On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire bombed the United States naval forces stationed at Peal Harbor, Hawaii. This unprovoked attack, which came without warning, shocked Americans, who realized that neutrality would no longer be an option in this war. The attack devastated the American fleet and signaled America’s entrance into perhaps its most important war. But honestly, the day is not remembered for those reasons. It is remember because of the events that took place the following day.
On December 8th, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood before a joint session of Congress and asked for a declaration of war. In the speech he called December 7th “a date which will live in infamy.”
And ever since Roosevelt delivered that speech seventy-one years ago, December 7th has lived in infamy. The speech was powerful, and Roosevelt’s word choice took a crisis and crystalized it into America’s defining moment.
Imagine a different speech, without the infamy clause. “Yesterday, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Without the mention of the date, the emphasis is on the event itself. It was memorably wicked, but how long would Americans have been able to remember the actual date? Probably not even a year.
But with the words, “December 7th—a date which will live in infamy,” ringing in their ears the Americans of that generation could not possibly forget. And neither could their children. And even some of their grandchildren cannot help but pause.
Words have power. The Japanese attack on December 7th was a crisis and a tragedy, but it was not a day that would live in infamy while it was happening. It became infamous when Roosevelt proclaimed the infamy, and it has remained infamous ever since. Our words shape how we perceive the past, and in the process they shape the future.
Without the speeches of Roosevelt and Churchill, World War Two might have gone very differently. To win a war it takes “blood and iron,” to quote another statesman, but it also takes resolve hardened by apt words. Without words that impute meaning to our lives, we’re lost.
As Christians, we should not be surprised at the ability of words to shape reality. When God wanted to create, he spoke words. When he brought a people out of Egypt, he gave them words. And in the fullness of time, as part of this plan for cosmic restitution, the Word was made flesh. Jesus Christ, the eternal word, the word through which everything was made, changed the course of history with his life, death, and resurrection. The world decided it was not enough to just remember the events of his life. We had to reset the whole calendar.
Let us remember that our words are important. Let us choose our words wisely. Let us choose words that are beautiful. We are all going to tell some stories today; may the stories that we tell shape the future in a manner that promotes the good, the true, and the beautiful. And may our words conform to the eternal Word, who is the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty.