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Taming the Tongue

For Sunday September 13, 2009

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Proverbs 1:20–33 or Isaiah 50:4–9

Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26–8:1 or Psalm 116:1–9

James 3:1–12

Mark 8:27–38

           Last month I read a book called Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America (2008). At first I thought the title was overwrought, and that the editors were a persecuted minority playing the victimization card. But after reading these intensely personal stories, I changed my mind.

           I learned a lot from these autobiographical narratives, but one thing in particular grabbed my attention. The forty authors come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. In many ways they have little in common. They are white evangelicals, black Baptists, devout Mormons, orthodox Jews, and conservative Catholics. Young teenagers, older clerics, famous politicians, and two professional athletes tell their stories. The last two stories are written by mothers who describe how they lost their gay teenagers to suicide and a brutal murder.


           Despite their significant differences, every single person witnessed to the power of speech, in this case the power of insults to humiliate, subjugate, and inflict lasting damage on a fellow human being. Fag! Homo! Pervert! Sinner! Week after week at church a ten-year old hears that he's an abomination to God for something he has no control over, who will burn in hell, and who deserves to be stoned to death (Leviticus 20:13). Every day at school you endure the same taunts by the same people and know that the staff will do nothing except to dismiss it as teenage rowdiness. In a passive-aggressive reversal of the power of speech, your own parents kick you out of the house and refuse to ever speak to you again.

           This daily barrage of verbal assaults in every significant area of your life programs you to hate everything you know to be true about your authentic self. As a result, most gay people face two equally unhealthy options. First, you can manufacture a false and increasingly neurotic self that must lie at all costs, to all people, all the time, merely to survive. You must compartmentalize your public and private lives, and vigilantly censor yourself in everything you do, say, and feel. Alternately, you can let down your guard and live spontaneously as your true and authentic self, but in doing so face catastrophic losses in your church, synagogue, family, job, school and community. For some gays, living authentically comes at an unacceptably high price.

           Human speech, says James, seems to be innocent enough. After all, the tongue is such a small part of the body. But despite its size, he says, it's much like a bit that controls a horse or a rudder that steers an enormous ship. In fact, the tongue can burn like a raging forest fire, incinerating everything that it touches. It corrupts both the subject and object of speech. What we say to one another, James writes, can be "full of deadly poison" that kills.

           "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?" James thus recommends a spiritual discipline that is good for our own selves and even better for our neighbor: "Everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak" (1:19).

           What we say reveals more about us than about the recipient of our speech. The scary part about toxic talk is that it reveals the character of our inner identity. "Out of the overflow of the heart," said Jesus, "the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:34–37).

Bob Knight.

           With our words we name the world and each other, and at least in some sense our naming creates a genuine reality. Once our speech and narratives take hold, they have a tremendous power and tenacity for good or evil. They can exclude or embrace, heal or humiliate, lift up or tear down. How many of us have internalized self-hatred that resulted from repeated criticisms from a parent? How many can still remember a compliment made by an elementary school teacher even though it was made many decades ago? Or who has experienced the futile attempt of chronic over-compensation to prove your self-worth against school yard taunts?

           Gay people are by no means the only people to bear witness to the toxicity of talk. Our words can protect, affirm and celebrate the dignity and worth of every human being, or reduce people to labels. In the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision of 1857, the court voted 7–2 that blacks were pieces of private property that belonged to whites, not full human beings. They could be bought and sold but they didn't enjoy any Constitutional rights.

           In two short essays written in 1938, the British writer Dorothy Sayers (1893–1957) posed a provocative question: are women human? It's easy enough to update her categories. What about Muslims, illegal aliens, or the homeless? Do we speak about them as if they were fully and truly human, or define them in ways that insure our superiority? The gist of Sayers' radically simple argument was that women be acknowledged as human beings, nothing more and nothing less, and only subsequently labeled as a class of human beings qualified by biology, culture, ethnicity, age, economics, nationality, and so on.


           That's how Jesus treated not only women but every person he met. The many women who financed the life and ministry of Jesus, says Sayers, "had never known a man like Jesus—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as 'The women, God help us!' or 'The ladies, God bless them!'; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything 'funny' about women's nature." Or about anyone else, either.

For further reflection

* Isaiah 50:4: "The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary."
* James 4:11–12: "Do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him, speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?"
* Matthew 7:1: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

Image credits: (1) Mail Online; (2) Double-A Zone; and (3) Kapi'olani Childrens Hospital.

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