Beat. Hang. Kill.
Each verb is jarringly violent. The visceral lyrics and fiery enunciation pair with an oddly upbeat melody, artfully crafted to be relevant to the human experience.
“Kill a Word” pulls no punches in its unequivocal condemnation of a variety of words. “Never,” “goodbye,” and “regret” are the first to be judged by Eric Church’s signature vocals, but they aren’t the last in the three minutes and 24 seconds he spends fantasizing about what life could be if only “it were up to [him] to change” the way things are. “Brokenness,” “heartbreak,” and “disgrace” would meet similarly grisly ends, if Church had his way, topping off the purge with the end of “evil,” “wicked,” and “hostile.”
Since its release as a single in 2016, “Kill a Word” still makes the rounds on country radio stations. Though Church believed its initial release was relevant to the cultural climate, he told CMT that he didn’t sit down to write it, “thinking about elections, politics or anything. I was thinking about being human.” Almost three years later, the relevance to human experience is still present.
Country music has been criticized for its stereotypical focus on heartbreak, loss, and partying. The old joke, “If you play a country song backward, you’ll get your dog back, you’ll get your truck back, and you’ll get your girl back” has some element of truth to it. Often what brings us together is our universal experience of loss. Whether it’s the end of a relationship or saying goodbye to a beloved animal companion, the end of a career or dealing with a life-altering illness, everyone experiences loss. There are at least two ways to deal with defeat and failure: one, by wallowing in it and nursing that “achy breaky” heart, and two, by eating, day-drinking, and being merry to forget it. “Kill a Word” offers a third alternative, a fanciful “what-if”: destroying, once and for all, the sources of our pain.
Eric Church is not the only country singer-songwriter who considers the human experience as he writes, nor, in my personal opinion, is “Kill a Word” the pinnacle of what the genre can be. But it can show us the depth to which our experience can—and has—lead us. It also tells us something about what is necessary to overcome the trials in our lives.
Hate, evil, and wickedness, according to “Kill a Word,” need to be, well, killed. We do not meet an objective standard for behavior, and the way we live is inherently flawed. Loneliness, hostility, and all manner of vile vices are identified as contrary to how things should be—or at the very least, contrary to how things could be. These aren’t ideas or concepts with which we can peacefully coexist. These are enemies we must overcome.
These aren’t ideas or concepts with which we can peacefully coexist. These are enemies we must overcome.
Church personifies—or at the very least objectifies—these same concepts by describing the manner with which they must be dealt. But one cannot “pound,” “hang,” or “bury” a concept. Words have meanings, and language can be a powerful weapon. He never mentions launching an attack on the speakers of these words, perhaps in an attempt to divorce one’s actions from one’s true self and to remind his listeners that he is dreaming of a lexical—as opposed to physical—crusade. Yet even Church realizes his hope can never be more than a dream. We remove words from our vocabulary only to invent new ways to commit the same hate-filled sins. Banishing words isn’t enough to stop the concepts they describe. Censorship can’t prevent and undo the pain caused by our words. We would need to do something much more drastic for that, something permanent and unalterable, but that seems to be the very thing that we cannot do. We find ourselves sighing with Church, “If I could only kill a word.”
But the truth is we have; you and I have both killed the Word.
And simultaneously, you and I live all the words we claim to want to destroy.
Words cannot be utterly detached from the one speaking. “I love you” only has meaning and “I hate you” only cuts deeply because of who is saying it and to whom it is said. Words can define or destroy us (Prov. 18:21). We immediately judge others based upon what they say, and addressing the root of an issue often involves confronting the person.
But mere confrontation in the form of, “What you’re doing is wrong—you need to change yourself” can never solve the root of our problem. We cannot control our tongues, let alone the countless other ways we do wrong. The only way to defeat sin—every act, conscious or unconscious, that is hostile to God’s perfect plan—was for Jesus Christ to become sin (2 Cor. 5:21). He who is the Word of God Incarnate (John 1:1) became the full embodiment of our vile, disgusting, obscene words. He became the hatred of God and of our fellow humans, the brokenness we create by our lifestyles lived in direct contrast to God’s design, and the disgraceful thoughts, words, and actions we embrace. Sin begins in the heart before it is birthed into actions (Matt. 15:19), and the way to kill it is by stopping the heart. Literally.
God knew that our death in sin would mean eternal separation from Him forever. The One who spoke the universe into being (Genesis 1), who created you and saw you before you were born (Ps. 139:13-16), was not content to spend eternity without you. And so He sent His Son, the very Word made flesh, who would become the words that held us captive.
But mere confrontation in the form of, “What you’re doing is wrong—you need to change yourself” can never solve the root of our problem.
It was our words—spoken or unspoken, willful or unwitting—that killed the Word.
That was the only answer. The Word had to be beaten, hung on a tree, and killed in order to destroy the root of sin once and for all.
Three days later, the Name above every Name rose. The living, breathing Son of God, the One who reveals and enacts the Father’s will, destroyed all sin forever.
Yes, Mr. Church, the power of the Word cannot be unheard or unsaid. It wasn’t up to us to change the course of events or to save ourselves, but the Triune God has sworn and will not change His mind (Heb. 7:21). Sinners who called for the blood of God to be upon us (Matt. 27:25) find, by the grace of God and the work of His Holy Spirit, that our ledgers are indeed dripping red. Our sins are covered. Our words of sin are taken from us and replaced with songs of joy, the pleasing theme of salvation through Christ alone (Ps. 40:3; Ps. 45:1).
Our Word was dead but is alive again. We who killed Him are also made alive in Him by His spirit and brought into the holy Christian Church, capital “C”: the community of believers of every place and time. Because He lives, we too will one day hear our Savior say, “Dear child, I say to you, arise” as He makes all things new through the power of His Word (Mark 5:41).