Monthly Archives: September 2021

Talk damage

There is an unresolved issue about how to deal with hate speech on social media. People say online what they would not say in person, whatever the situation. Yet free speech is an important freedom, and once you begin to limit it beyond provable slander or clear misinformation, the road to big brother control is open.

It is not only hate speech. Much racism is encouraged, even taught by things said. Similarly body shaming relies on what is said. There is no doubt that what people say can, and does, cause a great deal of harm.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that James, with his insistence on practical, down-to-earth faith, talks repeatedly about good, and bad, speech. In James 3:1-12 he seems almost despairing: Words may seem small, but have a power almost beyond imagining, and we so easily make mistakes with them. The tongue seems untamable, in a way which ought not to be.

He has already hinted that the wise way is to speak less readily (James 1:19: “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”), and that genuine faith has to tackle the issue of what is said. He will go on to give instructions about avoiding slander (James 4:11) and telling the truth (James 5:12). He makes it clear that there are no shortcuts. The only way to sort our speech is to let our lives be sorted. When God has worked over our attitudes, ambitions, jealousies – and all the rest – only then will our words be reliably loving and patient. Of course, it is not a fast process, and none of us can claim to have finished, but it is encouraging to know that it is part of the agenda.

And, working backwards, that is why becoming a teacher of the faith is dangerous. Teachers will be judged more severely. The more they know, the more they should show progress in their lives – and not only when they know they are “in public”. It is a sobering thought for anyone who has ever led a Christian group or preached a sermon. They know the theory that explaining the gospel should help some come closer to God, even though some will find the cost of discipleship too great. The should also be aware that those who see and hear may end up saying (I think like Ghandi) “I like your Christ, but not your Christians”.

Words can be wonderful, words can be terrible. Only when the words, and the person speaking them, are fully directed by the Holy Spirit can they fail to show the faults of the speaker alongside the best of the message. This isn’t big brother control, it is a willing partnership to show the love of God.

Just do it!

Discrimination is Out. Increasingly it’s illegal. You mustn’t make assumptions about people who are a certain colour, a certain age, or who turn up in a wheelchair – and that’s good. Christians should benefit from religious tolerance.

On the other hand, to check your tax return find somebody who can add up; to tackle the hard work in your garden, somebody over 7 stone (50 Kg); to diagnose your illness someone good at medicine, and to cook the meal you eat out, somebody discriminating.

James is talking (we read James 2:1-17) to a community of Jewish Christians where the rich get better treatment than the poor. He won’t have it, for both are Christian neighbours. It seems that while they give the poor a hard time, they also suffer being bullied or persecuted by the rich v6. Is that relevant to us? Our communities vary – but you might like to think how money complicates international Christian relations! Theology can be bent by sponsorship offers.

James goes on talk about the command to “love your neighbour as yourself”. Then points out that it is no good to be loving in one way while forgetting another. Christian living is not about doing the bits you like and forgetting the rest. It is no use not murdering if you’re a professional thief, being proud of not committing adultery if you regularly lie about other people. It all matters, including how we treat the poor. There’s no “balance” of failure and success – but a great need for mercy, on our part, as well as our judge’s.

Finally, the test of faith. Do they believe, these people James writes to? He doesn’t want words, if they believe, it’ll show. Real faith is not about measuring passion, but about converting into obedience. “Sincerity” is not about a style of self-presentation, or carefully crafted words. To want to do as Jesus did, to live like him and imitate him, needs motivation. Real faith motivates; if we expect to get away with fine sentiments, the faith is fake.

This is no evangelistic letter; James is not going to run through basic Christian beliefs or outline the gospel. What he wants to make sure is that people who live as a Christian community should behave as a Christian community. Not hot air, but hot meals for the hungry, not fine words about Jesus, but the hard work of obeying him and becoming like him. It is a searching test, and too often churches in the past have been marked as failing by the communities in which they live.