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The Words You Say – or Type – Reveal Your Character

The letter of James has some wise warnings about teaching and the qualities needed in a good teacher.

The Jewish Wisdom background of James becomes obvious when, more than once, he urges the importance of wisdom, maturity and responsibility in the ways that people use words in James 3.

Reading, even praying these words every day would be an interesting exercise in quality control of the inner climate that generates the words we speak and the way we say them.

The concept of the speech-act is not a modern (or post-modern) form of rhetorical analysis. James and a whole tradition going back to the book of Proverbs were there long before us.

Words are active deeds, performative acts, transformative vocal events. When words are said, things happen.

James is interested in what words do, and what they set out to do. The good life of the wise and understanding teacher is self-evident in “deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Among the many deeds done are words wisely spoken.

What we say is who we are. That truth raises questions about what people say online.

There is a potent afterlife in words. The good that comes from wise and peaceable words doesn’t merely evaporate; lives are challenged or changed by words that forgive and reach out. Words offered as gifts of peace are like seeds sown in hope.

Words that sprout from hate, fear, resentment and a distorted view of others also encapsulate toxins with a long afterlife. Lives are wounded, and people’s dignity, value and hopefulness are sometimes decisively diminished by hate speech, fear speech and bitter speech.

James’ analysis of such bitter envy and toxic words may well offend a culture like our own, slowly but surely getting used to extremes of speech.

Rhetorical combat and the weaponizing of words are serious threats to our human security and our social and political future.

Words are made to carry such destructive payloads when we devalue their capacity for reasoned truth, and increase their power in polarizing and dividing, harnessing their energy toward making those who disagree with us our enemies. Such sinister wisdom allied to the will to power is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.”

The rhetoric around questions of immigrants and refugees, the latent and blatant racism of policies and discourse using terms such as “hostile environment” and “zero-tolerance,” are alike rhetorical trends that James would describe as “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.”

Unearthly means a way of speaking by a mind set on lower values, self-interest, material gain. Much contemporary political discourse has “earthly” as its default setting.

“Unspiritual” is very similar but pushes the selfishness and ruthlessness to the next level where questions of ethics, right and the good are lower-order values, and goals of gain, influence and power become priorities.

But it is the word “demonic” that is the most illuminating and worrying. James is not using the word for effect by exaggeration.

He is talking about what happens when hate words take on a life of their own. Envy and unrestrained selfishness are powerful drivers toward power, and once let loose there is “every evil and disorder.”

Paul uses the same concept of evil hijacking the persuasive power of words to fly beneath the moral radar.

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12-13).

The older translation captures exactly the menace of intentional malice and unintended consequences in the clash of values between the wisdom from below and the wisdom from above.

Whether on Twitter or at rallies, political press conferences or election and referendum campaigns, whether in Parliament or politically biased news headlines, the effect is the same. Degenerating discourse is both a symptom and a contagious cause of cultural peril.

Some anxious commentators suggest historical parallels between recent rises in nationalism and nationalistic sentiments accompanied by suspicion of minority groups and the dilemmas of immigration, with similar social disruptions in the 1930s in central Europe.

Others call appeal to such historical precedents alarmist, insulting, hysterical and naive historical anachronism.

It is interesting that when warning voices were raised in Germany on the election of Hitler and the National Socialist party to power, the same dismissive disclaimers were voiced by many of the most respected voices in the nation.

My own advice to those who are so dismissive of historical parallels is to read the history.

Wisdom is seldom served by hanging loose to evidence, nor in being overconfident in what we are so sure of.

A good starting place is Victoria Barnett’s “For the Soul of a People. Protestant Protest Against Hitler.” It’s in the title. Words both form and reveal the soul of a nation.

Among other things, that is why the phrase, “create a hostile environment,” used in relation to other human beings is so dangerous, foolish and morally indefensible.

Does that phrase define the soul of the British people? Of the U.S.? Of other nations?

The words of James about the risks of being a teacher extend to the risks of everyone who uses words persuasively and powerfully.

Words are deeds and have consequences. Words are performative acts that persuade toward change, for good or ill.

Words have transformative power as they change minds, harden attitudes, motivate wills and form character.

The character of a society is not an abstract thing. When someone says, “This is not my true character,” as an apology for damaging and diminishing words they have spoken or written, they use a disclaimer that lacks evidential credibility.

Likewise, in a community, whether church or local neighborhood, the quality of discourse by those in influential positions is a telling index of character.

Of course, character is not fixed. People change. And among the most effective instruments of change are words, other words, that challenge our assumptions and open our eyes to new truth.

By their power and freedoms, words expose those other false and self-interested words that are more about the speaker’s fears, prejudices and unacknowledged desires to have the world only as they wish it to be.

Boasting and truth denial are close rhetorical cousins, according to James. But so are mercy and peace-loving consideration of others.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily. It is used with permission.

James Gordon

James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.