The Tongue's Power

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Today’s reading is the entire third chapter of the letter of James. It’s about the power of speech. James was the first bishop in Jerusalem, and tradition has it that the power of speech actually led to his death. He was bishop for thirty years, preaching the good news about Christ to anyone who would listen. This enraged the Jewish leaders of the holy city. According to legend, one day they surrounded him and demanded that he go out and stand in front of the Temple and denounce Christianity. James did as they asked – he stood in front of a crowd outside the temple, and spoke. But instead of denouncing the faith, he proclaimed it. The temple leaders were so enraged that they stoned him to death. [1]

Today’s reading was written long before that day of course, but in it we hear about the power of the tongue. James is speaking to Christian teachers, who he warns must be very careful in what they say. The tongue, he argues, is the strongest and most dangerous member of the body. Like the rudder of a ship, it can steer your entire life. He also uses the image of a forest fire, spreading like one of our west coast wildfires, from tree to tree. He even argues that the tongue is so strong that with the rumours and lies it can spread it can poison the entire body. No one, he argues, can control the tongue. Yet with this tongue, we can speak holy words blessing God, and also denounce our fellow humans who are made in the image of God. We must choose whether to be a speaker of good or evil, he says. 

James appears as the king of mixed metaphors – and also of what appears to be great exaggeration. When he states that no one can control the body’s tongue, it seems obvious that he is wrong. Each of us learns early on that there are times when we must not speak our inner thoughts out loud. Learning how to hold our tongue is a key part of growing up, and the vast majority of people master this essential skill. So how can James state so boldly that no one can control the tongue?  

The key is that when James speaks about the body, he is not speaking about individual bodies. James was a bishop, he is addressing teachers of the faith. His concern is the welfare of his Christian community. For him, that community is the body of Christ, what we now call the church. This is why he speaks of the tongue as a forest fire – not because it lights our arms and legs on fire, but because when rumours start, they can spread like wildfire throughout the entire community. Since it is usually unclear where a rumour gets started, they are almost impossible to put out. Simply telling people to stop talking rarely works, because part of what makes a rumour mill so attractive is that it is an alternate form of information network. Rumours usually talk about the things the community’s official leaders don’t or won’t talk about. And, in James’ time, these rumours were often motivated by envy and selfish interests.  They can infect the body of the community, and spread like a forest fire, leaping from person to person. 
[1] Jacobus Varagine , The Golden Legend, Chapter 67. (1275)   

These same forces are still at work in our society. Throughout this pandemic there has been a rumour mill that has traded in innuendo, false information and conspiracy theories. History will likely remember the development of the covid vaccines as modern science’s greatest achievement, saving millions of lives, in record time. A modern moon shot. Yet for a minority, the virus is a government-sponsored hoax. The vaccines contain micro-chips for controlling us, and the entire vaccine program is a prelude to fascism.  

Hospitals are picketed by unmasked protesters who may end up within the covid wards in the future. Politicians are drowned out at campaign stops by crowds who denounce them as fascists.   

Some even throw rocks at our prime minister and contend that he, like many other world leaders, is part of a secret pedophiles ring. What James calls a forest fire is raging in our society right now, and most of us are at a loss about how to put it out.  

There have always been people with conspiracy theories, and alternative views of reality. They used to be called cranks, and kept their interests to UFOs and paranormal phenomena. That kind of conspiracy theory thinking motivated the popular 1990s tv series the X Files. Now it seems every street has people who are convinced that a horse deworming medicine is the real cure for covid, while the most vetted vaccines ever are useless. Medical science has become a matter of personal opinion.   How did we get here? How could normally rational people, who pay their bills, and get their kids to school,  embrace conspiracy theories? Part of the problem is that these theories spread on social media. Few of us go to social media to think. It is a form of entertainment, akin to gossiping over the back fence with a neighbour.  

From time immemorial, people have gossiped.  Neighbours have traded suspicions and rumours about who was having an affair with who, who just got fired but doesn’t want anyone to know, who’s selling their house for too much or too little.   

That kind of gossip doesn’t trade on certainties, it is fuelled by innuendo and guesses.   

It’s the same kind of thinking that takes place when people get together to chew the fat about their favourite sports teams. The beauty of sports is that no one is ever exactly right about what will happen, except that the Leafs won’t win the Stanley Cup. But aside from that, who gets traded, what the point spread will be, everyone is allowed to talk about these things, and it doesn’t matter if you are wrong. Sports talk and gossip are less about accurate information than giving people a fairly harmless way to bond socially. These were the original social networks. If you were wrong about the Raptors last year, your friends will still talk to you this year about sports. Our social minds are more interested in social connection than accurate information.  

That kind of informal social network was the inspiration for social media. A casual way to keep up with what’s going on with old high school friends and neighbours. It didn’t seem like it required fact checking, any more than those back fence discussions ever did. But social media had morphed into something else. On the one hand, corporations, terrorists and other large entities have realized it provides access to people in a way television and radio could never achieve. On the personal level, the fact that it still looks and feels like gossip means that we don’t use our best rational reasoning to assess the information that is shared there. We go to Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok and Twitter to relax, to scroll through, not to take notes. The part of our minds that we use when going to university is switched off when we scroll through social media. And our desire to create social connections by endorsing and spreading rumours is still in place. This is the uncontrollable tongue that James is speaking about – no dictator in the world has ever been able to wipe out gossip, it always survives, even if it is driven deep underground.  

And that poses a major problem when scientific information coming through social media is patently false, yet we accept it any way. On the one hand, social media is the ultimate expression of the democratic value of free speech, where anyone can say pretty much anything. On the other hand, the quality of the content of that speech has reached new lows, and has now become positively dangerous, with anti-vaxxers ending up in covid wards fighting for their lives. 

 So what can be done? Like us, James the apostle was confronted by a community where rumours and misinformation had spread like a forest fire. It seemed to be everywhere at once. He addresses this part of his letter to teachers, who he says should be extra careful in what they say. He means spiritual teachers, people who are explaining Christianity . Today, in a world where Christianity is mostly misunderstood, seen as a cause of division and a promoter of hatred, all of us now qualify as teachers. Not just in what we say, but in what we do, which for James is always the key proof of where we really stand.  

James ends this chapter of his letter by speaking about the wisdom that comes from above, from God. It sounds utterly different from the envy and anger that fuels those forest fires of gossip. 

  “the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.”      

James knows that this kind of wisdom can take root in people. This is the saving grace that comes from God, and that showed up in person as Jesus. Wisdom begins with humility, with the recognition that our quick answers and surmises are often incorrect. Wisdom sees the world as much more richly mysterious, and wonderful for all of that. Out of that humility comes patience, and understanding, and compassion, too. For if I recognize that I do not understand fully what is going on in me, I certainly shouldn’t claim to know exactly what is going on in you.  

The psalm we heard today is a wisdom psalm. It presents a beautiful vision of the world. It begins in the heavens and slowly makes its way down to Earth and human beings. It suggests that there is an overall order to the world which we only dimly understand, but which we can trust in. That God has made it all good, if only we could see it. Or hear it. The psalm begins with those strange lines about how day speaks to day, and night shares wisdom with each following night.   Their voice  goes out through all the Earth, and their words to the end of the world.” These lines seem nonsensical to us – how can the day have a conversation with the coming day, or night with night? The mystery of it is the point. We humans are part of something much bigger than ourselves which we did not invent, and we will probably never fully understand. Yet we are cared for by God’s universe.  

James is suggesting that his teachers welcome wisdom into their hearts, and through that become springs of clear nourishing spiritual water for others. If we can become patient and compassionate when we understand we don’t entirely know what is going on, then we can help those who are living in fear and anger. None of us really know why people adopt conspiracy theories. There are likely many reasons, more emotional than intellectual. Conspiracy theories rarely project a message of love and compassion. Instead, they imagine monsters. And that suggests that deep down, there are wounds that need healing that existed before the conspiracy theory came along.  

What is clear is that these alternate views of reality create a sense of empowerment and community. The hecklers who have been drowning out politicians have been arriving in groups. They find the membership in a society of fellow believers comforting. But that desire for community suggests that the emotional root is one of loneliness and a sense of being powerless. Like a child who is ignored even abused by someone they trust. That may be why the image of politicians as pedophiles has taken off. It feels true to them.  

In his letter, James suggests that Christian teachers adopt a stance of understanding, not rejection. Through our compassionate acts, we can be examples of another way of dealing with a mysterious universe. We can respond with a sense of awe towards the universe, and compassion towards other fellow confused humans. We can recognize that we do not fully know why others have adopted alternate realities, motivated by fear and anger. But instead of responding with rejection, perhaps we could try patience. That beneath the slogans and the heckling, there are people who are hurting, who are lonely, who feel powerless. So instead of rejecting them as write offs, or cancelling them, we can keep an open mind and heart. If you know someone who has gone down one of these rabbit holes, I think James would recommend that you don’t shun them, but model compassion. Show your faith in works of patience. If the key problem is loneliness and fear, then the answer is love and inclusion. Will they suddenly drop their rocks and stop posting pseudo information? Not right away. But when all of this is over, they may remember who kept talking to them even when they disagreed most. They may remember those who kept in touch, even when they got sick with a disease they swore did not exist.  

And that may be what helps them bridle their tongue, and find hope again.