'Words' Are the Chief Social Justice Issue of Our Time?

Words matter so very much. We would go nowhere without them! Not just that we are frustrated when we temporarily lose our voices with laryngitis, or that we are stressed when our cell phones' batteries are run down and we cannot text or call anyone. Those times are exasperating enough, but without good access to words, our lives would be flat, boring, and powerless. We would be restrained from communicating our feelings or thoughts, and most of those feelings and thoughts would not even exist. Our words – spoken and written, heard and read – help liberate each of us to become more of a person, more empowered.

"Words" are the chief social justice issue of our time. Not the lying words of many of our leaders or the empty words of so much that passes as either entertainment or religion. No, the social justice issue is Word-power, or the lack of it in a huge and growing proportion of our American population. The dysfunction of so many of our inner-city schools and the seeming detachment of our urban churches is continuing to feed an ugly degradation of life, marriage, family, employability, and community – and the vicious growth of monstrous ignorance, incarceration, as well as drug infatuation. When after years of schooling most of our inner-city children are neither college or career ready, they have been "mis-educated to fail." If a young adult cannot read, he or she cannot apply for a job, or engage in conversations that build for good marriage and family life, or plan or think clearly in personal decisions, or help the community. And the alternatives are all destructive in ways that hurt non-readers and harm the rest of us.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Word-power, for everyone. Our experiences themselves are shaped by our words. When people know a name for something, they are far more empowered to see and utilize whatever the name references, in new ways. For example, we will never forget a breakthrough in our son's cognitive development. At age 2 he would call a "radio" anything that you could turn on that would make sounds. Actually, he would say "ra-di-o," and he would say it as if he were relishing each one of the three syllables. On this word he was particularly persistent. For weeks we tried to get him to say "stereo," "TV," "television," "tape player," or "computer" at the appropriate times, but we repeatedly failed. He would put his hands on his hips, stare us in the eye, and say "ra-di-o," as if to teach us!

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In terms of child psychology, on this particular word our son was stubbornly stuck on assimilation (assimilating new experiences to his present limited vocabulary for identifying electronic devices) and royally resisting accommodation (accommodating vocabulary and conceptual schemata to create new categories and structures). However, soon after he suddenly started seeing the differences, and his vocabulary for electronic devices explosively expanded. What had been an early rock of resistance became a focus of fascination – and then also a life-long, phenomenal, fruitful expertise in electronics, though which he has helped many people. Word-training – with conceptual assimilation and accommodation – is the most essential, holistic personal development. For each of us, vocabulary development shaped our life-stories.

Which comes first, noticing differences or expanding vocabulary? Is it the new wonders or the new words? New experiences inspire us to learn new words, and the new words simultaneously expand our empowerment for fuller and more accurate experiences. They go together; our words are our worlds. Words are the home of humanity, some have wisely observed. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) compared language to a complex framework through which we each experience our worlds. The more endowed our language skills, the deeper our capacities for enriched experiences, prudent preferences, and discerning decisions.

How did this Word-dominance come to be? We and all that surrounds us came from the living Word Himself, by whom all came into being. Our worlds came into being by the authority of God's Word. The beginning of all is the Word, the Word that is God. (See Genesis 1 and John 1.) Ultimately, words matter for everyone because of this one eternal, living Word. Consequently, those without the needed Word-power are radically disadvantaged – personally, spiritually, economically, emotionally. The Word matters even for those who do not know him. The "value" of the Word and words is priceless – of course! Can we even imagine a world without them? No.

Now, any appreciation of the precious power of words should awaken within each of us a compassionate desire also to help illiterate people. In justice, we must help men and women and children who find themselves fully or partly dis-empowered as people and detached from the joys Word-power. For example, here in New York City, among all the young people who attend the public schools, 76% are neither college nor career ready when they are done with school. It is 91% disempowered and mis-educated in Black and Hispanic communities – 94% of the young men. There are far too many non-readers among us. Helping walk some of these precious children, youth or adults into the empowerment and enjoyment of reading is a gift for which they will be eternally grateful.

It is too hard for most people to remember back to the time when they were non-readers. Most began reading in the very early stages of childhood, at a time when their lives were protected by parents and other adults. The very idea of coping in an adult world with only minimal reading skills boggles most people's minds. It may be nearly impossible to imagine, but let us try. (In this I have some skill, since I was a non-reader until the summer between the 6th and 7th grades. It was no fun being laughed at for being "stupid" and excluded from playground games. Even more tragic was the radical personal alienation I experienced from being constantly clueless. It seems like yesterday.

Illiteracy is at the root of many personal and social ills. Most of the alumni of urban public schools cannot complete a job application or take a college class. And illiterate people who have jobs are far less able to keep them. As a consequence, in many of our urban communities the unemployment rate is four, five, or six times of the national rate – and getting worse. Being illiterate in the information age is worse than being born on the wrong planet.

Illiteracy is at the root of numerous family ills, too. In many of our communities, the family is an "endangered species." An illiterate, unemployed person has additional challenges to sustaining marriage commitment. In most of our inner-city neighborhoods, 80 to 90% of our children grow up fatherless, because illiterate, unemployed men are incapacitated by their powerlessness to provide for their families – and men feel worthless to their women. These men also crowd the ever-expanding pipelines into crime and incarceration. And then the cycle tragically feeds back on itself, with the next generation even more illiterate, more alienated, more unemployed, more incapacitated, more into crime, and more crowding into penitentiaries. What a horrific human tragedy, right before our eyes! Illiteracy is at the very root of these repugnant, preventable ills.

And illiterate people are not reading the Word of God – and are less likely either to know the Lord or to grow in him. Most illiterate ministers are far less able to lead people to God and benefit their communities, too. Certainly, both readers and non-readers can know and trust the Lord, but the non-readers are more subjected to the abuses of empty, emotional manipulative "leaders," who themselves may be non-readers, too. Only the readers can grow through personally studying the Book and personally growing through its extraordinary, empowering wisdom and discernment.

Of course, most of us should read more than we do – especially from the Bible. Reading matters for everything, for everyone.

Helping people to read may be the most strategic ministry of the social aspect of the Gospel, and introducing the Bible, the best book to read, is especially strategic for advancing the full, saving Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. After all, the Gospel itself transforms us as "the people of the Book."

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Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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