Summer is a time for reading books. Fiction, in particular. This year, I have taken something of a vow to buy no more new books until I have at least made an appreciable dent in the pile of unread books that clutter my desk and clog my shelves. Among these, is Alan Paton’s classic novel, Cry, the Beloved Country which explores the injustice and social decay of apartheid-era South Africa through the lens of two families. It’s one in an embarrasssingly long list of books that fall in the category of, “Books I really should have read by now.”
The word “classic” is often overused, in my opionion, but not in this case. It’s a marvelous book. One passage literally stopped me in my tracks when I read it a few days ago. The scene involves two priests. The first, Kumalo, has come from the country to Johannesburg to seek out his lost son. The second, Msimangu, is from Johannesburg and is assisting Kumalo in his efforts. The passage comes after Msimangu has preached a Sunday sermon filled with beautiful promises about how the Lord will deliver his people, will keep them, will make crooked things straight, will not forsake them, will never grow weary, etc.:
The people sigh, and Kumalo sighs, as though this is a great word that has been spoken. And indeed this Msimangu is known as a preacher. It is good for the Government, they say in Johannesburg, that Msimangu preaches of a world not made by hands, for he touches people at the hearts, and sends them marching to heaven instead of to Pretoria…
Yet he is despised by some, for this golden voice that could raise a nation, speaks always thus. For this place of suffering, from which men might escape if some such voice could bind them all together, is for him no continuing city. They say he preaches of a world not made by hands, while in the streets about him men suffer and struggle and die. They ask what folly it is that can so seize upon a man, what folly is it that seizes upon so many of their people, making the hungry patient, the suffering content, the dying at peace? And how fools listen to him, silent, enrapt, sighing when he is done, feeding their empty bellies on his empty words.
It’s a sobering charge against the preacher Msimangu. He uses his golden voice and his flowery words to keep people distracted, complacent, compliant. He speaks of beautiful divine promises but in such a way as to keep the hope of liberation and justice remote and unattainable. It is an arrangement that suits the status quo quite well, thank you very much. Better to have the masses marching off to heaven than to Pretoria (this city was the site of many executions at the time). Better to have people sighing and dreaming of justice and peace in heaven than mobilizing to work toward it in the present. It’s quite a thing to have someone say about your words.
It’s also quite a lens through which to consider one’s own words. As someone whose words also make their way out there into people’s hearts and minds, in however limited a way, there are questions that a passage like this quite naturally produce. Do my words touch people’s hearts but not their hands and feet? Am I serving up empty words in the context of real struggle and hunger? Do I dress up words in a golden veneer in order to do little more than keep people comfortable, compliant, sighing in contentment, drifting complacently toward heaven when their (our) feet might better be turned toward a neighbour in need?
I know well how words can be used and misused. I know that words can be used to illuminate or obfuscate, to embolden or distract, to comfort or to stroke egos (including my own). I know that it’s relatively easy to make words dance to the tune I choose. It’s not that difficult to make myself seem quite a bit more articulate, compassionate, devout, wise, and committed on a piece of paper or a screen or even behind a pulpit than when no one is watching. I’ve had people remark to me that I seem more cynical and pessimistic in person than I do in my writing. It’s not always easy to know what to say in such conversations, but it’s also hard to disagree. I take consolation from the example of St. Paul who was evidently thought by some to be more impressive in his letters than in person. But it is scant consolation indeed. Words are such manipulable things and we are such conflicted creatures.
But words matter a great deal, no matter how we misuse them. Words matter even in a context like ours that relentlessly cheapens them. It’s easy to despair of words in a world like ours where they are tossed casually and carelessly around the ether, 140 characters at a time, where truth takes a (distant) backseat to power, where posturing and preening are more important than seeking to truly understand, where words, like everything else, become slaves to our insatiable selves. But we must never give up on words and on seeking to use them well. For we need them desperately, despite ourselves. And we always will, whether we realize it or not.
At our best, those of us whose business is words use them to tell the truth—the truth of our experience and, more importantly, to the truth that we believe our experience ought to more closely align with and push towards. At our best, our words don’t send people marching off to heaven instead of to Pretoria but to Pretoria on our way to heaven. Or something like that.
God, save me from empty words that dress themselves up in useless gold. God save us all.