“Lawful” speech

What’s moral? What’s legal? Unfortunately, we live in a culture in which the former is increasingly defined by the latter, instead of the other way around. Whether we consider ourselves politically conservative or liberal (the terms themselves are convenient but often part of the problem), our inability to have civil conversations across the divide sets us to wrangling about the law. If we can’t bring others around to our moral point of view, we’ll legislate it instead.

And when someone takes offense at something we’ve said or done, our self-righteous but deeply cynical response is often, “So sue me.” It’s just an expression, of course; we’re not actually inviting someone to file a lawsuit. But it says something about our cultural ethos: If there’s no law against it, there’s no valid argument against it either.

James, I think, would be mystified by this way of thinking.

James, as we’ve seen, lovingly but forcefully commands believers to stop slandering one another. In a court of law today, if Joe sued John for slander, he would have to prove that what John said was both untrue and damaged Joe’s reputation. James, too, wants believers to stop saying injurious things about each other. But his point isn’t that what they’re saying is untrue; it’s that their slanderous behavior is against the law. Here are his words again, this time from the Common English Bible:

Brothers and sisters, don’t say evil things about each other. Whoever insults or criticizes a brother or sister insults and criticizes the Law. If you find fault with the Law, you are not a doer of the Law but a judge over it. (James 4:11, CEB)

Which “law” does James have in mind? Unlike many other translations, the CEB chooses to capitalize the word, implying that James is thinking not of a specific statute, but the whole of the Mosaic Law. That’s consistent with the way he uses the word elsewhere in the letter.

But more specifically, James may be referring to what he earlier called the “royal law”: Love your neighbor as yourself (2:8; cf. Lev 19:18). This is yet another echo of the words of Jesus, who taught that the entire thrust of the law could be summarized as the command to love God with all one’s being, and one’s neighbor as oneself.

We regularly engage in defamation, maligning other people’s intentions and character, as if we could read their minds. Our assumptions and interpretations could easily be wrong — then again, of course, they could also be right. But again, James isn’t chiding believers because their words are untrue; rather, their words are in violation of the royal law because they’re unloving.

The whole thrust of James’ letter is that authentic faith is embodied not simply by hearing the law, but doing it. And doing the law of love includes the way we speak. We may think our words are permissible simply because they’re true. We may implicitly internalize the cultural attitude that we can do whatever we want as long as there’s no law against it on the books.

But James wants the Christian community to think differently, to act differently. There’s an intrinsic arrogance to much of what we say about each other. Instead of doing the law, we inadvertently put ourselves above the law — indeed, James insists, we make ourselves out to be judges of the law.

Wait: I’m judging the law? But I believe Jesus when he says that loving God and loving my neighbor are the greatest commandments. How can I be “judging” the law?

We’ll explore that in the next post.

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