“They’ll tell anything on you down in town.”
So the serpent-handling woman says as she sits on her Appalachian front porch, killing flies and defending her church’s approach to the sixteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Whether in cheap novels, academic treatises, or documentary exposes, serpent-handlers have been analyzed, critiqued and caricatured for their belief that the sacraments are alive and can kill you. Nonetheless the Appalachian woman is right: They’ll tell anything on you down in town, on Twitter, or “Morning Joe,” especially in an election year. Most mornings bring new denunciations or scurrilous accusations from candidate and surrogate alike.
It’s the tongue, the Epistle of James insists in chapter three: “We use it to sing the praises of God, and we use it to invoke curses upon our fellow human beings who are made in God’s likeness.” Today, we say too much, or not enough; don’t mean what we say; or we say what we mean but in cruel ways. Sometimes we’re just plain mean, often in “Jesus’ name.” My friend Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., once hosted an interfaith gathering called, “Honoring Sacred Texts,” which included appreciative readings from the Quran. Online vitriol toward the event and Phelps’ character was immediate. One email read: “You are a pathetic excuse for a man. … You are truly a Judas and it would have been better for you to have never been born. I mean that in the most Christian way.”
Thomas Hearn, the late president of Wake Forest University, once articulated three purposes for a university: to educate new generations; to pursue research in a search for truth; and to nurture the “civility of discourse.” I have never forgotten that simple observation. Whatever the outcomes of this year’s elections, the civility of discourse seems mortally wounded in postmodern America.
To hear Jesus tell it, “talking trash” was certainly not unknown in first-century society:
“How can I describe this generation? They are like the children sitting in the marketplace and shouting at each other, ‘We piped for you and you would not dance.’ ‘We wept and wailed, and you would not mourn.’ For John the Baptist came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax-collectors, and sinners!’ And yet God’s wisdom is proved right by its results” (Matt: 11:19).
John was a teetotaling grasshopper-eater who acted like a holiness prophet should act — harsh, direct, puritanical and distant. Jesus, by contrast, would apparently show up at happy hour — sip a little something with the wrong kind of people, scandalizing the (self) righteous crowd who readily attacked his character.
Remember when tongues wagged at Corinth over Paul’s homiletical limitations. “His letters have a literary flare, but when he appears he has no presence, and as a speaker he is beneath contempt” (2 Cor. 10: 10-11). The words that stung Paul into this response: “I may be no speaker,” he declared, “but knowledge I have; at all times we have made known to you the full truth” (2 Cor. 11: 5-6). We all have stories. A woman in my Massachusetts congregation once gave me the “evil eye” when she didn’t like my sermon. After that I asked the ushers to seat her on the back pews!
We’ve all “dished it out” and “taken it,” maligned and been maligned by the words of others, but unlike our Christian forbears, the Internet has become an extension of our tongues. We push “send” when we should hit “delete,” learning the hard way that emails, tweets and Facebook postings are the repositories of verbiage we shouldn’t have said in private, let alone made public.
Frederick Buechner comments that “to say something is to do something. I love you. I hate you. I forgive you. I am afraid. Who knows what such words do, but whatever it is, it can never be undone. Something that lay hidden in the heart is irrevocably released through speech into time, is given substance and tossed like a stone into the pool of history, where the concentric rings lap out endlessly.”
We live, Bill Moyers says, in a “culture of cruelty,” unable/unwilling to stop attacking one another, turning every disagreement into character issues. While such verbal viciousness is nothing new, our words now go global in an instant — never to be retrieved.
But let’s not confuse cruel speech with a troubled conscience. Some injustices must be addressed even when it causes pain to ourselves, to others, and in our culture. Some situations are so hurtful, so broken that we cannot be silent. James is addressing cruelty, not conscience. He’s simply saying, don’t waste your breath on hateful language — struggle with the truth and speak it accordingly.
Perhaps the larger gospel message is this: You can’t find yourself if you don’t confront your words. We may have the liberty to say whatever we wish, but doing so may destroy/damage something, not only in others, but something deep inside ourselves.
As usual, the Psalmist says it well: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, O God my strength and my redeemer.” Tweet that, for God’s sake.
*Dr. Bill Leonard spoke at the Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston. in January 1997. This article is used with his permission.