Category Archives: Angry Speech

Blessed are the Peacemakers in a Culture at War

In this time of social division and strife, when tempers simmer just below the boiling point and violent speech edges closer to action, how should Jesus’ disciples conduct themselves? I use the term “disciple” rather than “Christian” because some who think of themselves as “Christians” don’t seem to be aware that being a disciple—a real follower!—of Jesus is the indispensable condition of being a Christian. Do I need to prove that this is so? Well, then, recall the words of Jesus after he washed his disciples’ feet:

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:13-17).

Or the words of John the beloved disciple:

“But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:5-6).

Or Paul’s oft-quoted plea for unity and humility grounded in Christ’s example of self-emptying:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-5).

Again I ask, how should disciples of Jesus conduct themselves in this age of division and strife? The answer to this question is not complicated. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays it out plainly. Be humble, meek, and merciful. Don’t speak evil to anyone or of anyone. Bless when others curse, love in situations where others hate, and seek peace when others foment strife. Pray, give generously, trust God, don’t seek honor, and don’t judge others.

In his seventh beatitude, Jesus says,

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

What would it mean to be a peacemaker in a culture at war? Sometimes we harbor an image of peacemakers as those who step courageously between combatants, placing themselves in harm’s way for the sake of peace. In my view, this is a romantic and heroic picture that is just as likely to lead the “peacemaker” to an inflated and uber-righteous self-concept as to any real peacemaking. Perhaps we ought to begin our peacemaking with less fanfare. The first qualification of peacemakers is that they refrain from contributing to strife. Less romantic and heroic I grant, but essential nonetheless! Our first inclination when we think someone has insulted us or something we hold dear is to return fire. And when we disagree with a strong opinion expressed we feel the urge to “set the record straight.” Jesus urges us to not to be provoked. Truth is truth, justice is justice, and God is God even if the whole world rises up in blasphemy. The survival of civilization doesn’t depend on your sharp-tongued retort. Often, the greatest contribution to peace we can make is to hold our peace.

After we’ve learned the lesson of self-control, we can also contribute to peace by substituting blessing for cursing. Genuine peacemakers look for something good to say, some area of common belief or value to affirm with their would-be opponents. They do kind or merciful deeds instead of retaliating for insult or injury. They go “the second mile” (Matthew 5:41).

Here is the secret of the peacemaker: you cannot become a peacemaker until you attain peace within yourself. You cannot “hold your peace” unless you are at peace. You cannot give peace unless you have peace. Outbursts of anger and episodes of strife are but externalizations of division and strife within. Only by relying on God for forgiveness, acceptance, self-worth, and hope can we become immune to insult and provocation from without. Only by trusting God to judge the world with justice can we give up the anxiety that without our words of protest truth will languish. Only by giving the world into God’s care can we give up the feeling that without our frantic actions the world will fall apart.

In a culture at war with itself let us say it again, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

 

Please Don’t Say Everything You Think!

 

Today, in a world ablaze, I say to myself, to other Christians, and to all people of good will: “Please, please do not say everything you think.” Our minds and memories are full of evil, selfish, petty, and blasphemous thoughts.  Who is without sin? Who will deny it? When I was young I thought Jesus’ teaching against swearing applied only to certain words or perhaps to the act of placing yourself under a curse. Don’t use God’s name except in reverence, don’t say “Jesus Christ!” or “Damn!” But I did not notice verse 37, which I have emphasized below:

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).

Verse 37 condemns and warns against speaking a single word designed to wound or express anything other than respect, love, and truth or do anything other than good. We think many hateful, prejudiced, selfish thoughts. Don’t say them! Once you do, they will escape your control and take on a life of their own; and they will eventually turn on you.

When I was a teen I loved the Book of James. Perhaps it was because I felt such a need for wisdom. Life is so complicated and living in human society presents so many difficulties. James’ extensive instructions about the use of speech grabbed my attention. I have since that time tried (and often failed!) to put into practice James 1:19-20:

19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires (James 1:19-20).

James nails it. Anger makes its first external appearance in speech! James urges us to listen, get the whole story, allow reason, wisdom, and common sense experience teach us what to say, if anything at all. Don’t speak when angry. Better yet, learn where anger comes from and deal with the root problem. As I said in a previous post, anger is a reaction to insult. But Jesus told us to bless those who curse us. How can we do this? It can be done only if we refuse to be insulted, because we are clear that our dignity depends on God’s love and not the momentary thoughts of other human beings.

I heard many sermons on James 3:1-12, which is one of the most extensive discussions of the dangers of speech in the New Testament. And those preachers were right to preach often on this text. The power of words is deceptive. They are so easy to utter! But they can unleash hell, war, and murder:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (James 3:1-12).

Oh, how we love to express our opinions, prejudices, and fancies…especially on religion and politics! We love the sound of our own voices! For the moment we feel as wise as our words boast. The tongue is so close to the brain and takes so little energy to operate. It works almost automatically. James warns us that teaching is a serious act. Teachers will be judged with stricter judgment. We don’t get off the hook by claiming that we are not “official” teachers. In any act of teaching in any context from a casual conversation to a blog post to a Facebook comment we should take seriously our responsibility to tell the truth and do something good. The tongue is so difficult to control that James uses self-control in speech as the gold standard measurement of maturity. Learn to discipline your speech and you will have learned to control every other impulse and passion.

A fire! A fire sparked by hell’s flames! That is what James calls uncontrolled speech. Thought is an internal act while speech is an external act. Speech is the gateway through which the demons within escape into the world to spread their poison. Oh, how sweet it is to let the poison out! Keep the gate shut! Let reason and wisdom, the twin guards, do their work.

In a culture where we can speak to the whole world through the media at our finger tips, allow me to say it again: “Please, please don’t say everything you think!” Don’t say it yourself, and don’t “like” or “share” any words you would not say yourself. Liking or sharing or forwarding anything that violates Jesus’ and James’ teaching is just the same as saying it yourself. We are not less guilt of a crime because we get someone else to do it for us. Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no”. Bless and do not curse!