Since Christmas Day of 2020, I have been without parents or grandparents. Mom was the last one to go. For most of 2020, her already frail condition worsened under the lockdown imposed by her assisted living facility. By the end of the year, she contracted and then succumbed to COVID, having no strength for the fight.
Mom believed in Jesus; she had prayed to receive him as her savior back in the 1970s. But her relationship with God was complicated by her relationship to her mother. Grandma may have been small of stature, but she was a force to be reckoned with. She was a devout woman, though I sometimes had the impression that she was more devoted to her favorite televangelists than to God.
Back in China, before the family emigrated to the U.S., Mom would often find Grandma kneeling in prayer, speaking earnestly with God. Then, as Mom would tell it, Grandma would get up, turn around, and strike my mother in the face for some offense. It took Mom a long time to begin separating her feelings toward God from her feelings toward her mother.
In truth, I don’t think she ever fully accomplished it.
Many of us probably have similar stories to tell. It may not have been our parents, but someone else in authority, someone we were supposed to look up to for spiritual and moral guidance. It may even have been a beloved pastor, someone we admired for their wisdom.
Then came the day we began to realize that the public persona didn’t match the private reality. Or perhaps we found ourselves still basking in the glow of a brilliant and moving Sunday sermon when we heard the pastor say something that struck us as mean-spirited, arrogant, abusive, or racist. We ignored it at first; everyone has a bad day, right? But over time, the examples mounted, leaving us in a spiritual quandary.
As we are learning from James, words matter, and this is doubly so for people in Christian leadership. In the most picturesque of terms, James sketches the evils of the uncontrolled tongue: it’s a spark that can burn down a whole forest; it’s a fire lit by the flames of hell; it’s full of deadly poison. Then, momentarily leaving the realm of metaphor, he gives an example from the life of the church:
With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, made in the likeness of God. (James 3:9, NRSVUE)
Many of us engage in what one might call “churchspeak”: a vocabulary and way of speaking that functions like a local dialect. It’s the way we speak at church, and sometimes nowhere else. For example, in a secular organization someone might simply say, “You’re fired.” In churchspeak, however, that might translate to, “We’ve prayed about it, and believe that God is calling you to a new opportunity to serve elsewhere.” Is this an honest statement of what came from earnestly seeking God’s guidance on a difficult matter? Or is it an attempt to hide our motives behind overtly pious language?
James, I believe, is calling attention to the gap between the seemingly spiritual words we use in public and the angry or demeaning words we use in private. Is the solution, then, just to be more careful about what we say? Sort of. But not just as a behavioral self-improvement program; I think James also wants us shift our perspective.
We know from the creation story that humans were made in the image and likeness of God. This, if taken seriously, should fill us with awe. As C. S. Lewis once said, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” But do our words reflect that reality, that understanding? Or do we speak with contempt, and use words to put people in their place? A place, in fact, that is below us?
If we want to change the way we speak to others, we might begin by changing the way we see others. When we’re upset with someone, it’s easy to treat them as the enemy, as someone who needs to be corrected or moved out of the way. But James insists that the people we’re angry at, or talk down to, or even curse are all created in God’s image. Each and every one.
And so are we. Let’s try acting accordingly.