I find words fascinating. I think about them often—what’s the most effective way to use them, how to cause delight, how to prick the conscience, the best way to tell the truth about the world.
Of course at present, the idea that there’s such a thing as “the truth“ is a contested notion. As I’ve said on occasion, and without being especially partisan—merely making an observation—the most alarming thing about the current occupant isn’t that he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue, shoot someone, and not lose any supporters—it’s that he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and say there’s no such thing as 5th Avenue, and not lose any supporters.
Truth can’t help but take a beating in a world where “alternative facts” and “fake news“ are concepts that part of the population is deeply committed to. And if that’s the case with truth, then the words that are meant to carry the weight of truth also suffer.
The idea that words are cheap is hard to escape. We’re assailed by so many of them every day that it’s increasingly difficult to take them or the claims they make about the world seriously.
It’s not enough that there are people who say the earth is flat, I saw the other day that there are people who believe the earth is shaped like a donut. As one astrophysicist—who probably never thought when she entered grad school that she’d be spending part of her vocational life correcting idiot claims, and who must certainly have her palm surgically attached to her forehead—said, in an elegantly understated way: [The donut-shaped theory of the earth] “doesn't start off with a question that we need to answer.”
I feel the same way just about every time Franklin Graham, Pat Roberts, or Robert Jeffress open their mouths about God.
So, astrophysicists and pastors are kind of like the same thing.
Words are definitely slippery little things, but they aren’t entirely dead, are they?
There are some words that do things. In the academy we call it performative utterances. Things like promise, name, bet, agree, swear, declare, order, predict, warn, insist, declare or refuse. “In the philosophy of language and speech acts theory, performative utterances are sentences [that] not only describe a given reality, but also change the social reality they are describing.”
Regardless of the state of our social and political discourse, words still do things. Last Saturday, I stood in front of about eighty people and said to my daughter and—now—daughter-in-law and said, “I now pronounce you married.”
When we do baptisms and I say, “Eleanor, I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Amen,” we make a claim that something has shifted in the universe in a cosmic way.
But performative utterances aren’t all positive. Words can also do negative things, can’t they?
I don’t know about your parenting style, but maybe you recognize this:
“Dad, Michael at my school called me a ‘butthead.’”
“Well, are you a butthead?”
“Then why do you care what Michael says?”
See, that’s easy to say, isn’t it? The implication is that they’re just words. And what are words, after all? They’re not actual physical realities. They can’t really hurt you, can they?
But even as we say it, we know it’s not true. As Fred Craddock used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones . . . but words can kill me.”
“Why can’t you be more like your sister?”
“We don’t want you here. Go back to where you came from.”
“I wish you were never born.”
Words have power.
Isaiah knows this. They can heal and bring life: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”
There’s nothing quite so wonderful in the world as when you’re told that you’re loved and appreciated, or that despite your belief that you’re alone and despised that someone sees you, that someone cares even when you remain convinced that nobody even knows you’re alive.
“I love you. I see you,” can raise people from the dead.
But Isaiah also knows the harm words can do. Words can bring shame.
And in our culture we know about shame, don’t we? Now, I’m not talking about guilt. Guilt has to do with what you’ve done . . . or failed to do.
“I told you to take out the garbage. Why did you not do that?”
“Sorry. I meant to call, but you know things are busy right now.”
“After all I’ve done for you, how could you say that?”
Guilt, if truly deserved, is a healthy response to wrongs we’ve committed.
But whereas guilt has to do with our actions, shame has to do with our identities. And it needn’t just be my individual identity, but my part in a corporate identity.
Not just “You’re so lazy,” but also, “Everybody like you is lazy.”
Not just “I don’t trust you,” but also, “Everybody like you is untrustworthy.”
You can be shamed, just for being who God created you to be. In fact, shaming is a key way the powerful maintain their power, by controlling those by whom they feel threatened. LGBTQ people know this. So do African-Americans, asylees and immigrants. Women have known this forever. Muslims are reminded of this almost daily, as are people who need to take advantage of the social safety nets that are meant to protect them, but which can quickly become a mark of shame.
If people hear long enough, both explicitly and implicitly, that they’re somehow less than, it’s almost impossible at some point not to absorb those messages.
In the 1940s, two psychologists, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, did an experiment using four identical dolls. The only difference was the color of the dolls. They told children ages three through seven to choose which doll they preferred. A majority of the children, regardless of their race or ethnicity, chose the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it.
In the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954—the Supreme Court Case that declared segregated schools are “inherently unequal”—the Clark’s “doll test,” was cited as evidence that social messages are drilled into us very early in our lives. The unanimous Supreme Court ruling read:
To separate [African-American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
But Dr. Kenneth Clark was dismayed that the court failed to cite two other conclusions he [and his wife] had reached: that racism was an inherently American institution, and that school segregation inhibited the development of white children, too.
Even little kids experience shame. It’s worth drawing attention, however, to how many of our politicians don’t.
What does it feel like to live your whole life with the belief that you are somehow less of a person because of the color of your skin or the place of your birth? How do you deal with the feelings that come from being told every day, in a thousand different ways, that you deserve none of the good that comes to you and all of the bad?
But this isn’t a contemporary phenomenon. In the ancient Near East the world operated in an honor-shame based system. Honor brought power, and shame lessened it. So, people were always acutely aware of those things that conferred shame—the status of your parents, whether or not you were sick, the fact that you were female, your proximity to wealth and power—all these things let you know where you were on the food chain.
So, when Isaiah starts talking about the Suffering Servant in our passage for today, he draws attention to the world of honor and shame. The Suffering Servant says, “I gave my back to those who struck me.”
Having your back beaten is a form of public humiliation. It’s a way to exert power over you. It’s meant to be a signal to people like you that “this is what you have to look forward to, if you don’t remember your place.” That is to say, if you don’t keep front and center in your mind who’s in charge, you’re going to have a much greater degree of familiarity with this kind of thing.
“[I gave] my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.”
Anathea Portier-Young writes:
In a culture where the currency of honor is closely tied to gender, such that masculinity is associated with honor and femininity with shame and dishonor, it is common to assail a man's honor by denying or questioning his manhood (cf. Nahum 3:13: "look at your troops, they are women" NRSV). This can be accomplished by removing or marring visible signs that distinguish a man from a woman. One such sign is a beard.
“I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”
The Suffering Servant is attacked once again, this time with words—which as we’ve noted, is as serious as physical assault, doing damage in hearts and minds, according to the Supreme Court’s decision, that is “unlikely ever to be undone.”
Beating, pulling the beard, insulting, spitting—these are all a way of shaming those without power, establishing control, of silencing those whose very existence looms as a threat to the current power arrangements.
These are all very public ways of saying to everyone: “The way things are is the way things are supposed to be. We’re in charge, and we can do whatever we want to you help you remember.”
But the Suffering Servant refuses to be shamed into accepting the way things are. He says, “My dignity comes from God; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.”
In a world in which words are used to inflict harm, when shame is a weapon used by the powerful to control the powerless, the one who refuses to accept that shame, who rejects the very system of domination is the one who is truly free.
Saying “no” to the machinery that manufactures humiliation is a powerful act of resistance. And that kind of resistance is both a claim about and a hope for the new world God has promised to create—a world in which those who’ve lived their lives disgraced and degraded by the powers and principalities will no longer see their worth through the eyes of the dominant, but their value will shine forth from the very eyes of God.
But please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not suggesting that the humiliated just bide their time until some day in a diaphanous and distant future. Because, if that were the case, there would be no need for resistance—since there would be no more shame. The Suffering Servant is, if anything, one whose denial of the power of the system to shame renders that system impotent right now.
The Suffering Servant in Isaiah is talking about setting our “face like flint” in ... the present, refusing to allow a system of honor and shame to continue to order our lives and confer our identities ... today, looking to the one who vindicates us ... in this moment.
It’s Palm Sunday, the day when we remind ourselves what lies in front of us in the week ahead—a week in which Jesus, another suffering servant, will give his back to those who strike him, his cheeks to those who pull out the beard, and he will endure the full power of the words that the powerful use to beat people down.
But by the end of this week, Jesus will deny the power of the entire system of honor and shame by understanding that his worth comes from God—and not from any of the categories the authorities set up to keep people in their place.
And it is that commitment to resistance that both shows us another way of being, and gives us hope that, in Christ, there is no system capable of withstanding God’s insistence on a world in which it is God, and not the machines of domination, who establishes our worth and identity as those who will not be put to shame.