Hurtful Words


I. Sticks and Stones

I did not know all that was said to my children, but I knew that words had hurt them. I said, “Don’t worry about it. Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

I taught them to say this as if it were an incantation with the power to ward off the hurts: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

I thought that it made practical sense for me to teach my children to be tough. We live in an explosive world with lots of temptations and dangers, I reasoned. I’ve got to help them develop a thick skin, rhinoceros skin.

How well did this approach work? Not very. In Hawaii, whites are called haoles. My oldest son, who I adopted, began getting into fist fights.

In Hawaii, he didn’t mind learning the Hawaiian word for himself, haole, but he didn’t like it when the local children modified the word with “dirty” or some other pejorative.

He was a unique child, who only wanted to be loved, and when he wasn’t loved or was rejected with hurtful words, he began to strike back. He got the first part of the nursery rhyme right: sticks and stones hurt. They can break bones. He used sticks, stones, fists, feet, and teeth. But I had gotten the last part wrong: Words–teasing–had hurt him. But I kept insisting: “Be tough. Sticks and stones will break my bones, but teasing never hurts.”

When he gets older, I told myself, he will understand. He will be able to say this rhyme with perfect acceptance. He will also learn such pearls of wisdom as “don’t get mad, get even.” This was the way of the world. Don’t get mad, get even…the way of the world…being human.


II. Three Letter Word

Yet, it used to hurt me a great deal when someone called me the three letter, shortened form of the word Japanese. It called to mind all the stereotypes that were rampant during the 2nd World War. Even now, when I hear the word, it reminds me of all the hatred the three letter term came to convey.

I remember the comic strips with the G.I.s fighting the Japanese soldiers and how the Japanese soldiers were portrayed, from color of skin to teeth. When Japanese men were in civilian clothes, they were portrayed as sexual perverts, threatening all American women. All of this hurt.

I remember playing “Army” on the hillsides of windward Oahu in Hawaii. There were old bunkers on a hillside facing the ocean. With our toy rifles we fended off the attacks of the enemy. If they were Japanese, none of us wanted to play them, including myself. I had to separate myself from all those cultural and physical traits in myself that were different and that made me feel uneasy. I had to pretend that I did not have those cultural and physical traits, in order to kill the enemy.

When I was 12, I joined a Boy Scout troop in what was known as one of the haole districts of the island. A Japanese boy whose mother’s sister had intermarried had invited me to join him and his cousin in this troop made up of mainly haole boys. I remember one night, running and playing tag in the dark island night. I was having a great time, teasing one of the haole boys. My words must have hurt him. He confronted me and said, “We didn’t have to invite you, you know.”

I quit the troop that night, and eventually joined one made up of Japanese and Hawaiian boys. That night I experienced the pain of being excluded, of being rejected by the culture in which I was growing up.

Words hurt by excluding people from God’s grace and love. Hurtful words keep God’s kingdom from forming among us.


III. Wayward Word

When I was a student pastor in a small urban church, a woman came to me and asked to work as an intern. She was American Indian, and I was happy to have her working beside me because I saw myself as a builder of multicultural churches. I did my best to include her in the work of the church. I gave her real responsibilities.

One day she came to me and said that she had heard one of our members use the term “drunken Indian.” She said the term brings up a lot of bad stuff in her.

I was upset. I was not going allow that kind of language in our church. So in my sermon the next Sunday, I recounted my intern’s story and said I will not have terms like “drunken Indian” darken our doors.

My intent was to make the church safe for the intern. But my sermon had the opposite effect. By calling attention to the incident and the term in so public a way, I had made the church unsafe for her. She said she couldn’t continue to work in the church and left. I learned a valuable lesson that day: stereotyping words strike out in all directions. They hurt in unexpected ways.

And most important of all, I had failed as a pastor. My approach to the problem had served neither my intern nor my congregation, but my own untested ego.