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Sunday, September 16, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
Taming the Tongue
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
The tongue is only one half of one percent of the total weight of my body, but that little one pound of flesh in my mouth can control the whole direction of my life.
Edward F. Markquart
We live in a time in which there is much dispute about what is truth and what are lies, what is important information for public awareness and what is slanderous. Fact-checking commences after public speeches are made, and comments are quickly posted or aired in response. All this flurry reminds me of a children’s rhyme we probably all have heard. It dates back to at least 1862. And it is a lie: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
This saying was probably taught to children so when other children called them names, they would ignore the taunt, refrain from retaliation, despite being bullied.
Though it is good not to retaliate harm with more harm, it’s simply not true that names—or other hurtful words—will never harm us. We all remember a time when we were hurt by what someone said to us. Maybe it was a derogatory comment about our ability or our appearance or a choice we made. Perhaps it was a racist or sexist remark. Maybe we have been labeled and attacked. Sometimes it is sarcasm. If you show you are hurt or angry, the other may say, “I was just joking.” But the damage has been done. Or you may not remember why but you don’t feel safe sharing your deepest thoughts. Sometimes harm comes from venting. We all need to let off steam now and then, but if we just gripe and don’t do anything, our negativity can spread like a virus. And then there’s gossip. You may find fun in gossiping—it can make you feel as if you are in the know or that you are better than someone else—but it also tarnishes others’ views of a person and violates their privacy.
The book of James says, “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. . . . The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. . . . No one can tame the human tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
These are strong words to warn about the harm we can do with our tongues. We see this in our daily lives. For example, take Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to seek reelection as mayor of Chicago. Family considerations were key, but so, too, was the reality that he would have to spend the next eight months in a bruising campaign that would feature attacks from all sides (Chicago Tribune, 5 September 2018). Words can hurt.
Then there was the recent Internet shaming that occurred with former Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens. A customer at Trader Joe’s recognized him as he was ringing up and bagging groceries, a job that probably pays around $11 an hour. Without even speaking to him, she snapped Owens’ picture and put it on the Internet. The Daily Mail ran the photo and wrote a condescending article about him that elicited a viral firestorm. Fortunately most comments in response were “Why is this a big deal?” But it still raises the question, “What has prompted us, when we see people going about their lives, to take their picture without their permission, post it for the world to see, and make comments about a situation we know nothing about?” The woman who did the initial posting later apologized profusely, and she herself experienced a backlash. People have called her nasty names. Someone Photoshopped devil horns on her head. So the woman accused of job-shaming became a victim of snoop-shaming.
Journalist Mitch Albom wrote about this saying,
And round and round we go with web outrage. Body-shaming. Parent-shaming. Money-shaming. Politics-shaming. It’s all part of a culture that is more interested in commenting on other people’s lives than taking care of its own. And it is all fueled by the Internet’s seductive but phony sense that you are doing something important by throwing another coal on a digital fire. . . . The [real] . . . shame is how we . . . continue to treat other people as curiosities rather than human beings. (Chicago Tribune, 11 September 2018)
Another example is our president’s response to revised statistics on how many people died in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. An independent study reported the death toll as close to 3,000, up from an initial report in the U.S. of 64. The president framed the revision upwards as false information promoted by Democrats to attack him. His reaction drew immediate criticism from elected officials and residents of Puerto Rico as well as in the United States. Ricardo Rosello, the current governor of Puerto Rico, wrote, “The victims of Puerto Rico, and the people of Puerto Rico in general, do not deserve to be questioned about their pain” (Chicago Tribune, 14 September 2018).
With the recent anonymous op-ed piece published by the New York Times and also the release of Bob Woodward’s book Fear—both of which raise concerns about what is happening behind the scenes in the White House—the president has called for stricter libel laws. He is not the first president to do so. President John Adams also couldn’t abide personal scorn. While Adams was president in 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The “Alien” part of the law allowed the government to deport immigrants and made it harder for naturalized citizens to vote. But the law mainly was designed to mute supporters of the opposition party led by Thomas Jefferson. The “Sedition” part of the law criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government. Critics were fined and jailed. Jefferson made opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts a major part of his presidential campaign in 1800. The Acts expired upon the end of Adams’ term as president. The newly elected President Jefferson pardoned everyone who had been convicted under that law, and later most fines were refunded. Jefferson said in his inaugural address that what was at stake was the right of citizens “to think freely and to speak and write what they think.” The First Amendment prohibits Congress from passing any law that abridges “the freedom of speech, or of the press,” and the Fourteenth Amendment extends that prohibition to the states. A Supreme Court case in 1961 laid down a federal rule requiring public officials—and later, public figures—to prove “actual malice” (Chicago Tribune, 12 September 2018).
These examples show how much harm our words can have, how much we value the freedom to say whatever we want, and how much we need to assess our motivations. They also point to our need to reflect on the impact of our words. If we are being critical, is it out of concern for the common good? Are we calling out injustice—which is a good thing—or are we merely being destructive, lashing out in vindication or fear? Constantly we need to ask ourselves—before we speak—does what I am about to say really benefit anyone?
So far I have talked about what we do say. But we also cause harm by what we don’t say. When you are in a group discussion and don’t share your minority perspective, or your misgivings, the group risks not making as good a decision. And remember the statement “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”? This is a line from the Erich Segal novel Love Story, which was popularized by its 1970 film adaptation. But it also is a lie. The opposite is true: love demands that we say we are sorry, that we apologize and seek forgiveness when we have hurt another. We need to speak words that lead to reconciliation and healing.
When we don’t say something to someone struggling because we don’t know what to say, they don’t know that we are thinking of them and that they are not alone. By what we don’t say, we miss opportunities to make others feel good about themselves and know they are loved. Mary Schmich wrote in Friday’s Chicago Tribune about National Write That Note Day. She encouraged readers to “write that note. . . . You know which note. The thank-you note. The apology. The congratulations or condolence note. The note of comfort to someone who’s been struggling” (Chicago Tribune, 14 September 2018). Maybe it’s a note to your elderly sister who has dementia, to tell her she was the best big sister ever. Maybe it’s a note to someone who recently learned they have cancer. Maybe it’s a note to medical staff to thank them for being there for you. Maybe it’s a note to someone who had a positive influence on your life, even years ago. Of course, phone calls are nice, too. And—as we are remembering this morning with the commissioning of our musicians—it is important to use our tongues to bless God.
Jesus taught that the first great commandment is that we love God with all we have and the second is that we love our neighbors as ourselves. Love means expressing gratitude, appreciation, admiration, affirmation, encouragement, solidarity, and comfort. May we use our tongues to express love to God and neighbor. May your words be a blessing, and not a curse. Amen.