Virtually every human emotion can be triggered with the right words. Even for those of us who would like to consider ourselves to be reasonably kind, having kind feelings wont quite cut it. It is as well to remember that kind or even unkind thoughts are difficult or even impossible to convey until they are put into words or actions. Words can also paint pictures and the images evoked by these words are sometimes enough to cause us to take extreme action. For example, the words we encounter might help us decide when to go to war. The words we encounter also tell us when others care about us. The words we hear, or even simply read on the internet can cause us to fear or to envy. In a modern variant, text messages can bully – even cause a young person to take their own life but at their best, words can inspire or give hope. Words can also express prejudice or help shape our unconscious prejudices.
To paraphrase Patrick Rothfuss: “Words can light fires in the mind. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”
At first hearing, today’s reading from James’ may suggest exaggeration. What was it he said?:
“Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
The first part is clear. After all, there is no doubt about the real damage a genuine fire can do from small beginnings. And it is not just forests. On September 2 in the year 1666 a small fire broke out in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane in London. With the close proximity of wooden buildings, and in many cases, neighbouring buildings waterproofed with tar and pitch, the fire began to spread until it turned to an inferno. Something like 80 % of that city was destroyed including 52 Trade or Guild halls, numerous churches, including the spiritual hub of St Pauls, and at least 13,000 homes. This fire was only one among many. When James talks of a spark destroying a forest there are more than ample examples from which to choose.
But what about the part where James turns to a more extreme metaphor? He starts with the image of creation, then with verse 6 turns from the earthly forest fire to the eternal fires of Gehenna. There are of course a number of images of hell in the Bible and because they are partly contradictory there is almost no reason to expect any one of them to be literally true. Translated hell in the NRSV, Gehenna is the valley where garbage is dumped and burned on the south side of Jerusalem. In apocalyptic literature the Gehenna is further used as a metaphor for evil, and there are some references to the devil living in this most evil of places. So James is going as far as to suggest an unbridled tongue, inflamed by the power of evil, might even destroy the whole of creation.
When it comes to the power of words to destroy, history suggests James might have been exaggerating but he was essentially on the right track. I am reminded here of something recently pointed out by John Dominic Crossan in his book The Power of Parable. In this book Dom Crossan says that some years ago – I think it would have been the early 60s – he joined thousands of pilgrims watching the famous Passion Play at Oberammergau in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. This is of course the famous 5 or 6 hour dramatic presentation of Jesus’ last week on earth, performed every decade for centuries by local villagers to mark the end of the plague. Certainly it is famous and obviously appreciated by the many pilgrims who have seen it since. But among the watchers it was the perceptive Dominic Crossan who reminds us that one of the play’s most famous admirers was Adolf Hitler who after seeing the play twice once before 1930 when he was elected and again in 1934, later wrote:
“It is vital that the Passion play be continued at Oberammergau for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the time of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate, a Roman so racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole mire and muck of Jewry”
….Words to spark a fire indeed. Six million Jews were systematically murdered and of course more lives were lost than that. Someone has calculated for every single word in Hitler’s long and emotionally charged book, Mein Kampf, 125 lives were lost in World War II.
Clearly we need to talk, and we need to write, just as we need to listen and read. Yet James does well to remind us this communication needs a good deal of care. James is accurate at least in potential when he talks of the tongue being of restless evil and full of poison.
And it is not just the ones that history identifies as monsters: the Adolf Hitlers and Joseph Stalins of this world. At various times in history the power of words has unleashed unspeakable hate crimes even when those uttering the words no doubt believed themselves to have the best of intentions. What is perhaps more surprising is the number of what might otherwise have been considered ordinary sincere people who are persuaded by these messages of hate.
For example, soon after the advances in printing by the invention of the Gutenberg Press some well meaning Church leaders concerned about various misfortunes striking their communities wrote and had printed leaflets quoting some of the more obscure and potentially hate filled parts of the Bible telling people how to identify witches in their midst. As a result many innocent women were drowned or burned. You will no doubt have heard of the subsequent witch trials in Salem and even today in some parts of Africa those claimed to be witches are still executed.
Sometimes it may also be that we need to use words to change someone’s course of action to avert evil. We might imagine an extreme situation when a person contemplating suicide is standing on the ledge of a high building, or more commonly, one who has left a face book message to say they are thinking of ending it all. Here the right words on the part of a person trying to help will be critical. Those of us who have had to deal with an alcoholic family member or someone who is about to set off to drive a car while clearly under the influence of drugs or alcohol will also know how difficult it is to find the right words to avert a serious problem. When emergency services like ambulance or fire brigade are called, precise and careful directions can make the difference between life and death. Without verbal communication it is extremely difficult to change what someone happens to be doing at the time.
As John Lennon once put it:“When you’re drowning you don’t think, I would be incredibly pleased if someone would notice I’m drowning and come and rescue me. You just scream.”
If you were trying to find something that distinguishes humans from other members of the animal kingdom, one of the clearest differences comes in the way we communicate. In James’ day this would have been dominated with the spoken word but these days it is also the written word and more and more the words supported by pictorial images which also help communication and shape our minds and our behaviour. But with our developing skill of communication there comes a real responsibility. Just as our feelings and emotions can be shaped particularly by what we hear, what we say can do the same to others.
Remember too, James’ comments are not just addressed to leaders. In fact here is practical everyday advice for many. He starts out by acknowledging that here is a problem we are all going to have a problem with. He says plainly in verse 2 “For all of us make many mistakes” But that awareness of our potential to make blunders in our speech should at least give us pause before speaking. James suggests this is the clue for how to get our lives on track. It is also in line with Jesus advice that what comes out of the mouth reflects what is in the heart. It is almost as if Sin might begin in the mind – but it is only when it is articulated, that it takes shape.
There is a principle in science that nothing is created or destroyed – it only changes in form. Once the sound is out there, it cannot be put back. The word once heard cannot be unheard – just as a word once written and read stays read.
I came across a plaque the other day that read: “God keep one hand on my shoulder and the other over my mouth” I wish I would think about this more often for my own words.
Yet just as unkind or thoughtless words can lead to much unhappiness, wise and kind words can continue to have an effect long after they are spoken. James reckons if we can get this right, everything else will fall into place as well.
Clearly this does not mean we should never speak up. If anything, even more serious than the fault of stirring up misunderstanding and unkindness which destroys families, communities and even whole nations, is that while this happens, so many will be standing by and allowing it to happen which surely is worse. One of the saddest aspects of the lead up to the Second World War was the way in which many otherwise good people stood by and pretended not to notice when ill-feeling was being stirred up against the Jews.
Similar issues occur today. One of the more unfortunate consequences of the way modern economies have developed is the way some have prospered tremendously while others have been marginalised and allowed to drift back into poverty. In short, there are some issues on which voices need to be raised.
Even at the local contemporary level, think for a moment how many children have had to endure violence and how many, many, acts of unkindness have passed unchecked because their neighbours and family friends stood by and said nothing. Yet the basic rule (which is akin to the so called golden rule) is that behind all our significant speech decisions is that love is the basic underlying principle.
Yes we all possess tongues. We possess tongues that have tremendous potential in shaping actions, both for ourselves and others.
There is a Saudi Arabian proverb that says:
Four things come not back: The spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.
We have before us today the question of whether or not we need to heed what James puts before us and reset the control of our words and actions. Perhaps this is an opportunity we should not neglect.