The National Catholic Review

What does the Good Word have to say to current political events in the USA? Not much in some ways, but everything in other ways, for the Bible has a lot to say about speech, its purposes and misuses. The Bible, fascinatingly, nowhere mentions the Democrats or Republicans, though I am pretty certain it supports whatever party you support…check that…I am pretty certain the Bible supports the truth and this includes truth telling in speech. There are discussions current regarding the horrible shootings in Arizona that took the lives of innocent people of all ages in a hailstorm of evil intentions and bullets. Some people are blaming a climate of hateful speech for these acts, but whether rancorous political speech was to blame, I will not comment, for much of this discussion itself is being carried out in a climate of rancorous political speech in which the goal is not to mourn the dead or understand the events, but to score political points. Still, one of the acts of reflection Christians of all political stripes might want to do in the wake of this evil act is to consider their own speech and the way it contributes to the good and the building up of civil society, not simply with respect to one particular act but in our daily life. There are guidelines for us in the Bible as to how to measure our speech.

There is no question that in the biblical texts you can find sharp and penetrating language, some from Jesus and some from Paul, as two instances, regarding opponents and their positions. Jesus says, for instance, to the Sadducees in a response to the question regarding the resurrection, "Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” (Mark 12:24). It is a powerful statement and in the language of “True Grit,” Jesus is one who does not “varnish his opinions.” He is a truth teller and he tells the truth directly. Paul is much the same, whether he is labeling the Galatians “foolish” or the Corinthians as “infants” or his opponents in Corinth as “false apostles.” This is sharp language, and there is more of it in Paul’s letters, but his purpose is to call the members of his churches to the truth and not to score points against opponents. Yet, it is still a dangerous path for us to tread, for it is always easy to convince ourselves of the truth of which we speak, the guilelessness with which we tell the truth and the deviousness with which our opponents speak and purposefully miss the obvious. The way we speak of others, especially opponents and those with whom we disagree, must be carefully weighted, for it is easy to “see the speck in your neighbor's eye” and “not notice the log in your own eye” (Matthew 7:3). We need to be careful in our speech, especially when we are correcting others.

The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms and Proverbs, have much to say about our speech and what it tells us about the state of our hearts and souls. Job 15:5 states that “your iniquity teaches your mouth, and you choose the tongue of the crafty,” linking the speech of the “crafty” to sinfulness. Both Psalm 34:13 and Psalm 50:19-21 describe the tongue as capable of “evil.” Craftiness in speech is much to be desired today, especially amongst DHDs (Designated Talking Heads) on television and radio, although often what passes for craftiness is condemnation and shouting loudly. We need to be careful that our own speech does not veer into “free rein for evil” (Psalm 50:19). As Psalm 52:2-4 states, “Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery. You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth. You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.” One more passage should be sufficient – though many more could be chosen from the Psalms – to expose the “deceitful tongue”: “Deliver me, O Lord, from evildoers; protect me from those who are violent, who plan evil things in their minds and stir up wars continually. They make their tongue sharp as a snake's, and under their lips is the venom of vipers” (Psalm 140:1-3).

One need not drip poison in one’s speech. Psalm 15:2-3 calls the righteous those who “do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors.” It is entirely possible to disagree with people, to argue forcefully against people without allowing our tongues to swerve into deceit. One of the ways in which this can be done is to recognize the humanity of those with whom we disagree. James 3: 9-10, a passage to which I will return, makes this very connection between speech and our common humanity with those we harm by speech, relating that the tongue can be used for good or evil: “With it 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.” That James would connect “those who are made in the likeness of God” with our speech demonstrates how important it is that our speech be tempered with respect and kindness, even with those who are (as we might think or feel), obviously, wrong.

As someone who enjoys a rapier-like tongue, and who suffered from it, as did others, as a young man, there is another problem with speech, apart from lying, deceit and outright treachery, and that it that it can be cruel and mean-spirited, even when true. Proverbs 12:18 makes the link to words that cut: “rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” In endless news cycles in which instant responses are called for, immediate interpretations are demanded and insight required even when none is readily available, rash words are more likely than a wise tongue. Words that cut create greater audiences and build better theatre than the measured tones and thoughtful reflections of the wise. Folly, if reality television has taught us anything – and that is in doubt –, pays the bills and so the choice is not for “the tongue of the wise” that “dispenses knowledge,” but “the mouths of fools” that “pour out folly” (Proverbs 15:2).  It is exactly the case that rash words and words of folly create a frisson of excitement, a measure of delight, but they are gone, all of the nattering forgotten in an instant. Though they might not have had 24 hour news cycles, or even the Internet in ancient Israel – I know, right? How weird is that? LOL – they knew that mindless chatter and negativism are ultimately meaningless:  “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment” (Proverbs 12:19).

For someone who speaks and writes for a living, James 3:1-10 is a fearful reminder of the power of words and the necessity to use them truthfully and with care. While James might be referring to religious teachers specifically, I think we should take these words in the maximal sense to refer to all those who speak and write in the public forum: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it 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.” We need to guard our speech and guard it carefully. We have become so sloppy in speech – and here I do not mean grammar and syntax, though I am available to discuss these anytime – that we say cruel things, rude things, mean things, untruthful things, thoughtless things, and rash things and think of these as normal speech. We need to speak less and think more, for as Proverbs 21:23 states “to watch over mouth and tongue is to keep out of trouble.”

We are as much accountable for our speech as we are our actions, but I think that this truth has gone by the wayside. In a fascinating eschatological vision, the prophet Zephaniah imagines the time of the end as a time when speech will be transformed: “at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord” (3:9); “they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths” (3:13). In the meantime, we can begin preparations by following a few simple guidelines:

1. “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (James 1:26);

2. “Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us” (Titus 2:7-8);

3. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

Comments

Marie Rehbein | 1/11/2011 - 10:19pm
A very thoughtful and well expressed commentary, John.  On top of this, I would like to add the advice to limit one's exposure to the kind of talk that incites the emotions instead of the intellect.