Choose your words.
More than one respected commentator on the state of our country this past year has lamented the level and quality of our public discourse: the name-calling and scapegoating that is becoming a trademark of our current political debate; the vicious and divisive rhetoric of so many talk shows; the crude, violent, and sexually exploitive lyrics of rap and other popular music; the madness when antigovernment propaganda leads to the killing of scores of innocent people in a federal building in Oklahoma City, to name a few examples. A similar case might be made, by the way, about the church: divisions between right and left within the Catholic community often lead not to respectful dialogue but to overheated accusations of heresy at one end of the spectrum or outcries about repression and revisionism on the other.
The apparent sad state of a lot of our public discourse is not just a matter of words, of course. Our speech is expressive of our values and our understanding of reality. Behind the heat of our current political debate stand some fundamental divisions about our national priorities. The verbal violence in some of our popular culture may also be symptomatic of rage and despair in a social world without meaning. The accusations hurled between factions in the church reflect uncertainty about Catholic identity in a rapidly changing world.
But if the quality of our speech is not the whole problem, it is still part of it. We know that words are not just a way of dressing up our ideas so they can go out and play or handy containers for our concepts. Our speech not only expresses our thoughts and values but actually shapes them. The images and expressions crafted by our poets and songwriters and screenwriters and columnists and preachers leave a stamp on, and even help create, the very realities they attempt to describe.
As a lifelong student of the Bible, I began to think about what guidance scriptures might offer about the quality of our speech. The biblical peoples had an unshakable respect for the power and beauty of human discourse, the human word. "Death and life are in the power of the tongue," says the Book of Proverbs 18:21.
The Bible understood that words both communicate and create reality. The cosmic poetry of the first chapter of Genesis states this forcefully: God speaks and the world is made. Through the creative power of the divine word, a cascade of beauty fills the world: light and darkness, the sun and the moon, the earth and the sea, the animals and sea creatures, and finally,the human being, male and female.
Standing in that same stream of biblical tradition, the evangelist John described the power of the Word in terms etched deeply into Christian consciousness: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... and apart from the Word nothing of what exists came to be" (John 1:1). In a community of faith that portrayed Jesus as the "Word made flesh," that remembered him as an extraordinary teacher and parable maker, and that characterized its own message of salvation as the proclamation of the Word," it is no wonder that the early Christians had profound concerns about the quality of our speech.
It is interesting to sample a few passages from the New Testament. Jesus' own words in the Sermon on the Mount might be a place to start. "You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, `You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother or sister will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to them, `Raqa,' will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, `You fool,' will be liable to fiery Gehenna" (Matt. 5:21-22).
One of the most graceful New Testament letters is that of 1 Peter, and in a section where the author describes the quality of life in the Christian community, he includes this advice: "Finally, all of you, be of one mind, sympathetic, loving toward one another, compassionate, humble. Do not return evil for evil, or insult for insult; but, on the contrary, a blessing, because to this you were called ... For `Whoever would love life and see good days must keep the tongue from evil and the lips from speaking deceit, must turn from evil and do good, seek peace and follow after it" (1 Peter 3:8-11).
Of course, the greatest of all New Testament reflections on speech is found in the Letter of James. This blunt New Testament text has a famous reflection on the power and perils of the human tongue: ". . . we all fall short in many respects. Whoever does not fall short in speech is a perfect human being, able to bridle the whole body.... For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers and sisters" (James 3:2-10).
These and many other biblical passages make it clear that the Bible believes our words make a difference and we should speak with care. The wisdom of our tradition is that not only what we have to say but the way we say it has the power to create life or to destroy it. Catholic morality these days seems absorbed in a lot of other pressing issues, particularly issues relating to human sexuality. This is understandable but we should not overlook the importance of our language: crude speech can be as sexually exploitive as pornography; violent rhetoric can be as destructive as a gunshot; dishonest and overheated debate can do as much to destroy human community as a home invader; a society deprived of the beauty and intelligence of graceful human discourse can be as starved as one without provisions.
To offset all the junk and jingles that filter into our minds and spirits every day, we need a steady infusion of beauty for the mind and heart. Paul and the other New Testament writers often urge their Christians to sing hymns and psalms to God in their hearts and on their lips. If our children's minds are filled with words and images that are violent and crude and exploitive, will the goodness of their spirits have any means for expression and growth? This is an urgent moral issue that springs from the heart of the gospel and should be as much in the forefront of Christian prophetic challenge to our culture as any issue of medical ethics, sexuality, or orthodoxy.
Calling for gracious speech doesn't mean we can't speak forcefully and that the only Christian response is an insipid one. After all, the prophets knew how to speak bluntly and with penetrating power - and Jesus was such a prophet, unafraid to name evil for what it was and to stand up to injustice. But the constant and overriding principle of prophetic speech is that it must be for the edification - the building up - of the community, not its destruction.
And by the same token, the biblical exhortation to avoid lewd speech does not condemn us to a humorless, colorless, or piously boring manner of communication. Jesus' own parables are filled with appreciation for the incongruities of the human arena and were obviously told by someone who had a sympathetic eye for the human condition: the soon-to-be unemployed government official who paves the way for his future by absolving his clients of the debts they owed the king; the thief who breaks in and steals the furniture; the unjust judge who does the right thing only because he is being driven mad by a persistent widow banging at his door.
This rogue's gallery of unlikely role models from Jesus' parables (and there are many more) are evidence of a good and even somewhat mischievous sense of humor, not the teaching of a pious fraud.
Another gospel principle about our speech is that it must be honest, without fail expressing what we know to be the truth. The famed Sermon on the Mount contains some of Jesus' most challenging teachings: no anger in your heart, no adultery even in your glance, no tearing asunder of the bond of marriage, no retaliation, even to an enemy. Over the centuries, Christians of good will have wrestled with these teachings and tried to take them seriously. Issues of divorce and remarriage, sexual morality, violence, and peacemaking are still at the center of Catholic moral reflection.
But one simple, straightforward teaching of Jesus seems to be virtually ignored: "You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, `Do not take a false oath.... But I say to you, do not swear at all.... Let your `yes' mean `yes' and your `no' mean `no'" (Matt. 5:33-37). Why, I wonder, is this teaching left on the cutting room floor? Why do we as Christians still take oaths to buttress the truth of what we say? And why, in what has to be some strange and supreme irony, does the church itself even require oaths of pastors and teachers to insure that they will be faithful to the teaching of a Jesus who forbade us to take oaths? In a culture where so much of our economy and our political life runs on half-truths and false promises, a commitment to honest speech may be one of the most challenging aspects of the gospel.
I remember being startled a few years ago by an antiwar poster that read: "Let us Christians agree that for one day at least, we will not kill each other." What if we tried another version: "Let us Christians agree that for one day at least we will not lie to each other." What difference might a day like that make in our relationships, in our families, in our churches, in our schools, and in our political arenas?
Finally, the Bible reminds us that if we want to speak as Christians, we may have to purify our hearts and not just our tongues. As Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes, "Out of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt. 15:18). Today when we say that people speak from their hearts, we mean they speak with feeling or emotion and not just abstractly or from their "heads." But in the biblical world the heart was thought of as the center of one's consciousness, the place where decisions and commitments were made. It is from here - from the very core of our being - that our mouth speaks. Our words, as individuals or as a community, ultimately reveal who we are and what we stand for. So if we want to elevate and purify our public discourse, then we will also have to experience conversion of heart.
This, of course, was precisely Jesus' point in his debate with his opponents. It was not eating with unwashed hands that imperiled the human spirit but the values and commitments of the human heart. This is an instinct of our Christian tradition and one we should bring to public discussion in a consistent and direct way in all our teachings and actions. If we are distressed at the level of our political discourse and the tone of our popular culture, the wisdom of our tradition suggests that this is a moral crisis and not simply an aesthetic or strategic one. A commitment to gracious, honest, and tolerant public discourse directly challenges a society and even at times a church lured by sound bites, shock language, and shrill invective.
True to his own teaching about honest speech, Jesus never said that following him would be easy.
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|Title Annotation:||Christian speech and values|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1996|
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