The letter of James is full of practical wisdom and this current section begins with advice for those who teach. These remarks begin in a measured tone but very quickly rush into a cascade of images that uses the most evocative language found in this letter. Speaking about speech becomes an exhilarating verbal exploration of the exploits of the tongue, set alight with expressive power! This tumbling rhetoric is urgently seeking to demonstrate the capacity of the tongue for good and for evil: ‘the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits’ (James 3:5 NRSV).
The author is restless to find an adequate metaphor for this dangerous and dancing organ, needing to be bridled like a powerful horse through the mouth, or operating like a tiny rudder on a large ship, or able to set aflame a whole forest. Speech, the author warns, can be a spring of water, a fruit tree, or a reservoir for drinking water. The alarming summary is that the tongue has enormous potential for destruction: ‘It stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell’ (3:6 NRSV).
The urgency evidenced in this passage points to the underlying anxiety of the writer. The author wants the audience to taste on their own tongue the dangers and delights being described, and in turn to curb them before they get out of control. We may recognize in our own contexts such anxieties as they are part of the media-saturated environment in which we now live, where we debate freedom of speech and live within the noise of political spin and ‘fake news’.
Emmanuel Garibay’s painting depicting the delight of gossip points to the seductive power of secrets. It invites an awareness of the processes of discernment that are required to know when to speak and then to know when not to speak. A speech can gain short term power for the speaker and yet render permanent injury to the one spoken about, or in turn even the speaker, through a retribution in kind. All it takes is a word! Garibay draws attention to that moment where words become a morsel that feeds a hungry vacuum for information, serving to empower the listener, above any appeal to truth or objectivity. ‘Biting the tongue’ is a phrase that well describes the moment where wisdom chooses silence as the best form of speech.
It is often through speaking that we reveal our innermost selves. Through a joke or a ‘slip of the tongue’, we reveal the deeper drives and passionate struggles of human responses. It is a site where the logic of rational speech is undercut by the slur of passion and unconscious awareness. Warren Breninger’s disturbing symphony of wagging tongues invite us to look in the mirror to acknowledge the deeper drives that infiltrate a well-mannered exterior of eloquent phrases. We are open, woundedly so, vulnerable, and yet also capable of profound delicacy through a simple stretch of our lips that leaps into the heart of another, as a sign of love.
We live in a media-driven culture where words proliferate. It requires diligence listening to identify those who have been rendered silent. In a sophisticated society lauding the capacity for communication there are still those who are bridled, who wear masks that silence their voices from agency in the world they inhabit. The cruel practices of an era that is past are a reminder of the current practices of limiting the freedom of people who are labelled as different. For some it is a time to be unbridled, for tongues to be let loose, for irrationality to consume the neat logic of oppression.
For those living in this media-driven context, discernment is essential in all the realms of speech, in both our private and our public lives. In modern Western societies, the Christian faith tends to be relegated to the realms of the private spaces of family and individual ethics. But when the letter of James asks ‘does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?’ (James 3:11 NRSV), the question pushes us into the public spaces where water is nourishment for all, and where the common good is established.
Unfortunately, the public square is where comfortable words have become the norm. In terms of our common future, we ask the question, should we accept the advice that everything is ‘OK’, or are we in a period of crisis, that needs both our words and our actions?
Today is sometimes a day for speaking, and sometimes, it is a day for silence. Only wisdom will know the difference.
3Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness. 2For we all make many mistakes, and if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. 7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, 8but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? 12Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.