Sermons from St
The Tongue is a Fire
If anyone doubts the Bible’s relevance, then this morning’s epistle might change their minds. The letter of James is just packed with wisdom for our own times – indeed for all times.
It is said that actions speak louder than words. But for James, words are themselves actions, and very powerful ones at that. The tongue is like the rudder of a large ship: its small movements can take us where we want to go, or set us on a collision course. Speech can bless or curse, it can be a catalyst for the growth of truth, peace and understanding, and it can also be responsible for the cancerous spread of falsehoods, prejudice and malice. Words can vilify, intimidate and ostracise.
Perhaps more worrying still, our words make us what we are; they reinforce and encourage our fears, prejudices, pet hates and blind spots. Our speech is the alter ego, the ‘other self’, of our personality – and the one feeds on the other, for good or ill. At worst, as James says, the tongue stains the whole body, or as Jesus put it ‘it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles’.
In our own time our words can be spoken, written, or carried on line. The growth of the internet has greatly multiplied their power: now they can ‘go viral’ and set up a chain reaction that can be impossible to reverse. Even in the first century, James knew that the tongue is a fire that can set a great forest ablaze.
Because of this property of exponential growth, words are often more potent and more damaging than deeds: just look at the consequences of Islamic fundamentalist radicalisation on disaffected and impressionable young people. But there are many other examples. Internet bullying has added a new dimension to an old problem, especially for the young. Peer pressure, via social media, is an all too effective means of destroying teenagers’ self-confidence and self-esteem. Too often it leads to depression, destructive behaviour and self-harm. Words conveying, ridicule, fear, loathing or malice towards our fellow human beings so often lead to persecution, oppression and marginalisation. It is truly terrifying to chalk up the countless instances when this has been true of religion, and to acknowledge the weight of the wounding words that have been spoken against Jews, and Moslems, and Christians, against the Yazidis and the Rohingya peoples, against Roman Catholics, Protestants, Dissenters and Huguenots. And you can probably think of other examples a bit nearer home.
Early on in his letter, James encourages everyone to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. It takes great wisdom and maturity to know when to speak and when to stay silent. There were times when Jesus conveyed his moral authority through his silence, notably when an adulterous woman was confronted by a lynch mob, and when he himself was on trial for his life before Pilate. On the other hand I have to admit to keeping quiet when I should be speaking out. To paraphrase St. Paul, I say what I shouldn’t, and don’t say what I should. To follow Jesus’ example, it is rarely wrong to challenge injustice, and to speak truth to power when that power is unscrupulous or corrupt. Jesus wasn’t afraid to challenge the religious and political authorities when they exploited or excluded the poor and the marginalised. Indeed you could argue that it was his words and his teaching, just as much as his actions, which took him to the Cross.
Speech is very precious. Despite the crassness and triviality of the media, most of us are grateful that in our own country we have a Press that is free to criticise our rulers and hold them to account. The role of the Press, or the ‘fourth estate’, both in Whitehall and the White House seems more and more critical for the survival of truth and democracy. But there are, and must be, limits to free speech. Even in the USA you cannot incite violence, advocate paedophilia, or encourage suicide. Many years ago an eminent US lawyer said this: ‘Abuses of freedom of expression…tear apart a society, brutalise its dominant elements, and persecute even to extermination, its minorities’.
All of this may seem a long way from that favourite whipping horse, political correctness, which is so often derided by free speech fundamentalists. It’s true that what we call ‘PC’ is often nannyish and nit-picking, and sometimes just plain daft. But we should just be a little bit careful before we break its unspoken rules: the dividing line between the witty and the wounding is often paper thin. And let’s avoid mockery, however light-hearted, if it just reinforces our prejudices.
It’s clear that our words can unite or divide, can promote peace or conflict. Not so long ago we had a prime example of that dilemma in our own church, when two contentious articles appeared in our Parish Magazine. Both concerned the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but were written from opposite sides of the political divide. In the subsequent uproar, two of our church members left St. Faith’s.
The point at issue has become very topical. How can anyone support the legal and civil rights of the ordinary people of Palestine without tacitly approving the tactics of Hamas, or criticise the State of Israel without being, or seeming, anti-Semitic? And how can anyone defend Israel’s aspirations without ignoring the pleas of the poor or branding them as Islamist? And how can our spoken and written words on this issue promote peace in the region, and among ourselves, rather than make things worse?
Well if you thought I had all the answers, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you. But what I’m sure about is that we urgently need a spirituality of speech, based on Our Lord’s example. The elements of that spirituality might include the love of the truth, humility and honesty in speech, a bias to the disadvantaged, the value of encouragement and of righteous anger, the need to speak truth to power, the wisdom to keep silent, and a tolerance for being misunderstood. But given the complexity and spontaneity of speech, just writing a new rule book won’t work. We need instead to become steeped in the humanity of Jesus, the Word made flesh, so that filled with his love we can do no other than speak in his name, and with his voice.