This past Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary brought us into the only piece of wisdom literature in the New Testament, the Epistle of James. I’ve been quite a fan of the letter since my first encounter with it, so I was happy to see the first twelve verses of its third chapter come up to be read aloud for some many at the same time. And, given the current state of our public discourse, it seems to have been quite apropos.
In this passage, the author reminds us of the dangers of speech. We are reminded how powerful speech can be, and of how difficult it is to tame our tongues. Such a reminder seems sorely needed for all of us today. I know that I am one who must be constantly reminded of the power of words.
Borrowing from the author’s imagery, forest fires are indeed set by small sparks, and that is precisely what our words can be. Further like sparks that cause fires, words can grow and live on dangerously long after and beyond the strike that caused the initial spark. Not only that, but once the spark has been created, we are largely helpless in controlling the growth of the fire.
Here are some recent examples of sparks carelessly struck that have grown beyond what (hopefully) was their intention:
- The boorish nature of things on all sides of the current health care debate rose to a depressing level when Representative Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!” as the President was addressing the legislature. And now, that spark has begun a fire that has taken the form of bumper stickers that celebrate a highly embarrassing congressional moment.
- Steven Anderson, a Baptist preacher, recently spoke at length about his deep wishes for President Obama’s death and, sure enough, one of his congregants carried a loaded AR-15 to protest an Obama event.
- The murderer of Dr. George Tiller was apparently exposed to distorting, ugly, de-humanizing words about his victim.
Of course, this is not merely a contemporary phenomenon, and the speech that sparks a fire must not even necessarily be contemporaneous to the fire. For example, Martin Luther – whose invectives against Jews are legendary – was held out as something of a hero by the Nazi party, who fed off his words as they grew to become some of history’s greatest murderers.
The simple fact is that we do not know how far and long our words will live after they leave our lips or we post them on a blog. And it is for that reason that we are reminded by the author of this past Sunday’s epistle that we must guard ourselves against such ugliness of the tongue. Not only do words have the power to affect others and ourselves in the moment, but also well beyond what we might imagine. We should all be vigilantly on guard against the destructive sparks of our tongues, lest we carelessly start a fire.
Fortunately, the Epistle of James also imparts some wisdom that may help us in this regard. The remainder of the third chapter explains how true wisdom is expressed, and contrasts it with more devilish expression. It makes me wonder what our current public discourse would be like if we were all consciously less bitterly envious, selfish, boastful, and full of falsehood, but rather more “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, [and] without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3’s connection of evil speech with “disorder and wickedness of every kind” has been made prophetic by everything from the printing of “you lie” bumper stickers to the murder of poor Dr. Tiller. If only we could make the author’s other connection prophetic, that through making peace “a harvest of righteousness [will be] sown in peace.”
In closing, I’d like to add my version of the bit of wisdom and advice provided by our Dean on this subject:
We would do well to pass our words through three filters before we utter them aloud. The first filter is Truth. We should always be confident that the words we say are true. The second filter is Necessity. Given the ability of words to harm and take on lives of their own, we should be judicious in our use of them. We should not speak capriciously or carelessly; our words should be necessary. The third and final filter is Kindness. Truth and Necessity are not sufficient on their own. Speaking a necessary truth does not relieve us of our obligation to be kind. Indeed, kindness may very well be the most important of the three. According to the psalmist, “the world is built with loving-kindness (olam chesed yibaneh),”[i] and so if we forsake kindness, we forsake creation itself. It is at this final filter in particular that I think the examples above could have been stopped.
[i] The English renderings I’ve seen of this phrase – found in Psalm 89:3 (I think the verse is different in Christian bibles) – tend to miss this meaning, but the Hebrew has it. It’s not great, but this interlinear translation sort of shows it: http://www.scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/OTpdf/psa89.pdf
[ii] This Hebrew word is often rather insufficiently translated as “loving kindness.” For more clarity as to what it really means, it is worth pointing out that it’s Greek equivalent (I believe) is agape. Also interesting is the fact that Martin Luther translated this word into German as Gnade, which is one of the most important terms in his theology. In English, we render Gnade as “Grace.”