Rudyard Kipling once said, ‘words are of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind’. This morning we hear about the power, and the danger, of words. In the letter of James we heard the comparison of the human tongue to a small fire, which can so easily set a whole forest ablaze. Many in the public spotlight have discovered the power of words. David Cameron of course was heavily criticised after referring to those fleeing their homes and entering Europe as a ‘swarm’. Just that one word led to a very strong reaction from the media and the public. Words can be used powerfully for good and to inspire – Martin Luther King with his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech probably didn’t realise the power that his words would have. The words we use are important, language is important, and they can reveal a lot about what we are thinking and how we feel about things.
This week the language that has been used to describe those fleeing to Europe has come under scrutiny. For a number of months these people have been described as migrants by the media and by politicians, and consequently by you and me. However in the last week or so this term has been more closely considered. Who does a migrant refer to? A migrant is someone who migrates, or moves, from one country to another, to stay there for more than a year. Consequently there are migrants from Eastern Europe, from Asia and other such places – people who have come to live in the UK, they live and work around us. Some are students, some bring many skills to our country: they are doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs. And there are people who come to live here and work in low paid, low skilled jobs, nevertheless they are valued as they do the work that many are not prepared to do. These are all migrants.
And thus there is an issue in using the word migrant to describe the many people who are fleeing their homes for fear of war and persecution. The word migrant suggests that they are moving to Europe to have better healthcare, better jobs, better homes, a better quality of life. It fails to convey the desperate need of these people, their lack of choice, it is not ‘move for a better life’, it is ‘move or die’. Thus this week the term ‘refugee’ seems to have been adopted by the media to better describe these people; they now refer to ‘the refugee crisis’ as opposed to ‘the migrant crisis’. A refugee is someone who has fled armed conflict or persecution and needs international protection. Once someone has been identified as a refugee, according to the international Refugee Convention they should be given access to social housing, welfare benefits, helped to find a job and integrated into society.
Britain, it would seem, has begun to recognise that people willing to risk their lives, and their children’s lives by crossing oceans in small dingys, jumping onto moving trains and walking across continents, cannot simply be migrants looking for a better life – these are refugees. They are fleeing something far worse than whatever they encounter in their treacherous journeys. And so this change of language has reflected a change in attitude. People are starting to see these refugees as fellow human beings, desperate and in need. Our language matters here and it is leading to action – a change in the language people are using to describe these refugees has led to people offering aid and money, yesterday rallying in London in support of refugees, and people even offering their spare rooms, in an effort to relieve the suffering of these people. The way in which we speak about people matters.
In our gospel reading today Jesus asks his disciples an important question – ‘who do people say I am?’ He wanted to know what people were saying about him, because their words reveal something important. Peter’s declaration ‘You are the Messiah’ has been seen as a climax in Mark’s gospel, but it is unclear what Jesus actually makes of this answer. He neither confirms nor denies it. Rather he tries to offer his disciples a greater understanding of why he has come and what it will lead to. They are encouraged to listen and to learn before they run off and start spreading the news that the Messiah has come. They need to understand. It is not enough for them to declare Jesus as the Messiah if they do not understand what the word even means.
Sometimes we too need to stop and to try to understand, to discern, before we jump in and voice our opinion. How many situations would have been improved if we had taken the time to observe and understand before leaping in? In order to speak appropriately, we need to have understanding. If we are to speak with wisdom and grace about the refugee crisis, then we need to ensure that we are well informed about it – why are people fleeing their homes? Where in the world have they come from? Where are they trying to get to and why? Do they ever want to return home?
And so Jesus tries to teach the disciples what it means to be the Messiah – and it would appear that Jesus’ understanding of the word is very different to the understanding that they have. Jesus explains that it is not all about miracles and healings, but rather that his role as Messiah will involve sacrifice and even death. We are not told the reaction of the other disciples but Peter, the one who had declared so boldly ‘you are the Messiah’ rebukes him – ‘Lord, this cannot be true!’. Peter had made his declaration without any real understanding of what he was saying, of what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah.
We then see the powerful response from Jesus- ‘get behind me Satan!’. And Jesus goes on to explain more about what it means to follow him. It is not all about words. Those who follow must be prepared to take up their cross. They too must be prepared to face suffering and even death. Here we find that words are powerful, but actually something more is needed – action.
So this morning I think that we are reminded, first of all of the power of words – the words that we speak can be very powerful, inspirational, challenging, hurtful, damaging. And consequently it is important that we consider carefully what we say, before we say it. Often we lack understanding and actually would benefit from taking the time to stop and to listen, as Jesus’ disciples were forced to do. Secondly, we are reminded of that well known phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’. Take up your cross Jesus says. That is much more meaningful than a declaration of Jesus as the Messiah. Our words are powerful and yet sometimes perhaps we are better to keep quiet and instead to ACT. Without the actions to back them up what do our empty words mean?
Peter’ confession of Jesus as the Messiah was an important moment, but actually it wasn’t until he himself took up his cross, as he did some years later in his own martyrdom, that he finally understood what Jesus was about. By speaking about migrants and refugees we learn very little of their plight, of all that they have suffered, so now let’s turn our words into action by mobilising with our neighbours to collect donations, by raising money to donate, by campaigning for these people’s rights, even by offering a spare room.
Words matter but it is when they lead to action that they are most powerful.
September 13th, 2015