THE DEADLY POWER OF THE TONGUE
by Bob Wheeler
Recently the nation has been shocked by a wave of violence leading up to the election. One person mailed pipe bombs to a number of prominent of Democrats, and another barged into a synagogue on a Sabbath morning and began shooting at the congregation, killing eleven. Both of the men appear to have motivated by hate, and the question arose as to the role that President Trump’s sometimes inflammatory rhetoric and the social media may have played in the incidents.
In all fairness to Mr. Trump it must be pointed out that part of the blame for the overheated political climate goes to the left. For some time those on the liberal, progressive left have chosen to see themselves as a loose assortment of oppressed minority groups and have accused their imagined oppressors of being “racist,” “sexist,” and “homophobic.” It is identity politics, an “us against them” mentality, and it was only a matter of time before white, working class Americans would see themselves as a besieged people group and respond with a kind of white nationalism.
But none of this bodes well for democracy. In a democratic society there has to be a free and open discussion of the issues, and the ability to reach a compromise. Name calling and violence eat away at the fabric of democracy by intimidating people and keeping them from making their own decisions.
The First Amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. . .” But does that mean that people have a right to say whatever they want? The plain fact of the matter is that we can hurt others in more ways than one by the things we say about them and to them.
The Ninth Commandment reads, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16; Dt. 5:20; NKJV). The immediate reference, of course, involves what happens in a judicial proceeding. A person has been accused of a crime. Witnesses are called forth to testify, and the fate of the accused hangs on the testimony of the witnesses. In order for justice to be served it is vitally important for the witnesses to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Anything less could result in the defendant being punished for a crime he did not commit.
But as we look through the Bible as a whole it becomes apparent that there is a broader moral principle as well. The fact of the matter is that what we say has an effect on other people – for either good or evil. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue . . .” (Prov. 18:21). Gossip, for example, separates friends (Prov. 16:27,28) and causes strife. “Where there is no wood the fire goes out; / And where there is no talebearer, strife ceases” (Prov. 26:20). Juicy gossip distorts facts, destroys reputations and inflames passions. Likewise someone who simply likes to argue causes strife. “As charcoal is to burning coals, and word to fire, / So is a contentious man to kindle strife” (v. 21). In a word, “The hypocrite with his mouth destroys his neighbor . . .” (Prov. 11:9).
On the other hand the things we say can have a positive effect on others as well. “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, / Sweetness to the soul and health to the bones” (Prov. 16:24). “A man has joy by the words of this mouth, / And a word spoken in due season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23). But to say the right thing it behooves us to listen first to get the facts straight. “He who answers a matter before he hears it, / It is folly and shame to him” (Prov. 18:13). And when responding to someone who is visibly angry it is helpful to remember that “A soft answer turns away wrath, / But a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1).
None of this means, however, that we should never say anything negative to others. In its own way flattery can be just as harmful as slander: “A man who flatters his neighbor / Spreads a net for his feet” (Prov. 29:5). And if someone is genuinely guilty of wrongdoing, even for his own sake it needs to be addressed.
“Open rebuke is better
Than love carefully concealed.
Faithful are the words of a friend,
But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”
Likewise the New Testament tells us, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it might impart grace to the hearers” (Eph. 4:29), and that “neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting” should “be named among you,” “but rather giving of thinks” (Eph. 5:3,4).
It is obvious, then, that words have consequences, and it is for this reason that God is concerned with what we say. “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, / But those who deal truthfully are His delight” (Prov. 12:22). And Jesus warned His hearers, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give an account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36,37).
“’These are the things you shall do:
Speak each man the truth to his neighbor;
Give judgment in your gates for truth, justice and peace;
Let none of you think evil in your heart against your neighbor;
And do not love a false oath.
For all these are things that I hate,’
Says the Lord.”
As Americans our freedom of speech is guaranteed by our Constitution. But we must never forget that as human beings we are ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, and we do not possess the moral right to say whatever we please, whether it be true or false or damages other people’s reputations. Politicians may rant and rave, giving distorted views of the facts and use inflammatory rhetoric; and this, in turn, creates a charged atmosphere in which some deranged people may resort to actual violence. But in the end we will all answer to our Creator for what we have said and done. May God have mercy on us all.