Proper 19B/Ordinary 24B/Pentecost 16
September 16, 2012
“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” – (James 3:5)
Normally, I’m not a big fan of the Epistles (the letters from Paul and James to the early Church), but I thought the letter from James this week was particularly apt, given current world events.
In this letter to the early Church, James starts out talking about the high standards that (religious) teachers are called to, but then goes into a general meditation on the perils of the untamed tongue. First, he compares the tongue to a bridle on a horse or a rudder on a large ship, in terms of its ability to control human behavior (for better or worse). He then states states flatly that “the tongue is a fire” (vv.6) that can set ablaze entire forests. He then meditates on the inherently evil nature of the tongue, calling it “a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell” (vv.6). There are not many members of the body (including THAT one) that the Bible calls out in so direct a way.
In the time of James, then, careless speech had the power to take a peaceful community (like a forest) and set it on fire. When we think about how the Internet amplifies the power of speech – enabling us to speak to the world at the touch of a button – James’ warning about the tongue becomes particularly timely. I am sure we have all had the experience of hitting “Reply All,” impulsively sending an e-mail, and then wishing desperately we could crawl through the computer to drag the message back …
The power of the Internet to amplify speech becomes even more dangerous when the individuals doing the “talking” intentionally sow discord and strife. We have all seen the results of the riots outside American embassies around the globe, sparked by the release of a film called “Innocence of Muslims,” reportedly made by a Coptic Christian American in California, which ridicules Muslims and the prophet Mohammad (Washington Post story on the film here). In Benghazi, Libya, American ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other people were killed when the embassy was attacked and overrun. While some authorities think the attack was premeditated, rather than spontaneous anger at the film, the chaos sparked by the film certainly would have given the alleged planners cover for their attack.
Freedom of speech is a treasured right under the US Constitution. Part of the underpinning of a vital democracy is that its citizens are free to express themselves on any topic they see fit, without fear of retaliation or censorship. However, there is a fine line between voicing an opinion on a subject and dropping a lit match on a pile of explosives. Yes, the militants in Libya (and elsewhere) could have chosen not to engage in violence, and should be condemned for failing to do so. However, it is also possible to freely choose civility in our speech and in our conduct on the World Wide Web. Censorship is not the answer, but then again, neither is a world in which we are constantly assaulted by inflammatory hate speech. Let’s freely choose civility. Don’t drop the match.