ON Scripture: Free Speech: A License to Destroy or A Responsibility to Build Up (James 3:1-12) By Walter Brueggemann


Free Speech:  A License to Destroy or A Responsibility to Build Up (James 3:1-12)

By Walter Brueggemann


Many countries in the global community do not have the right to free speech. In the US, our right to speak out is protected under the constitution. How well do we live up to the responsibility granted with that freedom? 

            The Epistle of James is written to urge Christians to practice the ethic of Israel's covenantal, prophetic tradition. In this particular text the apostle reflects on the enormous power of speech and the potential of the tongue for doing good or evil. Appeal to the covenantal, prophetic tradition of Israel may suggest two connections for us. First, the covenantal commandments of Sinai (The Ten Commandments) already have in purview the cruciality of "right speech." Thus the ninth commandment prohibits "false witness." The original reference concerns testimony in court; in larger horizon, however, the commandment pertains to the neighbor:

            Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20:16).

By "neighbor" Moses means any other member of the social community. Any falsehood uttered in the community damages the neighbor and diminishes the neighborhood, because real community depends upon reliable truth-telling.

            The second connection to the prophetic tradition may be found in the "woe oracle" of Isaiah 5:20:

Woe to you who call evil good and good evil,

Who put darkness for light and light for darkness,

Who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20)!

The initial "woe" (rendered as "ah" in the NRSV) declares that such conduct will bring big trouble. The prophetic oracle lists three instances of mis-naming things, or calling them by their wrong names, and so bearing false witness. We may extrapolate from these examples that the uses of euphemisms that mis-describe are destructive uses of the tongue. Aggressive regimes tend to employ euphemisms to characterize military policies or brutalizing conduct, because the right names for such abuses would be shocking and unacceptable. Thus Robert Lifton reports on the use of euphemisms in the Nazi death camps:

Killing with drugs, then, was the most "medical" form of all. There could be "conferences" where doctors discussed "therapy," the ordering of "medication," and further "clinical" decisions depending upon the effect of that medication (The Nazi Doctors101).

Closer home "Reverend Billy" catalogues the euphemisms that disguise oppressive actions by our government:

We can't believe that bombing is called security.

We can't believe that monopoly is called democracy.

We can't believe that gasoline prices are called foreign policy...

We can't believe that racism is called crime fighting!

We can't believe that sweatshops are called efficiency!

We can't believe that a mall is called the neighborhood!...

We can't believe that advertising is called free speech!

We can't believe that love is called for sale!...

Patriotism is not called shopping (What Should I Do if Reverend Billy is in My Store? 93-94).

            In our text in James, the apostle is alert to the great potential of the tongue for good or for evil. The passage is rich with image and metaphor to probe the potential of the tongue:

            -Two images are used to speak of a tongue that is "under discipline" so that the tongue can be restrained in avoidance of destructiveness. Thus a "bit in the mouth" is small tool whereby a horse is controlled and reined in. A "rudder" is a small implement to steer a very large ship. The tongue, like bit and rudder, can serve well to keep the person under control so that it does not distort reality.

            -A telling image, fire, is used to dramatize the unwise destructive capacity of the tongue by way of misrepresentation, slander, or gossip.  James would not have had the concept of "going viral," but he knew that false speech can be inflammatory, causing conflagrations that disrupt social relationships, skew policy, and propel the economy in ways that make neighborly life impossible.

            The final pair of images suggests that the tongue reflects what is inside a person, that is, a person's true character. First, a spring can only spout forth water that is come from the spring and its source; it cannot spout otherwise. The good spring will yield good drinkable water; the bad spring will give only brackish water. Second a plant can only grow its own kind of fruit, figs from fig trees, olives from olive trees, grapes from a vine. The tongue and its speech will disclose the character and intent of the speaker.

            The tongue can be a destructive force:

            -It can speak gossip that destroys trust. Thus the Psalms are regularly alert to such destructive speech. The local church congregation, moreover, is always a potential cottage industry for such gossip.

            -It can speak false advertizing, so that products are sold under false claims. False desires are thereby generated for that which we do not in fact need or want.

            -It can voice propaganda that is based on desires it cannot satisfy, and conjure false facts on which false policy is based. It can generate fear that has no basis in reality, fear that serves to excuse or justify brutalizing policy. Governments regularly engage in such distorted and misleading speech; now among us "talk radio" misrepresents so as to create illusionary worlds that are remote from reality.

            -It can reiterate a big lie of ideology that issues in a false rendering of social reality. Thus the economy can be rendered according to capitalist ideology through which the social reality of the "left behind" is concealed or disguised. Or the "immigration crisis" can be framed in terms of anxious nativism, instead of noticing the real people involved.

            If one considers gossip, false advertising, propaganda, and ideology, all forces that serve to mis-describe reality, we are left with promises that cannot be kept, desires that cannot be satisfied, and fears that cannot be assuaged. The outcome of such political rhetoric may be the practice of political economy that is distorted to serve predatory interests; we are left with a pretend world of democracy in which real power is managed otherwise. The present political campaign makes this reflection on a destructive tongue immediately contemporary.

            Before James finishes, he affirms that the tongue can also rightly bless the "Lord and Father." We do this by honest prayer and by self-abandoning praise in which our lives are yielded back to God in gladness. And says James, we can bless those "made in the likeness of God," that is, human persons. Such blessing is of a performative kind in traditional formal settings. Thus:

            A priest or a pastor can say, "You are forgiven."

            -A priest or a pastor at baptism can pronounce a name that locates one in God's own life.

            -At a wedding a promise is made is by a truth-acting "I do."

            -In court, a verdict may be announced that establishes a new social reality for the one        addressed.

            -And even a doctor can issue a "verdict" that issues in health.

            In the same way, in informal, daily and familiar contexts, the tongue may serve to enhance the neighborhood, to valorize a person, to advance a just cause, to offer assurance in a context of risk.

            James understood: speech summons worlds into being. And speech may destroy worlds. Those who heed the faith of the epistle have a mandate to the utterances of trust.  It is such faithful utterance that creates new possibilities in the world. We are indeed created "fresh from the word." It may be a word of life, but such word of life requires attentive discipline to counter the many words of death all around us.



_ 5 Things You Didn't Know About Free Speech Around the World _


Bible Study Questions

1.     What are some ways you've hurt people with your words?

2.     How can we be more careful with our words? 

3.     Think about a time when you gave someone a compliment. How did that make you feel?


For Further Reading

11 Facts About Free Speech

What Does Free Speech Mean?

Censorship and Free Speech



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