Wednesday, September 16, 2009


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. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield  fresh. -- from the Epistle of James

I'm still chewing on our epistle lesson from last Sunday.

Maybe that's because, as if on cue,  current events have been filled with stories of intemperate people -- Joe Wilson, Kanye West, Serena Williams, Glenn Beck, et al -- shooting off their mouths in public. Granted, James is speaking to the Christian community, not the world at large; but it's the same problem, with the same consequences.

But I've also been thinking about other examples of people, particularly people with spiritual or social gravitas, using words in a destructive way.

I regularly read an opinion column by a political writer who constantly writes hand-wringing jeremiads about The End of the World As We Know It. Multiply him by every other influence in the media and the world of letters for whom every change in demographics, in politics, in the environment, in society, is a catastrophe. Yes, sometimes change is unfortunate; yes, it's natural to mourn the loss of the familiar and feel anxiety about the new. But a constant drumbeat of "The sky is falling" -- does that not have the power to send others, especially anxious others, into despair? Or -- when the sky does not in fact fall -- cynicism? How does one balance the need to talk about perceived "bad news" with the need to keep people's hope alive? "Without a vision the people perish."

Likewise, I've been thinking about a tendency that I find in myself; an impatience with biblical literalists that gives me almost a kind of impious pleasure in kicking over their right strawy cradles of simpleminded interpretation. Getting into pissing matches with aggressive Bible bangers is one thing -- but is it really so important to overwhelm the doe-eyed newbie in Bible study with historical-critical analysis in response to one of her innocent comments about a text? What is the desired outcome here? What's the more likely outcome? Am I really concerned about learning happening? Is there a better way to respond -- one with less risk of knocking over a spiritually vulnerable person's applecart of faith?

See, folks -- the lectionary does work. If presented well, the texts keep percolating in your brain long after Sunday.


melissa said...

Yeah...this text got to me as well. I myself was reeling from all of the craziness surrounding Obama's speech to school kids and his healthcare speech. So many people said so many terrible and thoughtless things. It wasn't hard to decide that it would be ok (just this once) to preach on James. :) But don't tell Mr. Luther...

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I've been watching more of the left leaning commentary shows on TV. They point out errors and biases of that “other” channel. But they do so in a rather imperious way, humorous, but still condescending.

You pointed your FB readers to the margaretand helen wordpress blog. Also right to the point, funny, but sniping in tone.

I showed that blog to my husband. His comment is that he thought that Helen was doing exactly what she is criticizing the other side for.

I think he is right, darn it all, because I like putting down the other side. I think that the James passage speaks to this generally. And I'm sure that some of Obama's mildness in responding to certain statements is more in line with what James warns us about than is the sniping. When he had a supposedly off the record comment spread far and wide, some people said that he would be better off showing that kind of spunk and blood and guts in general. But I don't know, In the long run, we are probably better off realizing that our tongue can actually bite us in the butt and that others' memories are awfully long, especially in an era of U-Tube, et al.

I've been having trouble getting comments to take, so trying again 3rd time.