Scripture reminds us that the word of God is like a “lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105) for our every step in life. Words, whether they come from God or from human mouths, have power and influence. We can use our words to do good or to do harm.
Several times in my life I have been at the receiving end of the disparaging statement, “Go back to where you came from.” Each time it was hurled at me as an attack. It was never about my country of origin, or that of my ancestors. It was always a statement of hatred. Or ignorance. After all, the country where I came from has always been the United States where I was born and raised and have always lived.
Usually, the hateful statement, “Go back to where you came from” was hurled at me as an attempt to claim superiority over me. It showed that the other person was claiming to be better than I was because of race. Or the speaker assumed that he was more intelligent or more educated than the person being attacked. Racism is a terrible insidious scourge on our humanity.
I can recall painful moments in my life when I was involved in a heated argument (I was supposed to be the family attorney) and the other person perceived that I was winning and he was losing. The so-called loser tossed the verbal grenade at me: “Go back to where you came from!”
Once or twice in my life, another person would come up to me. Really close. Like you would examine a piece of fine art. Only the curiosity was not benign. It was curiosity about something different, weird. I was being objectified. If I dared retaliate with my own stare at the offending person, he looked at me with hate-filled eyes and said an expletive followed by those hurtful words.
These words are more often than not spoken by a person who perceived him or herself to be dominant over the other person. Often the situation was one in which privilege was being taken away, and out of frustration, the dreaded words were spoken. “Go back to where you came from!”
I always tried to shrug these words off and not take them seriously. But to be honest, they always hurt. My parents would try to console my anger by reminding me, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Somehow my parents felt that would strengthen me and make me less susceptible to the harm of the ugliness of those words. They wanted to shield me from the racism of others. They tried to help me shrug off the sting. But when you really think about it, these words were intended to harm because they really were meant to say:
You are different and you are inferior to me.
You don’t look like me or us.
You don’t fit in here.
You are less than.
You are not worth knowing.
You don’t belong here and I do.
This should not be our message to others and we live our lives in Christ’s love. The power of our words is to either build up or tear down. Remembering how much pain can be afflicted by what we say, it is important for us to use our words to affirm others, build relationships, and inspire. Another scripture passage that serves us well is contained in the wisdom of the Psalmist: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer”. (Psalm 19:14). Let us speak words to one another in this spirit.
Bishop Robert T. Hoshibata
Resident Bishop, Phoenix Area