Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
This past week another battle in Australia’s culture wars has broken out; and it went international. In the final of the USA Open Serena Williams was docked first a point and then a game for abusing the umpire. She protested that the umpire was being sexist. I have to admit that as someone with a hot temper myself I completely sympathise with Williams on this. Of course she shouldn’t have abused the umpire but, as Tracey Holmes has pointed out, in 2016 Nick Kyrgios said that the same umpire was biased and that the code violation awarded to him was ‘effing bullshit’ (although he didn’t say ‘effing’) and yet, unlike Williams, Kyrgios wasn’t docked a game. Holmes gave a few other instances of what seems to be sexism; male tennis players getting away with things for which Williams was penalised.
But none of that’s what I want to talk about. After the match the Herald-Sun published a cartoon by Mark Knight of Williams having a dummy spit. There were a couple of problems with it. The first was that he drew Williams’ opponent as a white blonde, rather than the Haitian-Japanese woman that Naomi Osaka actually is. The second is that the way he drew Williams caricatured her as an ugly, big-bosomed, big-lipped, baby. Whether Knight intended it or not, that made his cartoon another in a long line of cartoons portraying black women as hyper-sexualised and black people as infantilised. People in America were appalled. Lots of people in Australia were appalled. Others couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
I’m mentioning this, because it seems to me to resonate with what we hear in today’s passage of the Letter of James about the danger of the tongue. We could say, and many people did, ‘it’s only a cartoon’. Surely a cartoon can’t do anyone real harm. In the same way people have said for centuries that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. But we know that that old adage is completely and utterly wrong. It may be a good thing to tell children to repeat as an alternative to responding to taunts physically, but we now know that the words that lodge in our hearts and souls can hurt us in ways that go far beyond the effects of physical injuries. James knew it some two thousand years’ ago. As he wrote: ‘The tongue is like a spark … our tongues get out of control. They are restless and evil and always spreading deadly poison.’
This is our third week spending time with the Letter of James, and we have many more things to learn from it, the only book of wisdom in the New Testament. The books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures are other examples of wisdom literature, books of wise sayings that teach people how to live, and in them we see the same sort of warnings about the dangers of an uncontrolled tongue that James offers. In the Book of Proverbs we are told that ‘rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing’ (Proverbs 12:18); that ‘to watch over mouth and tongue is to keep out of trouble’ (Proverbs 21.23); and that ‘the north wind produces rain, and a backbiting tongue, angry looks’ (Proverbs 25.23). In Ecclesiastes we are told that there is ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak’ (Ecclesiastes 3:7); ‘never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few’ (Ecclesiastes 5:2); and that ‘words spoken by the wise bring them favour, but the lips of fools consume them’ (Ecclesiastes 10:12). In the apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus we are warned that ‘honour and dishonour come from speaking, and the tongue of mortals may be their downfall’ (5:13); that ‘a person may make a slip without intending it. Who has not sinned with his tongue?’ (Ecclesiasticus 19.16); and my absolute favourite ‘a slip on the pavement is better than a slip of the tongue’ (Ecclesiasticus 20:18). James is following wisdom tradition when he warns us about the dangers of our tongues.
Wisdom literature may be usefully read by people of any faith, but James was particularly addressing a small and embattled Christian community surrounded by a largely hostile larger society. He was teaching Christians how to live as God’s holy people in the tension between faith and culture. According to James speaking is a Christian practice that demands as much discipline and careful thought as all other Christian practices. As in last week’s sayings about rich and poor James seems to be drawing directly on Jesus’ teachings. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his followers: ‘I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire’ (Matthew 5:22). The Apostle Paul also warned the Corinthians against ‘quarrelling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder’ (2 Corinthians 12:20). In his Letter James agrees with Jesus and Paul as he meditates on the power and danger of language.
Language was one of the first gifts God gave humans. But it is a gift from God that can be misused. According to James, being ‘wise’ means using language in ways that are playful and pure, as James does in today’s reading with all his metaphors about fires and ships and animals. His playing with language shows that it is not human speech in general that worries James. He isn’t suggesting we all take vows of silence, although there have been Christians throughout history who have done just that. James is talking about the dangers of bullying, selfish, and disrespectful speech. He is pointing out that it is hypocritical to praise God and curse those made in the image of God. Two thousand years’ ago James gave great advice for the age of social media.
James writes about the use of our tongues: ‘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.’ This was what I have been thinking about this week, following the controversy over the Knight cartoon. Personally, I do think that Mark Knight made a mistake. I suspect that he didn’t intend his cartoon to be sexist or racist, that he just didn’t realise how other people, particularly people of colour, would see it. He made a mistake. (On the other hand, I think the cartoon itself was racist, partly because of some of the people defending it on social media including one who decided that I’m not white because I have a big nose!) As James writes, we all make many mistakes. Knight’s was with his pencil rather than his tongue, but it comes to the same thing. James was absolutely right when he wrote, ‘How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.’ A raging fire was definitely set ablaze by this one cartoon.
James has a remedy for it: act with the gentleness born of wisdom; draw near to God. True wisdom, James writes, is ‘pure, friendly, gentle, sensible, kind, helpful, genuine, and sincere’. That’s where I believe that both the cartoonist and the paper that published him went wrong. Having heard from people of colour that they saw this cartoon as racist, Knight should have acted with the gentleness born of wisdom and apologised, rather than doubling-down and attacking those who criticised it. To repeat what James writes, ‘all of us make many mistakes’. If we can understand that, that none of us is perfect and that none of us is expected to be perfect, then we can listen when people tell us we have made mistakes and respond with gentleness rather than further conflicts and disputes. ‘And’, says James, ‘a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace’.
I am, of course, preaching primarily to myself now. Fortunately nothing that I have said or written has sparked off an international controversy (well, except for the Church of Latter-Day Geeks and that controversy was more amusing than anything else). But I have often, many, many times, spoken thoughtlessly and hurt other people. Most recently, at the Uniting Church Assembly, an encounter occurred at which, in the words of my colleague Caro Field, “some loving friends did need to gently encourage you to walk away from one of those large men”. I am very passionate about the topic of marriage equality and when I am passionate about something I have a tendency to let my tongue run away with me. My first impulse whenever that has been drawn to my attention is always to respond angrily, despite the fact that I have been called to be a teacher and so will be judged with greater strictness than other Christians when my tongue sets a forest ablaze. So, just as I sympathise with Williams berating the umpire, I sympathise with Knight saying that he did nothing wrong. But imagine how different the story would be if Knight had simply accepted that his cartoon had hurt people and withdrawn it!
A couple of weeks ago, I looked up a poem by George Herbert, the 17th century poet and Anglican priest, to share with the congregation members attending the Book Club. As I was flicking through a collection of his poetry to find it, I saw a stanza from another poem that I think I should print out and stick to every device on which I access social media: my desktop computer; my iPad; my phone. Herbert wrote:
Be calm in arguing; for fierceness makes
Errour a fault, and truth discourtesie.
Why should I feel another mans mistakes
More, then his sicknesses of povertie?
In Love I should: but anger is not love,
Nor wisdom neither: therefore gently move. (From The Church-Porch)
What we have seen this week has been many people more angry at the mistakes of others than the sickness and poverty in our wealthy society that are the real scandals. So George Herbert has advice for us from the 17th century; and James the Righteous has advice for us from the first: ‘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’. And, James writes, ‘if any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’ (1:5). We may not be able to live with purity, friendliness, gentleness, sense, kindness, helpfulness, genuineness, and sincerity in our own strength, but James assures us that with the help of God that is possible. ‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you,’ writes James. Let us do that!
In the name of the God who is always near us, just waiting for us to turn to Him. Amen.