Why do we repeat adages we know are false? Why do we deceive ourselves with seemingly soothing words that instead burn invisible scars upon us? Why do we persist in the deception that words cannot harm?
Watch the Video:ON Scripture: Speech Can Unite or Divide
The Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto, assistant professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, discusses the Biblical text James 3:1-12, featured in the ON Scripture The Bible article, “Sticks, Stones, and the Power of Words.”
Anyone who has been at the receiving end of a bully’s wrath knows that words are as blunt as stones, as sharp as a honed stick. We should know better than to repeat the old adage about sticks and stones, but we don’t seem to grasp fully the power of words.
James 3:1-12 speaks to these realities in a vivid way. An extended reflection on the power that teachers hold because of the might and danger of words, this passage compares the power of words to the destruction and proliferation of a fiery blaze. Not many should strive to be teachers, James instructs, because the office is rife with temptations. After all, the tongue–though diminutive–can lead us astray as easily as a rudder steers a ship. Our tongues can ignite a raging inferno that no one can extinguish.
The teachers James imagines are not mere dispensers of knowledge. Indeed, if we imagine that is what teachers and professors do all day, we are seriously missing the point of teaching. Instead, James imagines teachers who are communal leaders called by God to shape communities of faith that reflect the goodness and grace of that all-loving God. Such teachers do not hide behind pulpits and podiums nor are they content merely to deliver lofty lectures. The kind of teachers James hopes for instead rub shoulders with the people, live in the midst of their struggles, sharing their grief and joys alike. Such teachers are living examples of a life lived in faithful service to one’s sisters and brothers.
Not many should strive to be such teachers, such leaders. This is true. The power is too great for many of us. The temptation to use our words for our own gain too tantalizing. Words are potent weapons in the hands of those who crave their power. In short, words are harmful whenever we wield them for our own gain and not the building up of others.
Alas, we are witnesses to such harm most tangibly during election season. As November 6th looms, our airwaves are flooded with advertisements that dally along the line between truth and fiction. On my Facebook page, calm discussions about policy and differences too easily devolve into flame wars. Undoubtedly, these two realities are weaved together.
James is right. The tongue is a fire, its flames spreading wherever it can find a source of fuel. Literal fires thirst for oxygen. The fires ignited by half-truths and political expediency have their own potent source of energy: fear of the other, anxiety over the future, an overestimation of our own political stances and the errors of our supposed opponents.
According to James, we speak with a fundamental contradiction. With the same mouth, we praise and curse God. With the same tongue, we decry and upbuild our neighbor. With the same words, we can help others or crush their hopes. Thus it should be little surprise that we embrace political discourses that use words as cruel, blunt weapons.
Dishonesty has a corrosive effect on both its speaker and hearer. Such words weigh us all down. Unfortunately, partisanship too easily justifies a loose relationship with reality. No one but the most partisan among us imagines that “our” side of the debate is the only one that is honest and the other side always lies. Mendacity is not a partisan attribute. That the other side has lied does not justify the mendacity of those we tend to support.
Accusing the other side of deception furthermore hides a critical insight of James. The destructive power of words is insidious and infective. The more we are inundated with it, the easier it is to slide into the corrosive but easy discourses that sever relationships.
In the end, James suggests that there is never a relationship between humans and God which is not at the very same time manifest and embodied in our relationships with our sisters and brothers. In James, sin, suffering, and illness are communal hardships just as much as they are individual ills. Their alleviation is affected through communal liturgies as much as personal confession. None of us—no matter our importance in the world—are independent, unfazed atoms. Instead, we are links in an unbreakable chain. For James, there is no knowledge of God that does not force an individual to gaze into the eyes of another person and realize her inextricability from the links of Christian community.
In short, we are always and inevitably bound to our neighbors.
In this heated political season, we could use this simple but world-changing reminder. Even as we are tempted to close our ears to incessant advertising seeking our vote, we remember that such coarse political discourse will inevitably draw us into its twisted logic. It can’t help but shape how we speak to one another, to our families and friends.
We deserve better from our politicians. We should demand better. But the ads work, don’t they? Half-truths, innuendo, and flat-out deceptions are seductive. Until we realize that this language only leads us down paths of destruction, we will have the politicians, governments, and communities we deserve.
But what if the ancient insights of James were to stir in us a new politics this fall? What if we were to turn our words to a single, holy purpose? What if we were to turn away from the expediency of duplicity and to the glaring power of truth and love?
Perhaps such hopes are too lofty. But let’s start small.
What if we simply stop denying the destructive force our words can carry in their wake? In this season, that may be precisely the change we need.
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