Say What You Mean
James 3: 1-12
It’s only been a couple of weeks since Mark’s gospel story of Jesus reminding us that it’s not what we put into our mouths but rather what comes out of them that can defile us. Here we are again. Stringent warnings about the power of speech and the wily ways of the tongue. It’s a small part of the body, but like the rudder of a ship it can steer the whole thing (James 3: 4). James also compares the tongue’s power to fire: even a small spark can ignite an entire forest (v. 5).
We live in a strange time when it comes to speech. We have laws about hate speech but you can say things on prime time television that I won’t repeat here. Months of media frenzy are expended over political gaffs or perceived slights. But we continue to use words like “liberal” and “conservative” as almost meaningless catch-all descriptions. In our culture it seems that anything goes – until something you say hurts my feelings.
Did you grow up with the sing-songy retort, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”? The thing is, names often do hurt. And sometimes they can heal.
Our passage from James has some interesting connections to Genesis. James evokes the creation stories by mentioning that “every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species” (v. 7). Remember the second account of creation when God forms all the animals and brings them to the man to name? (Genesis 2: 18-20) Genesis says that “whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (v. 19). That’s a lot of power for someone who isn’t God. That’s a lot of trust on God’s part. The man speaks and – voilà! – that’s what the animal is. God forms it, Adam names it, then is exists in the world. That’s a big responsibility for a human – and a powerful use of the tongue.
James also writes, “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God” (v.9). Sounds like Genesis again, doesn’t it? “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 26-27). We are made in God’s image and given dominion over the rest of creation, dominion that starts with the power of speech, naming.
When I was in college I was working out a lot of things. Can you relate? One of the things I gave some concerted thought to was the way we use language to describe ourselves and others. I took a few classes in Women’s Studies and started to notice that, though we had several names for male people – “boy,” “guy,” “man” – we really only had “girl” and “woman” for female people. Of course there are other names like “dude” or “brother” but they aren’t as generally used. At that point I was usually calling guys my age “guys” but I (and most people my age) were calling the rest of us “girls” and I began to think that wasn’t the best description for female people over 18. So I started trying to figure out what to call us instead. “Gal” felt too 1940s and “chick” seemed a little adolescent or dismissive. Without much option, I made a very head-centered, academic decision to start calling females over 18 “women.” “Girls” were under 18 and “women” were 18 and up.
By the time I’d thought all this through, it made complete sense to me. It seemed like a strange cultural development to call women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and even older “girls.” By choosing to call grown women “girls” – especially while calling grown men “men” – we were reinforcing stereotypes and outdated sex roles. I had it all worked out in my head and I could quite clearly enumerate the reasons and walk through the logic of my decision.
But a funny thing happened to me when I implemented my plan. Though I’d given it a lot of thought and “believed” in my decision, when I actually had to call one of my friends from the Wesley Foundation a “woman,” it sounded weird. Not bad weird, just unusual. But more than that, it made me feel differently about the women in question. To use the word “woman” to describe my friends and myself made me confront the fact that we were, indeed, women now and no longer girls. Though I had worked it out in my head, actually putting this into practice gave me further insight and further conviction. But it surprised me at first. I thought I was already “there” but the word itself mattered. I thought the decision to change the word was the end of that process but I realized that there was more to learn. My speech was more powerful than I thought and it worked on me even after the decision to use it.
Joey reminded me this week of our old friend, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who we’ve gotten to know through some video-based Bible studies. Joey reminded me of something he said about taking God’s name in vain. Brueggemann asserts that though we’ve grown up being told that taking God’s name in vain means to curse using God’s name, that’s not actually it. It’s not about cussing. It’s about misappropriating God’s name for our own purposes, assuming and claiming that God thinks as we do.
It’s not what goes in that defiles us but what comes out. And, if Brueggemann is to be trusted, it’s not just a list of no-no words coming out that is the problem.
That’s a good thing, given the story I want to tell you next. I may have mentioned Will Campbell to some of you before. He’s a Southern Baptist preacher who recognized tragedy in the race relations of the South. He decided to do something about it in an unconventional way. So, at the same time as he was serving as chaplain to the KKK he was also participating in civil rights demonstrations. He wasn’t supportive of the KKK’s mission but he recognized that both sides were made up of people God calls children. You can see that Campbell is a unique guy.
He’s not known for squeaky clean language. In his wonderful book, Brother to a Dragonfly, he describes being asked to put the whole gospel into a one sentence statement. His reply: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”
Well, a few years back the Wesley Foundation director at Virginia Tech participated in bringing Campbell to campus. There was a Baptist church member in Blacksburg who was surprised by Campbell’s visit because Campbell didn’t say the typical things this man thought all Baptist preachers should say. He was expecting Campbell to be a fundamentalist and a literalist and he was pretty disappointed. So the Blacksburg Baptist called the Wesley Foundation and the director told him the name of the town where Campbell lived and the man called directory assistance and found the number. He made the call to Campbell after this visit to complain and it became apparent that he was accusing Campbell of not being biblical enough, not quoting scripture enough, and not interpreting it literally enough. Campbell said to him, “I want to thank you for calling and ask you a question. Are all the prisoners in your area broken out of prison?” The Blacksburg Baptist was confused and Campbell went on, “Well, Jesus says to set the prisoners free and I figured you’d be too busy doing that to have time to call me.” The Blacksburg Baptist stammered that that was not what Jesus meant, that Jesus meant for that to be interpreted spiritually, not literally. Campbell said, “That just confirms something I’ve thought for a while now: there are no literalists.” Then Campbell said to him, “I will end this conversation by telling you three things: God loves you. Jesus died for you. And you can kiss my ass.”
There is another story, about Tony Campolo, the American Baptist preacher, professor, speaker, and author. He was speaking to a large crowd of people, commenting on our connection or lack thereof to the poor, and he noted that 25,000 people died of hunger that day. He said, “25,000 people died of hunger today and you don’t give a shit. And the sad thing is that you’re more upset by the fact that I just said “shit” than you are about the 25,000 people who died.”
Where’s the power of speech in these stories? It’s not the “put down” the arrogant Blacksburg Baptist receives. It’s not in Campbell’s use of the word “ass” or Campolo’s cussing either. Where is it then? Might it be in Campbell’s radical adherence to Jesus’ message and his unwillingness to dilute that message? Might it be in speaking the harsh word of Truth right where and when it is needed? What about the hard speech, that small but powerful word of correction Campolo gives to a misguided crowd? That kind of language – sometimes shocking and unexpected – is the rudder righting the ship that is about to go off course.
Language is world-creating (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. XII, p. 205). In his commentary on the book of James, my seminary professor Luke Johnson says, “The first and most important gift distinctive to humans is [the] power to name, to create language, and by creating language also to continue God’s own creative activity in the world. When we realize that language is a world-creating capacity, then we begin to appreciate James’s cosmic imagery in describing its power and its peril… The power of language, then, is awesome, for it gives humans the freedom to structure human life according to ‘the word of truth’ so that humans are a ‘kind of first fruits of his creatures’ (1:18), or to create a universe of meaning in which God is omitted or ignored” (p. 205).
When I started changing the way I spoke about women, my world changed, too. When Will Campbell called out the Blacksburg Baptist for his God’s-name-in-vain attempt to make his own purposes sound like God’s, Campbell was helping continue God’s creation of the world. That’s a lot of power in a little thing like a tongue.
My seminary professor also says that the proper response to a passage of scripture like this one is not so much reflection but rather confession (p. 205). Where am I creating a world out of synch with my Christian faith? What speech needs to change, be sharpened, or be removed from our vocabularies? When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, saying “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” how is our speech helping to make that happen?
We can distract ourselves from the real issue with debates about cursing and hate speech and politically correct language. We can choose to remain silent when the stones are shouting out praise to God. We can be content with stale faith language that says it praises God but just lies there limp on our tongues…
Or we can change the world, moving a step closer to the fullness of God’s kingdom with each word we do and don’t say. It’s what comes out of us that makes the difference. What do you say?
Thanks be to God!
© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis