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Talking Like A Christian

Detail from pulpit in St. Peter's Church, Daylesford, England. (photo: rogbi200 via Flickr)

(The following is an excerpt from the sermon I preached yesterday entitled “Talking Like A Christian.”  It was preached as much to myself as to anyone else.)

It’s not hard for us to imagine that these words from the third chapter of James were written for us: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. It stains the whole body. No one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” We can certainly say that the body that is our nation has been stained by many of the harsh words that have been said over the course of the last week, and over the course of the last few years – as we’ve seen political discourse become more heated, and more tinged with violent thoughts, than it has ever been in my memory, and perhaps in yours, too.

What started as a small fire has steadily grown, and now the blaze is threatening to consume us. My concern – and perhaps I’m being overly dramatic – but my concern is that the shooting in Arizona, instead of uniting our country, is going to further inflame our speech, and that we’ll see more and more of this type of tragedy.

Again, this concern isn’t based on whether Loughner was influenced by the heated political environment. What matters is that his actions, done for whatever reason, are influencing the heated political environment. And depending on the type of speech that is used in response, that influence will be either a path to more violence, or one that moves us closer to peace.

So the tongue, in an individual sense, or in the sense of our collective national discourse, the tongue can have either a negative or a positive influence. It can set a forest on fire, but it can also help put that fire out. This is what James means when he says,“With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

As we think about the way Christians are called to respond in the face of this tragedy, and as we struggle with how to reflect the presence of Christ in this heated political climate, these words of James are critical. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

Because first and foremost, we care called not to curse, not to pour more gasoline on the fire. We are called to resist the temptation to engage in speech that demeans, divides, and destroys, no matter how much people around us might be doing it. This can be a very difficult thing to do, especially when we’re talking about political and social issues that are very important, that have very real impacts on our lives. If someone we disagree with is using inflammatory speech to advance their cause, why shouldn’t we? Why let them have that advantage?  . . .

This is when its so important for us to remember the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, the words that Jill read earlier. “Do not resist an evildoer.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Love your enemies and pray for those persecute you.” During times of heated national rhetoric is when it might be hardest for us to follow these commands, when it is hardest for us not to return a harsh word with another harsh word – but this is when it’s most necessary.

For the heart of what Jesus is saying – that two wrongs don’t make a right – is also at the heart of what James is saying. And what better analogy than that of a fire? For you don’t put out a fire by throwing more fuel on it. And you don’t make peace by using hateful, inflammatory rhetoric. We can consider the teachings of both James and Jesus to be a clear cease and desist order against any words that are said in order to demean, divide, or destroy.

But that’s not all that they’re teaching us. Remember that James says that “from the same mouth comes blessing and cursing.” Remember that the tongue can have either a negative or a positive influence. This means that the Christian response to acts of violence, and the Christian response to heated political rhetoric, is not just to be quiet. As the world around us demeans, divides, and destroys, the answer is not to sit back and keep our mouths shut.

Therefore, we are called not only to refrain from adding fuel to the fire. We are also called to do whatever we can to put the fire out, and to help build something more constructive and more peaceful in its place. This calling is especially strong in times when the peace of Christ might be harder to find. When the flames of demeaning, dividing, and destruction are burning hottest are the times when Christians are called upon the most to speak up.

In recent history, perhaps no one exemplifies this concept better than Martin Luther King, Jr, whose birthday we signify this week. King had this to say in 1957 about the Montgomery bus boycott and about the ways Christians are called to speak out boldly for peace and justice without fueling the fire or hatred and discord. He said this:

We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence. This method is nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.

Another thing that we had to get over was the fact that the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. This was always a cry that we had to set before people that our aim is not to defeat the white community, not to humiliate the white community, but to win the friendship of all of the persons who had perpetrated this system in the past. The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community.

So if we understand Dr. King’s words about nonviolent, but spiritually aggressive work for peace and justice. And if we heed the admonition of James that the tongue can be an instrument of blessing as well as destruction. And if we obey the command of Christ to love our enemies instead of matching them tooth for tooth and eye for eye, then we discover a clear roadmap for how we are to talk as a Christian – how we are to be the presence and the body of Christ in a world that displays so much hate and violence.

Talking like a Christian means avoiding any speech that demeans, divides, or destroys. Talking like a Christian means refusing to vote for politicians or listen to political commentators if they use speech that demeans, divides, or destroys. And most of all, talking like a Christian in a heated political environment means more than just talking. It means actually getting out there and doing good, positive, and constructive things in the world. It means showing the love of Christ in both word and deed.

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Jim Moss

Jim Moss