Anyway. All of that was to lead up to the New Orleans situation.

Dr. Edward Blakely, the mayor’s recovery czar for the city of New Orleans, has twice landed in hot water as a result of his inability to control his mouth.

In a recent radio interview he told a Sydney, Australia, audience that the pre-Katrina population of New Orleans, estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau as 455,000, was grossly inflated. He said the population was–and I wish I had the exact quote from him here–something like 300,000, but that the city officials had kept this a secret in order not to lose federal dollars. When his hand was called on that, when he was asked for the source of his information by no less than the census bureau itself which did not appreciate the slander, his bravado fell apart.

He erred, he said, saying he was quoting someone, he didn’t say whom, and reporting speculation, not facts.

This, mind you, is the man we’re looking to for visionary leadership for the rebuilding of this city. Recommended to us for his professionalism and integrity.

Then, he was interviewed by the New York Times. I suppose it went to his head–“wow, I’m the subject of a story in the New York Times!”–and he just couldn’t quit talking. In last Monday’s edition, Blakely seemed to get a kick out of slamming New Orleans, calling it a “Third World country.” He said the city’s racial divide is “a bit like the Shiites and the Sunnis” and the local economy was one “entirely made up of t-shirts.” He called local leaders “buffoons.”

Oh, that went over well. Not!

Blakely’s boss is a veteran of these kinds of gaffes–His Honor, Mayor C. Ray Nagin himself–but he can recognize in others what he has difficulty seeing in himself. We’re told he called Blakely on the carpet and demanded that he publicly apologize.

Blakely went before the public and announced that his comments to the New York Times had been taken “totally out of context.” The media and the public have “misconstrued” his comments.

Pardon my skepticism, but does anyone see a confession or apology there? Sure reads like he’s blaming the newspaper, the media, and everyone else.

He said he does take “full responsibility” for what he said, and then insists that his comments resulted from anxiety “about a few people who seem to be bent on stopping the progress we’re trying to make.” He says he had “just come out of a meeting where a group of people were trying to undermine some of our efforts and they were trying to use me as a vehicle for doing that. I was talking about people outside the city government but who try to influence it.”

Oh, my. Does he mean to tell us that people outside our city government are trying to influence it? Horrors.

What planet does this man live on? I try to influence city government by my vote, conversations, blogs, prayers, everything. Someone had better influence it, because it’s fairly obvious the government needs all the help it can get.

In a Friday conversation with the media at City Hall, Dr. Blakely tried to clarify his remarks and put them behind him. He said, “I don’t think we have buffoons here. I think we have a couple of people. And unfortunately, I have a very short temper…where people try to undermine things that I think are important to the people of the city.”

Asked about the mayor’s taking him to the woodshed, he joked that hizzoner has “taken my passport away from me and my driver’s license.” Asked whether he was going to be fired–as many citizens have called for–Blakely said, “I’m going to be here whether you like it or not.” He went on to say that his contract is now open-ended in place of the original one-year contract he had with New Orleans. His staff explained all that means is that he serves at the pleasure of the mayor.

Wednesday in our pastors meeting, I told the brethren, “Every pastor can learn a lesson from Don Imus. Clean up your private language. Whether it’s sexist or racial or whatever, sooner or later, it will get you in trouble.”

Any observer of the political scene has seen this process played out repeatedly. A businessman who has climbed and clawed his way to the top decides to spend his millions and run for political office. Suddenly what he says is news. He’s no longer talking to his board members or employees. He’s being listened to by the public at large, most of whom are not on his payroll and feel zero loyalty to him. When he pops off about the welfare queens or illegal aliens, about people who would rather draw a government check than hold down a job, or about social groups he feels are ruining this country, he quickly makes a sobering discovery: people are listening. And some of them will be responding to his comments on the six o’clock news tonight.

One of the first things that happens is that his staff gets together and starts talking about how to control their candidate. “Boss,” they said, “You can’t talk that way. You need to think before you speak.” Some call that political correctness and it’s been given a bad name. I guarantee you there are politicians today reading the Don Imus and Ed Blakely stories and shuddering because, “That could have been me.”

I hope the preachers and church leaders of the land are listening too.

Personally, I’m indebted to three or four church members over the years who were courageous enough to hold me accountable for unthinking and unloving statements I made which hurt them or those they loved. “Joe, why did you say this? Were you aware that she was in the congregation and that you hurt her?”

Let that happen a few times–accompanied by your visits to apologize and ask their forgiveness–and you begin praying the Lord to help you to grow up.

For many years I have prayed Psalm 141:3 almost every morning of my life. “Set a guard upon my mouth, O Lord. Keep watch over the door of my lips.”

One reason I’ve adopted Job 4:4 as my life-verse (“Your words have stood men on their feet”) is that for a long time I struggled with an undisciplined mouth that could knock people off their feet far more skillfully than stand them back up and help them get back into the game.

We could wish that Imus and Blakely and others in the public spotlight had had courageous friends in their youth who were willing to call them on the carpet for their intemperate remarks, to hold them accountable for rash statements and cutting remarks, and to teach them the best lesson any religious faith can ever impart: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

2 thoughts on “The Power of Words

  1. I totally agree with you. As James says, the tongue is an unruly evil. But, unfortunately, the only thing these situations result in is legislators unnecessarily trying to control thoughts or speech of others, always in the name of political correctness (I am so tired of that term I could throw up); when they should be about the business of the city, state or nation. Not that it is right, but let’s face it, we are going to get our feelings hurt from time to time and we may even hurt the feelings of others. I believe it should be incumbent on us as human beings, whether Christian or not, to own up to our mistakes and apologize directly to the one whom we offended. And then to forgive those who offend us as Jesus commanded us to do.

    Thanks for your insight!


  2. “I suppose it went to his head–“wow, I’m the subject of a story in the New York Times!”–and he just couldn’t quit talking.”

    I’ve long suspected that was the real problem — not knowing when to shut up.

    Whether it was Dom Imus or Pat Robertson or Rosie O’Donnell or Dan Rather or any of dozens of “paid talkers”, they eventually run out of worthwhile things to say — but does that stop them from yammering on? Of course not!

    So on and on they go… digging deeper and deeper, long after they should have known they’ve hit bottom.

    Like anyone ever cared what Imus had to say on the subject of LADIES BASKETBALL in the first place???

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