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 body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. James 3:1,2,5,6
That the tongue can be a spark that sets a fire burning out of control, is evident by the pictures that have been on our news feed over the past weekend. A disrespectful piece of film erupted into violence that took the lives of four embassy workers in Libya. Speech demanding a response for the offense, given from the pulpits of some clerics over the weekend, has resulted in more violence, claiming more lives.
A blog I noticed last week talked about the importance of free speech, the author defending anyone's right to say anything - even if it is hateful - as part of our basic human rights. I couldn't disagree more. The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth on their newfound freedoms as followers of Christ, has this to say:
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (I Corinthians 10:13)
Because our freedoms come with responsibility, everything we do is meant to contribute to the human good. That is why James starts his chapter on the tongue in the above scripture (part of yesterday's lectionary readings) by saying that not many of us should presume to be teachers. There is power behind our words, and they can have unintended consequences, which we will be held accountable for. They may not start riots in the Middle East, but they can "burn" a friend's soul, divide families, or ostracize members of our community.
Isaiah chimes in with a comment on teachers and tongues in the Old Testament reading, when he describes what it is like to be a prophet.
The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how
to sustain the weary with a word.
Speaking these words, he goes on to say, often requires a forehead of flint. Even words meant to sustain the weary may be taken the wrong way. Speaking on behalf of those who feel maligned, ignored, or dominated shakes those who participate in systems of violence.
Sometimes speaking for the good of humanity includes a strong rebuke. The Gospel reading shows that Jesus is perfectly content to use words this way, even when (especially when?) talking with one of his own followers. Peter, fresh from his brilliantly inspired statement that Jesus is the Christ, takes Jesus to task. When learning that the Messiah to walk into downtown Jerusalem and get himself killed, Peter does what any good friend would do, he confronts Jesus with a strong rebuke. Bad idea! he reprimands. No way, don't do it.
But Jesus doesn't roll over. He answers Peter's rebuke with one of his own:
"Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." (Mark 8:33)
Peter, probably unknown to him, is voicing the very same temptation that Satan offered in the desert. No doubt it has plagued Jesus throughout his ministry. Can He accomplish His vocation without it actually costing his life? Being "sustained" by these words will actually steer him away from His Father's plan. So Jesus must explain to all the disciplines that following God's call on one's life requires obedience up to and including the point of physical death. "Whoever wants to save his life must lose it...so take up your cross and follow me."
Our words are important. And the words that we use to respond to words are important. As I see scenes of the protests - blazing fires and angry faces - I wonder what would happen if more of us took these scriptures to heart. What if we limited our "American" rights to free speech to what is beneficial to the common good - our Christianity curtailing what the government allows (and would find impossible to impose). What if we spoke more words that sustain the weary, even if the cost of doing so requires us to stand up against the status quo? And finally, what if we were not afraid to use words to rebuke those whose ways are not in line with those of a loving God? We don't need to stand by while others demean, gossip or incite. We can pour water on those flames, not gasoline.
Our tongues are gifts, from which can flow blessing or cursing. May they be powerful tools for the good.