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August 23 lesson: Taming the Tongue

August 17, 2020
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Taming the Tongue

Summer Quarter: Many Faces of Wisdom
Unit 3: Faith and Wisdom in James

Sunday school lesson for the week of August 23, 2020
By Rev.
Ashley Randall

Lesson Scripture: James 3:1–12
Key Verse: James 3:5

Purpose: To admit that our speech is an important indication of our attitudes and commitments

Conscientious Communication

One of the first books I purchased when I started graduate school in 1978 was the second edition (1974) of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA). As a high school senior, I had been introduced to Kate L. Turabian’s, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. It served me well throughout my college career, but now I was focusing on child development and family relations, and the department required us to follow the standards established by the APA.

Between its original publication and when I made my purchase, the APA had made some significant changes in its position on inclusive language. In the 1974 edition there was one paragraph at the end of the section entitled “Consideration of the Reader” in the Writing Style chapter that included this advice: “writers should be aware of the current move to avoid generic use of male pronouns when content refers to both sexes, and may wish to use alternatives to words such as chairman and to avoid over use of the pronoun he when she or they is equally appropriate.”

My copy of the Publication Manual included two “change sheets.” The 1975 Change Sheet did mention that “several guides on sexist language have appeared” since the original publication date; but dealt primarily with some changes in policy. The Publication Change Sheet 2 - June 1977 dealt comprehensively and exclusively with “Guidelines for Nonsexist Language in APA Journals.” This second change sheet “offers some general principles for journal authors to consider, and suggests some ways to avoid sexist language.”

I was vaguely aware of the move toward more inclusive language, but I really had not considered the rationale for adopting it as a goal in my writing. So I did appreciate the principle underlying the APA’s position: “because APA as an organization is committed to both science and the fair treatment of individuals and groups, authors of journal articles are expected to avoid writing in a manner that reinforces questionable attitudes and assumptions about people and sex roles.”

The focus was not only on accuracy in reporting, but also in consideration of people. This concern for people was further expressed in what APA was hoping to avoid: “Language that reinforces sexism can spring from subtle errors in research design, inaccurate interpretation, or imprecise word choice…. Imprecise word choice…may be interpreted as biased, discriminatory, or demeaning even if they are not intended to be.” Furthermore, “An author must use care in choosing words to ensure accuracy, clarity, and freedom from bias. In the case of sexism, long-established cultural practice can exert a powerful insidious influence over even the most conscientious author.”

The APA also acknowledged that this would be a challenging goal. “Any endeavor to change the language is an awesome task at best. Some aspects of our language that may be considered sexist are firmly embedded in our culture, and we presently have no acceptable substitutes…. Nevertheless, with some rephrasing and careful attention to meaning, even the generic he can be avoided most of the time. The result of such efforts is accurate, unbiased communication.”

When I started seminary in 1981, I found I had a new style guide to follow: the Modern Language Association (MLA) Handbook. The conversation about inclusive language continued, but now it was expanded to include not only how we spoke and wrote about people, but also how we should refer to God. The emphasis was still on clear, accurate, and unbiased communication. These values certainly seemed to align with the biblical witness we were being equipped to proclaim. The challenge to find new expressions – “acceptable substitutes” – in a much more emotionally charged culture seemed even more daunting.

I graduated, took an appointment, and was ordained a deacon in 1984 following the meeting of General Conference in Baltimore. That year the delegates approved a report that was highly controversial at the time, calling on the church to begin referring to God and Jesus – in prayers, hymns and worship – in sexually inclusive language; specifically calling God “creator,” “source of all life,” and “ruler,” instead of the more traditional masculine terms of “king” and “father.”

The 1984 General Conference also approved the enabling petition to authorize the Board of Discipleship and the United Methodist Publishing House to begin work on a new hymnal for The United Methodist Church. The General Conference established some guidelines. One of the guidelines stated, “It is recommended that the committee be sensitive to… inclusive and non-discriminatory language...” The very next sentence read, “The hymnal committee shall be instructed to respect the language of traditional hymns…, but may also include alternate texts for the same hymn tunes in instances determined by the committee.”

With such seemingly contradictory guidance the committee worked on their own set of standards to guide their work. Among them were these two that dealt with inclusive language: “2. In traditional hymns and new hymns in traditional language, employ inclusive forms of address for persons in the assembly, in the community, and the world.” “5. New hymn texts should be inclusive and universal in outlook, free from divisive elements and phrases that convey attitudes of superiority or indifference toward people outside the circle of singers.”

The language issue sparked heated controversy across the denomination. The most controversial question was whether to use “inclusive” language, which did not refer to gender, in references to God. The committee originally proposed a Psalter with no gender references to God. The General Conference amended the committee's report to restore the word “his” in 53 references to God in 35 of the 113 recommended psalms.

Meeting in St. Louis in May 1988, delegates to the General Conference voted to adopt the hymnal that was created to be more sensitive to the concerns of women, minorities, and the disabled. The vote was 893-69 in favor.

Choosing the Best

James has been building a case for the conditions that are required to live a life that is the expression of a faithful response to God’s gift of salvation. This living faith must go beyond merely accepting the word of God; it must manifest itself in practical acts of love and service daily. It is living in obedience to the “perfect law.” It is accepting the gift of God’s wisdom –honoring God’s presence, power, and purpose – and choosing to walk the path that leads to righteousness, justice, and equity.

Accepting God’s wisdom as guidance for our daily lives enriches the quality of our relationships and the strength of our communities. A community of people living in right relationship with one another bears the mark of a covenant community. They stand as a compelling witness to the world of God’s grace, mercy, and love as they express God’s love in practical ways by what they say and what they do.

James makes no apologies for setting such a high standard for the community of believers. He does acknowledge that obtaining and maintaining such a community in a world that is full of temptations to satisfy “one’s own desire” (1:4) is quite a challenge. Wise and faithful teachers are essential in the ongoing life of this covenant community.

Perhaps there were many who thought they had reached a depth of understanding that qualified them as teachers. James seems to caution them not to nominate themselves too quickly, “because we know that we teachers will be judged more strictly” (3:1b). Notice that James acknowledges that he falls under this stricter judgment, but he also confesses, “we all make mistakes often” (3:2a). Teachers – those who step into positions of leadership in the community – need to be particularly careful to avoid speaking in hurtful ways.

James has mentioned this concern a couple of times earlier in his letter. Recall he counseled, “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak” (1:19b). He also warned, “If those who claim devotion to God dont control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless” (1:26). Empty words of comfort, unaccompanied by practical acts of service may be meaningless, but words matter, and striving to speak in ways that build the faith of others is the goal of those who are mature in the faith.

This advice aligns with Paul’s instruction to the Ephesians: “Dont let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say” (4:29). Paul also encourages the Colossians to consider their words carefully: “Your speech should always be gracious and sprinkled with insight so that you may know how to respond to every person” (4:6).

It is clear that James takes this issue very seriously and that he wants to make sure people get it. That is why he moves quickly through a number of different metaphors to communicate the importance of this principle. With a bit and bridle we can control a powerful horse (3:3). With a hand on the tiller, a pilot can make the rudder steer a ship along the chosen course into strong winds (3:4).

Proverbs taught us that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (18:21a). James affirms that while the tongue has the power to do good, it also has the power to destroy. Indeed, the tongue is a flame of fire (3:6a). While we know that fire can be used for good, here James focuses on its destructive potential, especially when it “is set on fire by the flames of hell” (3:6c).

What James says next feels like a set up. “People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish” (3:7). I wonder if he is laying a trap for those who are still confident in their ability to serve as teachers. Perhaps they are the ones to whom he was referring when he mentioned the “great boasts” that come from the tongue (3:5b). Be careful not to overestimate your own strength and ability, he warns. “No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8).

According to Matthew, one day a group of Pharisees and other legal experts asked Jesus why his disciples failed to ritually purify their hands before they ate. Jesus uses this incident to raise a weightier question with them, “Why do you break the command of God by keeping the rules handed down to you?” (15:3) After calling out their hypocrisy, “Jesus called the crowd near and said to them, ‘Listen and understand. Its not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in Gods sight. Its what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person’” (15:10-11).

James seems to pick up this principle as he closes his discussion on the use of our tongue and the words we speak. If we are not guided by the wisdom and power of God, if we let ourselves be enticed and lured by the temptations of the world; we may find that “Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way! (3:10)

Let’s return to the incident in Matthew to see what else Jesus has to say about this: “But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And thats what contaminates a person in Gods sight. Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. These contaminate a person in Gods sight” (15:18-20a).

If taming your tongue seems to be an overwhelming challenge, remember that James has assured us all, “anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask” (1:5).

Words Matter

In 2002, Sherryl Kleinman, a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, wrote in an essay published in the journal, Qualitative Sociology, that after over a decade of teaching “the issue that both female and male students have the most trouble understanding – or, as I see it, share a strong unwillingness to understand – is sexist language.”

She admits that some may ask, “What’s the big deal?” From her perspective, “the words we use can also reinforce current realities when they are sexist (or racist or heterosexist). Words are the tools of thought. We can use words to maintain the status quo or to think in new ways – which in turn creates the possibility of a new reality.”

She asks people to imagine a world suggested by the philosopher Douglas R. Hofstadter in his essay, A Person Paper on Purity in Language.” In this world people use generics based on race rather than gender. In this alternate world, people would use freshwhite,” “chairwhite,” and, yes, you whiteys.” People of color would hear all whites are created equal”— and be expected to feel included. Hofstadter readily admits that his essay was intended to shock his readers. Kleinman explains: “Only by substituting ‘white’ for ‘man’ does it become easy to see the pervasiveness of male-based generics and to recognize that using ‘man’ for all human beings is wrong. Yet, women are expected to feel flattered by ‘freshman,’ ‘chairman,’ and ‘you guys.’”

Kleinman admits she believes “most people who use male ‘generics,’ dont have bad intentions.” Still, she is concerned about the consequences. “All those ‘man’ words – said many times a day by millions of people every day – cumulatively reinforce the message that men are the standard and that women should be subsumed by the male category.”

She ends her essay with a question: “If were going to work on social change, shouldn’t we start by practicing nonsexist English among ourselves? Lets begin creating now the kind of society we want to live in later. Nonsexist English is a resource we have at the tip of our tongues. Lets start using it.”

Discussion Questions
  • How has your understanding of inclusive language evolved over the course of your life?
  • Which of James’s metaphors for the tongue speak most powerfully to you?
  • How do you interpret Kleinman’s assertion that “words are the tools of thought?”
Rev. Ashley Randall is pastor of Garden City UMC. He still vaguely remembers going to a workshop to introduce the “new” hymnal to pastors and other worship leaders. Click here to learn more about the creation of the “new” hymnal.

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