Uncivil Discourse: Why Our Speech Matters

Ken Myers has observed, “The Christian tradition has long placed great value on care about speech.” He notes that the sacred importance of language is signaled by the fact that two of the Ten Commandments are concerned with speech. One of them has to do with the way we speak about God. The other, not surprisingly, deals with the way we speak about others. It seems that the tongue is the primary instrument we use to fulfill the two Great Commandments, to love God with heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:36-38).

We don’t usually think about our words. We open our mouths, and they just seem to come out. When we do give thought to the language we use, it is out of a detached, almost scientific concern. We think of the connection our words have to the concepts we want to express. But the Scriptures (God’s words) warn that the relationship between our speech and ourselves is far more organic. It is also dangerous. The tongue, James warns, is “a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). One of the surest ways to discern corruption of the soul is through speech. James echoes the words of Jesus, who warned the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart and defile us (Matt. 15:18). The tongue is both a muscle and an organ. It is not only something we use to express our thoughts. In some measure, the tongue is us, or at least a part of us.

In the same way, Jesus makes it clear that our words are just as intimately connected to our hearts: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matt. 15:19). Our words serve both as a sign and a diagnosis. The character of our speech is evidence of the state of our hearts. But this connection means that the problem with our discourse is more than a matter of poor word choice. According to Jesus, corrupt speech proceeds from an evil heart. The examples Jesus gives of the nature of evil thoughts that spring from the heart greatly expand the definition of corrupt speech. The Christian tradition has tended to define such language rather narrowly, limiting it to what we used to call swearing. Taking the Lord’s name “in vain,” coarse language, and vulgarity are a form of corrupt speech but the lowest form. Just as lust is the only the first and lowest of the deadly sins, common vulgarity hardly exhausts the full scope of sinful speech. All the categories of evil thought that Jesus mentions and the multitude of sins that he does not ultimately find their expression in the way we speak to one another.

Our most corrupt speech is often the most commonplace, expressing those sins that we have learned to tolerate in ourselves. This is because our thinking about sin tends to be backward. We believe that small infractions are less concerning than large. We think the problem with these “little” sins is that if we let them go unchecked, they will develop into something larger. Anger will accelerate into murder. Lust will take control and lead to adultery. According to Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount, sin moves in the opposite direction. It does not start small and increase. We usually treat those sins as minor infractions, when in reality they bloom from the same root as those we think of as large. They are not the cause but the symptom. Sinful anger springs from a murderous heart, not the other way around (Matt. 5:22). A lustful gaze is the offspring of an adulterous desire (Matt. 5:27–28).

The same principle is at work in our speech. Corrupted speech includes coarse language, but it also gives evidence of a deeper evil that springs from unchecked desire, selfish-ambition, rage, envy,  and pride. The result is a deadly and self-reinforcing ecosystem of corruption as sinful motives infuse our thoughts, which shape our words, which justify and further reinforce our motives. George Orwell described this deadly cycle in his famous essay on politics and the English language when he observes that effects become reinforcing causes that produce the same result and intensify it. “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks,” Orwell observes. “It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

The fact that Orwell identifies this as a trait of political speech is especially significant because it indicates that what is true of the individual is also true of society. How could it be otherwise? Civilization and its institutions are made of and made by its people. If the cells are diseased, so is the body. It cannot be any other way. Speech, by its very nature, is a communal act. It presumes the existence of another. In his book entitled Abuse of Language–Abuse of Power, theologian Josef Pieper notes that human language and human words accomplish a two-fold purpose. “First, words convey reality,” Pieper explains: “We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course–and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech.”

Pieper observes that public discourse, when it is separated from the standard of truth, creates an atmosphere where tyranny thrives. The primary abuse of language in such an environment is propaganda. Peiper notes that propaganda does not necessarily come through the official power structure of a dictatorship: “It can be found wherever a powerful organization, an ideological clique, a special interest, or a pressure group uses the word as their ‘weapon.’” Of particular interest is Pieper’s further observation that the threat from such words “can mean many things besides political persecution, especially all forms and levels of defamation, or public ridicule, or reducing someone to a nonperson–all which are accomplished by means of the word, even the word not spoken.” Especially poignant for this particular political moment, is Pieper’s citation of the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, who: “counted among the forms of ‘modern sophistry’, as he calls it, also the ‘lingo of the revolution’, which, ‘intent on fomenting rebellion through agitation, singles out one isolated instance, and focusing its spotlight on this, makes everyone blind to all the rest’.”

The worry that corruption of speech will lead to cultural corruption is more than the concern of a frustrated grammarian. It is the conviction of philosophers, theologians, and God’s word itself. The problem is not a matter of style but truth. The need for our words to correspond with reality is what lies behind the command not to bear false witness. Regard for truth is the root concern of the command not to take the Lord’s name in vain, a prohibition that cautions us not to use God to make cheap promises that we do not intend to fulfill. Truth is also in view in all the Bible’s cautions about the dangers of flattery and slander.

Such concerns are understandable when we consider that speaking is also a divine act, since language originated with God. God spoke the first words ever uttered (Gen. 1:3). By that word, all things are made. This original word shows the power of language not only to describe but to shape reality. The fact that sin also entered the world through speech is proof that words can destroy as well as create. The temptation that drew our first parents down into sin was a distortion of something God has said (Gen. 3:1-5). When they fell, they carried all of creation with them. We have not lost our ability to speak. But that capacity has been sorely damaged by the entrance of sin into human experience. This harsh reality prompts James to lament that “no human being can tame the tongue” and to call it “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).

Orwell believed that the degradation of speech could be reversed. “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble,” he explains. “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” But Orwell is only partly right.

The rudeness and violence we see in contemporary political discourse are, unfortunately, not an anomaly. Uncivil discourse is the norm in both popular and social media. It is as characteristic of the church as it is of the secular culture. Orwell may be right in saying that the way we speak to one another could improve if we gave it more thought and applied ourselves to discipline. The resulting change would be no small improvement and a desperately needed relief. But if what Scripture says about us is true, the difference would only be cosmetic. Our problem is deeper than our choice of words or even our tone. According to Jesus, our inability to engage in civil conversation is evidence of a poisoned heart.

Real Authentic

When I ask my students what matters most to them in worship, they don’t have to think long before they answer. “Authenticity,” they say immediately. “Worship must be authentic.” However, when I ask what they mean by authentic, it’s another story. Apparently, authenticity is one of those things that is hard to define but easy to spot, at least in the negative. We can’t exactly say what it is, but we know when it’s not there.

On the whole, I think authenticity in worship is probably a good idea. But I doubt that my vision of authentic is the same as my students’. Sometimes my authentic self is the one who would prefer that woman two rows up to stop waving her arms around while we sing about God’s reckless love. It would also prefer to stop calling God reckless. The real, authentic me would rather be somewhere else doing something else.

My pastoral students feel that authenticity is important in ministry too. Most tell me that authenticity is foundational to the pastoral task. But if I ask them how they know whether a pastor is authentic or not, their answer is just as vague. When I press for an example, they usually describe someone who isn’t afraid to talk about their failures to the congregation.

This definition of authenticity seems somewhat problematic to me. In the old days, we used different language to speak of a pastor who told you what to do and then admitted that he himself was unable to live that way. I believe the term is hypocrite. But of course, that is not at all what people mean when they talk about someone being authentic. They mean real. No masks. The public persona is the same as the private. Fair enough. But the truth is, we really don’t want the pastor to be authentic. Not completely authentic. Just authentic enough to make us feel comfortable with our own failure.

Despite what we say we want, in actuality, the fabric of human civilization is largely held together by a set of behavioral codes that teach us to be inauthentic. We call them manners. They include rules and responses which basically amount to socially sanctioned lying. You say you want the truth? As Jack Nicholson famously declared, “You can’t handle the truth.”

Imagine that one evening you are visiting someone in their home. You’ve been having a good time but you notice your host yawning. “It’s getting late,” you say. “I really must be going.” “Do you have to?” they reply. “Won’t you stay a little longer?” Most people know that this is really code for “You should have left an hour and a half ago.” The few people who don’t know this are the ones whose visits you dread.

Several years ago, one of my students wanted to introduce me to his fiancée. I really liked this student. He was the kind of kid I would have wanted my daughter to marry if I had a daughter. So I was looking forward to the meeting her. She was nice enough, I suppose. But I’m glad that afterward, he didn’t ask me for an opinion. The authentic answer would have been, “I think you could do better.”

People often tell me that my preaching is authentic. They also say that it is prophetic. I think what they really mean by this is that I am irritating. I suppose I could ask them to clarify. But I’d really rather not. I suspect they’re just being polite.