Speak no evil

Somehow, it never ceases to amaze and even pain me: friends whom I know and trust as folks of sound mind and character fall into seemingly irreconcilable misunderstandings. There have been times I’ve been concerned enough about the rift to have separate conversations with each party. We sit down to chat over lunch or coffee — and I get two opposite stories of what happened. Many of the details are the same, but the interpretations of who started it and who’s at fault are wildly different.

Even when the same behavior is being described, it takes on either a heroic or a villainous aspect depending on who’s telling the story. The storyteller maligns the other person’s character, even if not maliciously. Still, the seed is planted. I can be left wondering, Do I really know this person? Do I know either of them?

Legally, we wouldn’t call it slander. But the apostle James may have other ideas.

We’ve seen in previous posts how for James, the way up is down; the path to exaltation and blessing, as modeled and taught by Jesus, runs through humility. We’ve also seen how James pays particular attention to the damage wrought by words. The flames of conflict in the church were sparked by people’s selfish desires and ambition, and were fanned by the way they spoke to one another.

James continues that line of thought:

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another speaks evil against the law and judges the law, but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. (James 4:11, NRSVUE)

James uses “speak evil against” three times in this one verse; in the Greek, it’s a single word. Considering the rest of what he says in the letter, James certainly views the behavior as evil, worldly, even demonic — but here, he doesn’t actually use the word “evil.” The verb means to “speak against,” and is often translated as “slander.”

I think it’s important to note that, because I suspect most of us would want to hold the word “evil” at arm’s length. Oh, sure, I know I speak out of turn sometimes. I even say things I shouldn’t. Who doesn’t? But I certainly don’t think my words are “evil.” That’s a bit strong.

But here’s the question: would we say that we never “speak against” others? That we never say things to put them down or paint them in a bad light?

Let’s go back to the kind of unfortunate misunderstandings I described earlier. We feel hurt by someone else. When we ruminate on the situation, we ascribe negative motivations to the other person. And if we tell the story to someone else, we engage in a bit of character assassination; again, we tell the story in a way that makes us heroic and the other person villainous.

Note that we may do this in good conscience (more or less), automatically assuming that we’ve interpreted the situation correctly (more or less). We do this even if we haven’t actually had an explicit conversation with the other person about how we’ve taken their words and behavior: When you said this, I took it to mean this. Have I misunderstood something?

All of this, of course, is typical self-protective human behavior. But James wants us to understand how, through our words, we can exalt ourselves at someone else’s expense. The people in the church have been slandering their sisters and brothers in Christ. And although James doesn’t say it, I suspect that everyone who was doing so assumed they were in the right.

Quite the contrary, James suggests: those who speak against their fellow Christians are in fact lawbreakers.

Which law did James have in mind? We’ll explore that in the next post.