“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” So said Rabbi Yehuda Berg.
Even simple, seemingly innocuous words can be freighted with such meaning as to affect our perceptions of those about whom they are used. One such word is “migrants”.
Just over a week ago, a woman (I shall not name her) who has somehow attained national prominence through the expression of extreme and uncharitable views reached a new low. She reached a new low even for one whose comments include insulting dementia sufferers as “bed blockers” suggesting “people with depression do not need a doctor and a bottle of something that rattles. They need a pair of running shoes and fresh air” and inviting the suicidal to “top themselves in private.”
In a national newspaper (I shall not name the newspaper either) a piece by her was headlined: ‘Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants.’ While hundreds died in the sea, she wrote, “NO, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”
Somebody, possibly not Voltaire to whom the comment is attributed, said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I can’t imagine manning the barricades to defend the views of this woman, or her right to make them known, but in general I agree with the idea of free speech. However; once we accept that we can say things, we have a responsibility to consider the effects of what we say and to think also about the language we use.
Said the Buddha, “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” The writer’s words were surely not intended for good, while even the word “migrant” when used in a seemingly neutral way can carry a surprising amount of negative freight.
Think of the situation to which this writer refers and how you may have heard it reported on the television. Migrants have been coming to Europe. Migrants have been drowning as their overloaded and unseaworthy vessels have sunk or capsized. Migrants this. Migrants that. And someone asked, “How about we just call them people?” Do you see what that does? People have been coming to Europe. People; men, women and children have been drowning as their overloaded and unseaworthy vessels have sunk or capsized.
Let me make this clearer still. Let me give a name to one of those “migrants”, a man who sits in a detention centre in Libya, waiting to make that perilous journey across the Med on which hundreds, almost two thousand, have lost their lives this year. His name is Mohamed Abdallah, and he was interviewed by Patrick Kingsley for a recent Guardian story. (There is a picture of Abdallah on the link below)
“I cannot go back to my country,” says Abdallah, who is from Darfur, in Sudan. He left for what is now South Sudan in 2006, after he says his village was destroyed in the Darfur war, his father died, and his sisters were raped. But in South Sudan, another war later broke out. So he made his way through the Sahara, a journey that he says killed his brother and cousin, to Libya. And there last year, he was witness to his third civil war in a decade – a war that still drags on, its frontline just a few miles from his camp.
“There is a war in my country, there’s no security, no equality, no freedom,” Abdallah says. “But if I stay here (in Libya), it’s just like my country. There is no security, there is violence. When you work, they take your money.” He worked in a soap shop, and saved up to pay local smugglers for the boat to Europe. But just as he hoped to complete the payment, he was robbed, and then arrested. The recounting of his ordeal brings out first the tears, and then a conclusion: “I need to go to Europe.”
I can tell you Abdallah’s name. I cannot tell you the name of the 25 year old woman who came ashore on Italy’s Lampedusa Island in a black bag, having succumbed to burns caused when a gas canister exploded on an earlier stage of her journey, an explosion that killed five others.
I cannot tell you the names of the seventy or so people who shared that inflatable and gradually sinking vessel with her. I cannot give you the names of the survivors who “limped ashore wearing bloodied, makeshift bandages over their faces, arms and feet” nor of those who came ashore on stretchers. Neither can I tell you the name of the six month old girl who received severe burns across half her face in that same explosion. I cannot give you their names, but they had them, these sons and daughters of women. They had names. They have names, those that live; and those that died have names that are remembered, I hope, by someone.
To be a migrant is not to be part of some nameless, shapeless mass. To be a migrant is not to belong to some other class of being, some class less worthy of our care, our compassion, our humanity. Yet, when we call people “migrants” that is what seems to happen in our thinking. How else explain the British Government’s view that we should leave these “migrants” to drown so as to discourage others from making the journey? Wouldn’t that be unthinkable for family or friends, for people we know? But, somehow, once we name these people “migrants” it seems easier to deny them the treatment we would normally give to others.
I posted a picture on Facebook in response to this. It carried the quote from Dr Paul Farmer: “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”
I post a lot of pictures on Facebook. Usually of sunsets or seascapes. They are often shared, two or three times, maybe half a dozen. This one was shared one hundred and twenty times. It clearly struck a chord!
That word migrant seems to suggest that these people’s lives matter less than yours or mine but are their lives not just like yours and mine? Do these people not live and breathe and bleed and suffer and love just like you and me?
Let me return to that newspaper comment piece to which I referred earlier. In it, the writer used of the people in those boats words far more obviously pejorative than migrant, words redolent of some particularly nasty periods in human history. She spoke of these sons and daughters as “spreading like norovirus on a cruise ship.” She described these mothers and fathers as “a plague of feral humans.” She spoke of these boys and girls as “cockroaches.”
I do not believe her vile views are widespread. I do not believe the majority of us would speak of these unfortunate, desperate souls in such terms. But there is a link between “migrant” and “cockroach” and one made too easily when we forget that migrants are people; that like Abdallah, they have names; that like that baby girl, they suffer; that like that woman, and so many hundreds more, they die.
Aware of that link, let us remember that if words can be used to hurt and harm, they can also be used to heal and to help. But words need speaking.
“In the end,” said Martin Luther King, Jr, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” If we wish to be friends to those people making that terrible journey, and others like them, we will not be silent.
I am reminded of the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller, who moved from support for Hitler to regret that he did not do enough to support the victims of the Nazis, and on to becoming a pacifist and anti-war activist. Niemöller wrote,
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
For Niemöller, silence was complicity.
The writer of that awful newspaper article admitted that the approach she advocates towards this issue demanded “tiny hearts” and that brings me to why I share these thoughts with you this evening as we gather in church, as we gather as the body of Christ.
The link below takes us to a Bible passage that reminds those of us who profess to follow Jesus of te intense practicality of that calling. The Message Bible puts it well in its telling of that story of how people are to be judged; not by their adherence to doctrine, not by their regularity of churchgoing, but by their attention to the poor, the vulnerable, the needy, the powerless, and by their recognition that in them is the one we say we serve. “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”
To label as mere migrants, and thus unworthy of everyday compassion, men, women and children so desperate as so many are to risk their lives is to overlook and ignore their humanity; to do thus, for the Christian, is to overlook and ignore Jesus.
Said Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Our actions are what count in the end; but our words matter too. Let us use them wisely and with love. In biblical thinking “word” can carry the idea of the mind and will of God. If that is so, let us will love with our words and embody love in our actions.
The Bible passage to which I referred can be found here.
The Guardian article to which I referred can be found here.