On how Christians ought not allow their words to be controlled by any Worldly Power, and how every Christian ought to be multilingual—fluent in both the language of the World and the language of the Church.
My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.
For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.
Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.
For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.
Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?
Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.
The lesson is in a section on teaching. Specifically, on teaching disciples. It is found in a book of wisdom for living the Christian life in a heathen world. More than being an inspiration to keep our words kind, this passage begins with a premise that words are powerful—capable of creating a reality that did not exist before they were spoken. Words guide our lives and determine the course of events for better or worse. So much so that if anyone could completely master words then they would become perfect.
In the beginning, God spoke a Word and brought creation out of chaos. For us and for our salvation, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. With a word, Christ withered the fig tree that would bear no fruit. With a word, Christ called Lazarus from the grave. The words of God have creative power that brings to reality that which was not before. We, who are created in the image of God, have a power in our words to create or destroy, to build up or tear down, to bless or curse. Our words change reality. This is true for any person, but it is true in a qualitatively different way for the brethren. Our words either steer the course of our life through holiness to safe harbor, or they “defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature.” The Author does not seem to present a middle choice.
Three anecdotes from my personal memory that I consider cogent. If you do not care for anecdotes, then skip down.
I remember the report of an airliner from Latin America coming into a U.S. airport while dangerously low on fuel. The co-pilot, who spoke English, radioed ahead for a priority clearance which was acknowledged by the controller. The airliner was placed on a path which took too long. The plane crashed killing all on board. The voice recorder revealed a conversation in Spanish where the pilot is asking the co-pilot if the controller understood they were asking for an emergency landing. The co-pilot assured him that was the case. It was not. The word the co-pilot used in English was “priority” not “emergency.” In brief, priority means when we start bringing planes down, we will put you in the front of the line. Emergency means we are willing to bulldoze the runway if we must bring you down now. Two words. Two different realities. In one reality over a hundred people are dead. Words matter.
When I worked in import/export in the 1980s, I had a conversation with a manufacturer’s rep just back from Central America. I do not recall if it was El Salvador or Nicaragua. The two countries were in similar states of upheaval at the time. When he got to his hotel, he noticed the charts for his presentation had not arrived with his luggage, so he went out in search of some large sheets of newsprint that he could use to make some hasty improvisations. No one could sell him blank newsprint without a license. He also discovered that he could not buy photocopy paper or access a photocopier. In this same country, he spoke of driving past groups of children with fully automatic rifles and hand-held rocket launchers. He thought it bizarre that a country that could control newsprint could not keep military grade weapons out of the hands of children. I did not find it strange at all. A country in upheaval has limited police powers. They must choose how they are deployed. The Junta knew what every Christian ought to know. A bullet can penetrate only one heart: words are much more powerful.
During one of the many Middle East melees of the 80s the U.S. government complained to Saudi Arabia because they were allowing foreign armies to cross their border to join the fight. The Saudis responded with the plausible deniability argument that their frontier was too vast and remote to constantly patrol. This same government was quite adept at spotting a covert shipment of Bibles or noticing the sounds of a Christian hymn coming from an apartment. When you cannot hear tanks rumbling across the countryside but can detect the sound of a hymn in a three-story walkup then you know that the words of a Christian hymn can be more devastating to worldly power than an armored division.
The words of God present two realities: one of eternal life and one of eternal death. The words of God penetrate every heart. The words of God describe life in the Kingdom of God and are devastating to worldly power.
The Word of God has a vocabulary. The vocabulary of Church contains words for which there is no secular equivalent. Some of our words would not exist if it were not for Christ. Many of our words have secular meanings which are different from or contrary to their Christian meaning. We even differentiate between God/god, Passion/passion, Charity/charity. Our words may be represented by different symbols and sounds in the several earthly languages of the Church, but the meanings are the same.
Christian language sounds strange and is often difficult to understand. It is understandable that we will be tempted to alter the complex word to make it more understandable or the hard word to make it softer. When we yield to that temptation, however, we run the risk of making perfectly clear that which God has left a mystery and making a mystery of that which God has made perfectly clear. When we truly encounter God’s words then it is not only the visiting heathen, but also the baptized resident who may find the ideas strange and difficult to understand.
Should we acquiesce to worldly powers or secular sensitivities to restrict our vocabulary then we have placed their bit in our mouth. We will be steered in the direction of the world. One cannot communicate the sacred while restricted to the language of the profane anymore than one can describe a rainbow while avoiding any term that represents color.
Worldly powers will always have subjects that they would rather Christians avoid. They will always have words that they would ask us to steer away from. They are always ready to offer substitute words for the ones we are given. However we may respond in the public space (that is an upcoming discussion), we do not take wear that bridle in our pulpits or our classes. Whether the person imploring you to do so is a politician or priest, run from them as fast as you would if confronted by the very demons who inspired them. Whatever James meant when he said of teachers that. “we shall receive the greater condemnation,” I suspect it has something to do with the idea that we shall receive the greater condemnation.
If we are to take on a bit or a yoke, then let it be Christ’s. Let his words be the ones that create our reality and steer the course of our life together.
I think we will stop there for today. The matter is weighty and seems best presented in small servings. God willing, another day will allow us to continue.