CHOOSE TO BE BRIDLED
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
FIRST CENTURY CONTEXT
The dating, the authorship and the historical context of this letter are all matters of academic debate. I can only imagine the context by what James is speaking against. The first century church was full of competition and discord. Jesus was gone and there were many who claimed to speak with authority about what Jesus had taught. Jesus’ radical teaching that we are saved by grace challenged hundreds of years of religious thought that suggested we determine our status with God by our obedience. The Good News, however, raised an important real life predicament: If God already loves and forgives me, what incentive do I have to do good. After all, we have the promise that nothing can separate us from God’s love. James pushed against such thinking. He sought to intertwine faith and works—not separate them. On a variety of issues, he argues that if you are treating people badly, if you are sorting people by their secular position, power or appearance, you’ve missed the point of the Jesus Way. Gratitude and the desire to share God’s grace emerge from God’s promises. Complacency, entitlement, and self righteousness simply reveal you never received God’s gift in the first place.
WHO SPEAKS, WHAT YOU SAY AND HOW YOU SAY IT MATTERS
James uses this same standard when he talks about teachers and about speech. In the early church, there would have been many people claiming authority—and they often were diametrically opposed. Who should you listen to? What is reliable and what is fake news? The first and the twenty-first century are not so different.
Precisely because a teacher, a pastor, a parent or a president has positional authority, the guidance of such people carries more weight. James holds such people to a higher standard. He writes that teachers are even more accountable. Teachers must recognize that “all of us make many mistakes.” A good teacher is a humble teacher. Teachers must not only remember they are not infallible, they must also remember that our speech has an enormous impact on others. Seemingly small things, a bit in the mouth of a horse, a rudder on a sailing vessel direct and control large animals and large ships. In our century, our entire nation is in turmoil over who to believe about Covid 19. We question the efficacy of masks and the motives of the authorities trying to guide us. There have been so many people claiming authority, the nation is a politicized hodgepodge. The horse is running wild and the ship is buffeted by the winds. Words have divided.
On a much more personal level, we talked about words that influenced our lives. Ron Johnson spoke of a beloved geometry teacher who required his students to spend forty minutes a night working problems. Then his teacher added the words: “Somebody is always watching.” While those words could have been terrifying and guilt producing, they seemed to provide Ron with the reality of accountability. That awareness of accountability has been bedrock for his life. For others in the group, the same words, ‘somebody is always watching’ were more of a threat than a help. They spent decades fearing a God who was on the lookout for their misdeeds. The very same words had opposite impacts.
A constant difficulty in communication is the gap between what we mean and what is heard. A young boy adamantly refused to go to the viewing of his grandfather. The family was confused because the two had been quite close. Only later did they learn that his refusal was because he had been told they would be viewing the body. For the young boy, viewing the body meant his grandfather would be without his head. He did not want to view the headless body of his grandfather. In real life, the real danger is to think we understand or think we were clear without actually checking. Words are often misstated and often misunderstood—but they still guide the ship and direct the horse. James holds us accountable.
We live in an era of increasing diversity and change. We find ourselves being told that familiar patterns of speech and interaction that were once perfectly acceptable are offensive. The team name ‘Washington Redskins’ is racist; the word ‘retarded” is disrespectful. The pronouns we use do not reflect gender diversity and are not inclusive. The jokes we tell, we tell at our own risk. We must even be careful about how we refer to God. We can no longer use our personal standard and assume it applies to all. It is no wonder that there is such a backlash at political correctness. It exposes our narrow world view, it requires we adapt to the experience of others and it creates a much more difficult standard for mindfulness. In many ways these secular attempts to enforce regard reflect biblical injunctions:
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. …..36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6: 32-36)
In real life, scriptural expectations are often heard as judging oughts.
At its best political correctness is a way to be as intentionally inclusive as possible. As its worst it is just as judgmental as any epithet that is hurled at a minority. People of good will must be in a never ending process of discernment. It is hard to learn that our good intentions are not sufficient. We never would intentionally diminish others and it is painful to be told that we are part of the problem when we didn’t even know there was a problem in the first place. We do not have the obligation to always speak correctly but we do have the obligation to listen. That is a big ask and is particularly difficult when we feel depleted. We want consideration and care rather than offering it.
We do not like to have our limitations exposed—so we deflect and blame. We are likely to say other people are overreacting—to say they are too sensitive. We’re sorry they are hurt but they shouldn’t be angry. We’re good people with good intentions. They should understand and chill out. Unfortunately, all of those reactions interfere with relationships and community. They place the responsibility for change on the receiver and serve to minimize their complaints. This a process that applies to our spouses, our friends and to our nation.
We do not get to arbitrate what injures another. We must have the courage to be misunderstood—and still work to listen. At the very least we need to acknowledge that we do not have the willingness or energy to genuinely listen. But, in real life, that level of transparency is usually more than we can muster. Most of us get irritated at the vulnerability such effort requires and we wish these struggles would evaporate.
We must also keep in mind that there are many people who do not share the expectation that other people’s lives are as valuable as our own. Secularly, it is perfectly acceptable to seek your own advancement without real regard for others. Arguments focus upon ‘rights’ rather than what is the right thing to do. What is perceived as best for me is the only thing that counts. I will not wear a mask. If someone is offended, it’s their problem. Why should I accommodate anyone else? They should adapt to me—not vice versa. Political correctness is more than demanding, it is an intrusion.
BRIDLED BY THE ONE WE WORSHIP
For James, Christians are obligated to speak carefully. We are expected to be mindful of the needs of our hearers. We are expected to be affirming and respectful. Our tongues are powerful and all too easily misused. There is no such thing as free speech for a Christian. We choose to place a bit in our mouths and we choose to give the reins to the one we worship.
There is no way to ‘get it right’. We live in community. We share the responsibility to let people know how they impact us and we share the responsibility to listen respectfully. There will be a thousand course corrections. But we believe “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” This is the way Jesus lived and it is the promise Jesus offers. It is the way to peace.
The Jesus way is hard. It is inconvenient. It is also the way to community, peace and reconciliation. Let it be so.