December 11, 2018
‘Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger,’ is a verse from the New Testament that many Christians will be familiar with, and many who attend church that follow the schedule of readings called the Lectionary will have heard read recently. It’s one of a great number of verses about how we speak and listen that make it pretty clear that the New Testament writers share the conviction that God seeks to create a kind of counter-culture within our host culture that stands out by the graciousness of its speech patterns.
The First Letter of Peter admonishes Christians when they speak of their religion to do it with gentleness and respect, and reminds Christians that when Christ was mistreated no evil was found on his lips, no lashing out, and no threats of revenge. Paul said to the church at Ephesus to speak the truth when confronting someone, but to speak the truth in love. And he urged the Corinthians to think carefully about the truth that many things may be permissible to say, but not all things are helpful. And, back to James, he counseled his hearer to be “pure” in speech, “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits.”
Christians have not lived up to these ideals, we know, and this shows the incompleteness of our conversion. But at least two things deserve mention here. First, the kind of gracious speech depicted is not a religious matter as religion is so often thought of. New Testament faith is not just about what is on the other side of the stars, what brought the world into being, and what happens at the end of life. It is about all these things, but also about the very practical matter that make up wise –and I would say—beautiful living. Gracious speech is a self-evident enhancement of life at its most basic level. It’s part of love.
Second, the New Testament vision is counter-cultural. I read in the morning papers today that The Washington Post has handed out four Pinnochios to a politician who redacted an opponent’s position to say the exact opposite of what that opponent actually said. Each Pinnochio is awarded, as a demerit, for the extent to which the truth is stretched. I read an article that calls a rural school board racketeers and I call to mind the many improbable comparisons in the media of this or that person to the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Carelessness, malice, tones that are shrill and snarky, an appalling lack of respect, these are things that increasingly and sadly are part of our civic patterns. While there is much to be upset about with the current shape of the world, the ugly shape of our discourse only adds another, and unnecessary, problem. We don’t have to yell. We don’t have to speak over one another. The New Testament vision of humanizing speech is worth striving for—the redemption of talking in a way that is helpful, that builds up, that finds a way forward.