The coarsening of public discourse is alarming, and great harm can be inflicted through venomous speech.
By Molly T. Marshall
“A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger” (Prov. 15:1, KJV) was one of the first Bible verses I learned as a child. Not only were we instructed to memorize this instruction, but to practice it, even with brothers at home. Not being a very quiet little girl, I was glad when I learned one could translate “soft” as “gentle.”
In a political season nearly devoid of civility, many need to return to Sunday school (or attend for the first time!) so that this wisdom might be inscribed in their hearts. The coarsening of public discourse is alarming, and great harm can be inflicted through venomous speech. Gentle answers are rarely heard.
Bullying by name-calling is acceptable neither for children nor adults. To be called a loser, weak, ugly or disgusting repeatedly, is more than disrespectful. It breeds contempt, one of the vilest human emotions. Hate-speech kindles rancor, which often escalates beyond words to acts of violence.
Certain conventions of speaking are becoming more acceptable, seemingly necessary. It appears that in debates, pundit exchanges and town hall conversations, speakers not only interrupt their interlocutors, they over-talk them and sometimes actually yell at them. The most persistent voices drown out the others, and listeners are assaulted by the cacophony.
Private communication is no less fraught with discord. We have all read about the harmful things posted through social media that have led to devastating consequences for victims. The critical tone of emails and texts can spawn misunderstanding, and often recipients return in kind. Who among us has not wanted to use more caps and exclamation points when responding to an untoward message? Perhaps the buffer of technologically mediated communication leads persons to say things they would not say face to face.
Has it always been this way with humans? Apparently so, but grievous words are circulated more widely in our day. One of the foul fruits of the “fall” is the poisoning of the great gift of being homo loquens, the “speaking animal.” Even the remarkable scholar Martin Luther preached and wrote perniciously about the Jews. His inflammatory words detract from his stature as a reformer and theologian, and some have suggested added fuel to Hitler’s fiery denunciations.
Scripture offers a breadth of guidance on godly speech, probably because we humans fall so short of this practice. Here is a brief sampling from each testament.
From the Psalter we hear:
“The one who walks with integrity and works righteousness … speaks truth in the heart. This one does not slander with the tongue … (15:2-3).
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (19:14).
“Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth. Keep watch over the door of my lips” (141:3).
Proverbs is replete with instruction:
“There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword. But the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18).
“The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable. But the mouth of fools spouts folly” (15:2).
“She opens her mouth in wisdom. And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (31:26).
From the Epistles we receive these exhortations:
“Let no corrupting talk come out of our mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Eph. 4:29).
“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:6).
“Know this, my beloved: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger …” (James 1:19).
The Gospels also offer a pathway to follow:
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36).
“The good person out of the good treasure of his or her heart produces good, and the evil person out of his or her evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart one speaks” (Luke 6:45).
“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:11).
In this new year of mercy, so designated by Pope Francis, we have the opportunity to revise our speech. Rather than echoing the visceral and heated rhetoric that presently reverberates, we can use prudent and restrained language. Rather than derogatory pronouncements about those with whom we disagree, we can practice gracious words that build up others, for the common good.
For some of us, it may mean that we listen more and speak less. As the sages remind us, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he or she closes his or her lips, that one is deemed intelligent” (Prov. 17:28). That is surely a worthy pursuit!
Molly Marshall is president and professor of theology and spiritual formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, in Shawnee, Kan. Her weekly blog “Trinitarian Soundings.” Dr. Marshall was one of the favorite speakers at the Hamrick Lectures at First Baptist Church of Charleston.