[Note: This post is adapted from a sermon given by Phil Kniss, pastor of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on Sept. 16, 2012.]
There are some dire warnings in the lectionary reading from James this past week. Perhaps I should heed them.
Preaching and teaching, according to James, is a dangerous profession. Any misuse of the tongue by a teacher is judged with extra strictness. And the tongue is a fire. And even a small spark, a tiny hint of a flame, can burn down a whole forest. I should perhaps make this short, just to be on the safe side.
But no, throwing caution to the wind, I’m going to preach right on. Because there are some important things that James says in chapter 3. Important for all of us, not just those who get behind a pulpit or a teacher’s desk—important, and perhaps, often overlooked. At least I have often overlooked James chapter 3 in my preaching. In fact, I have never preached from it. Looking back in my detailed records from 29 years of preaching, and 867 sermons, James 3 never appears. I have no idea why. Maybe I was just afraid of setting the forest on fire.
James, the writer of this pastoral letter to the early church, is deeply concerned about the ethics of speech. Someone calculated that 2 out of every 5 verses have to do with speech.
What comes out of our mouths is—morally, ethically, and relationally—a matter of great importance. Words are powerful, in their potential to be life-giving, or to be violent to the point of death and destruction. It is simply and completely false, that old playground saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Some words have led to lost friendships, divorce, violence, murder. Sometimes, they can have devastating repercussions all around the world. We have seen James 3:5 acted out on the world stage this week. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” James warns. Hateful words by an obscure filmmaker in California were spread rapidly around the world and amplified, and now riots and murders lie in their wake. Obviously, there is more pent-up anger and hate toward Americans around the world, than can be blamed on one little movie, but the words in that film were the spark. And the blaze is now burning out of control.
Let no one underestimate the power of words as weapons. They can be just as violent as fists and guns and bombs. But, neither let anyone underestimate the power of words to heal. A word fitly spoken can heal deep wounds, and reconcile enemies, and save souls.
We simply must give words their proper, due respect. We must afford them all the importance of physical deeds. Words off our tongue are bona fide actions, every bit as a much as something we do with our hands. Whether a physical act, or a speech act, they are both still acts that deserve to be evaluated for their morality, or immorality. At least, that is what James seems to be saying.
Flame on: Conditions for fire-starting
If the ethics of speech were such a concern to James in New Testament times, how much more are they today. In the time of James, the only ways that words could be delivered, were face-to-face from speaker to hearer, or written on parchment with ink and hand-delivered. Those were the only two options. You did not telephone or telegraph them to the world. You did not make 100 photocopies and pass them out.
We saw the power of the distributed word when Guttenberg invented the printing press, which helped unleash the Reformation in Europe. Today, we have gone infinitely beyond that. The potential for our speech to turn into violence is so much greater today. I can think of three reasons why.
First, virtually everyone has access. Nearly every person has the ability to broadcast their speech. Even 20 years ago, you had to have connections, or a position, or specialized skills or training, or wealth, to even have the opportunity to be heard by anyone beyond your family and friends. Today, the playing field is level, and wide open. Anyone who chooses can broadcast their words to the world.
Second, words can be transmitted, and retransmitted, instantly. Words spread, literally, faster than wildfire—infinitely faster. And they can be responded to instantly, without needing time to think or process.
Third, the human distance between the speaker and hearer is so much greater with electronic communication. Anyone who has ever emailed, or texted, or tweeted, knows first hand how easy it is to say something harsh, or insensitive, or cruel, or off-color, that we never would have said if the person we were speaking to was standing in front of us.
You combine those three—free access, instant delivery, and human distance—and we have a perfect recipe for violent speech acts. We must be continually on guard against the wildfires one spark can generate. The very lives of others, and the salvation of our souls, is at stake.
Bridle the tongue: Avoiding empty religion
Now, turning to the Gospel reading. In Mark 8 we heard the well-known story of Peter’s confession—Peter being a perfect example of someone whose tongue got him in trouble more than once.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, perhaps on a high, after seeing Jesus feed four thousand people with a couple loaves, and healing a blind man, used his tongue to give the ultimate confession of faith in Jesus: “You are the Messiah.”
And in the very next breath, Peter was rebuking Jesus, trying to talk him out of the path of suffering servanthood, perhaps out of a desire for something like a military-backed Messiahship. One breath affirming, the next breath undermining. And poor quick-tongued Peter didn’t even know what he was doing.
Jesus had to spell it out for him and the other disciples. If you want to be my disciples, you need to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. Those who try to save their life, will end up losing it.
When it all comes down to it, “trying to save our lives,” so to speak, is why we speak so much, and listen so little.
Our tongues get us into trouble when we are anxious about our status, or standing, in the eyes of others. It’s when we feel threatened. It’s when we try to make something happen, try to create some advantage for ourselves. Often by cutting someone down who is getting in our way, maybe competing for our spot. Ultimately, it is self-interest, driven by fear and anxiety, that loosens our tongues, and stops up our ears.
That’s why James reminds us, very sensibly, in chapter 1, to be quick to listen, and slow to speak. People who operate in the opposite mode—quick to speak, slow to listen—are people who cannot just rest and give space to others, who cannot be hospitable and open and vulnerable. They are people who cannot “deny themselves, and take up a cross” but have a need to “save their lives,” have a need to remain in control. They are the people, Jesus said, who will “lose their lives,” figuratively, or perhaps literally.
They are the people James speaks of, who exhibit speech behavior that is evident of spiritual emptiness. James 1:26 — “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”
Throughout the whole letter, James has two overriding concerns—improper speech, and duplicity, or being double-tongued, or double-minded. And the two are closely connected. Duplicity is saying one thing, but doing something else. Or saying one thing over here, and saying the opposite over there. To James, that’s scandalous. It’s inexcusable.
Verse 9-10 — “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
Conclusion: A community of character
The cure for inflammatory speech and duplicity? Get immersed in authentic, mutual, covenantal community. Good speech is speech that regards and reverences the other. Good speech is informed by the convictions and sensitivities of the community that shapes it. The kind of community we inhabit, shapes the kind of discourse we have.
Like many of you, I get wearied to the point of disgust, with all the negative, one-sided, and dishonest speech that passes as legitimate political campaign rhetoric. But are we surprised? These persons are immersed in a “community” of ambitious, manipulative, self-interested, competitive, and cut-throat partisan politicians. It’s just the way things are done. It’s how elections are won. And winning is everything.
What if, instead, we all were deeply immersed—I mean, deeply immersed in, not wading in—a community of people who have together decided to give up their egos for something larger than themselves, who are devoted to the purposes and priorities of God’s kingdom of peace, who are followers of Jesus, the one who gave up all for the sake of the kingdom.
What if that community so shaped us and our lives, that our speech naturally conformed to those values?
Of course, don’t think that kingdom speech is never powerful, never sharply focused, or that it never confronts. Jesus had a powerful tongue, and knew how to use it—in ways that spoke truth, without ever succumbing to violent attacks.
Jesus is our model for ethical, powerful speech. As we immerse ourselves in the Jesus community, and recognize that much of what passes for legitimate “free speech” in our culture, is actually not coming out of community at all, but coming out of a place of isolation and alienation. Or, perhaps, coming out of an anti-Kingdom community, a community being formed by values opposed to the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed.
The kind of community we inhabit, shapes the kind of discourse we have. Let us inhabit a community of peace, a community of humility and mutual submission, and a community of truth and courage.
[Phil Kniss is pastor of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and holds a D.Min from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. This post was adapted from the original sermon text by Park View parishioner and P.T. blog contributor, Brian Gumm.]