Taming the tongue begins when you decide you don’t have to reply to everything that is being said but can sit in silence and listen.
That is an exercise in letting God be our judge, in letting our justification be in Christ, rather than in oneself. Sometimes I have felt moved to write (and it is usually written in my case) fiery essays in response to stuff I have read on the Internet or in print media. It is amazing what a night’s sleep will do to refresh your outlook, so in my wiser moments I sleep on it. Oft times when I respond in haste I may have misunderstood what is being said, or go overboard in rebutting what was said. That is my own anxieties speaking when that happens.
Learning to hear how something is being said is as important as hearing what is being said. How it is being said may tell you more about what the speaker is saying than the actual words themselves. And hearing how or what lies behind the words is very important if one wishes to reply in a way that will be heard and received by whoever is doing the talking.
So stopping to listen to the how someone is speaking and also listening to how that is affecting you are crucial to being in conversation with another person. I don’t do that nearly often enough. One can rattle on and on and miss the real concern of the heart that lies within the words, the words of others, and our own words in reply.
Consider words about homosexuality. People can discuss this with negative content but do it in very different ways: One can rant and rave about it. The anger shows a hidden fear which is being met with bravado. Or another person can speak from the same negative view but express pity or concern for such persons. Of the two, the former is far more difficult to tolerate than the latter and certainly triggers much more anxiety, fear or anger in us in response.
We can respond in a number of ways to this sort of thing. If we become angry and upset that usually won’t make anyone change their mind about us. If we handle the matter calmly and from a place of quiet confidence that we do not have to convince this person of our self worth, that we are already ‘justified’ before God and need not win this person’s approval, then we are set free to choose an appropriate response. It could be to calmly provide counter arguments, or even better ask questions such as “I see you feel very strongly about this can you tell me why it is so important to you?” And some times one may choose to say, “I understand how you feel. I do not share your opinions on this. Would you like to know why?” And sometimes the response can be simply silence. In short, we do not have to say a word, especially when the person to whom it would be addressed is not ready to receive anything but confirmation of their beliefs and opinions.
In that silence one can ask what word does this person need to hear from me that will help them deal with their fears and anxieties that have been aroused? It isn’t about winning the argument, it is about speaking so that the person hearing can find their way to another place, perhaps one of healing or new insight.
If we allow our fears or anger and frustration to get the better of us, then that is what others ‘hear’ no matter how good or true our arguments and reasons may be. Learning to speak from the still center of our lives rather than off the top of our heads when we are in situations where hard words are being uttered is a skill I envy in others.
I have seen civil rights LGBT activists do this time and time again without any outward show of anger or retaliation at the defamatory remarks of others. I don’t know if they go home and kick hell out of the dog or not. But in public they come across as reasonable people and their opponents appear as ideologues and hot heads. Over time I have watched and noticed that even our opponents have been impressed and have attempted to go and do likewise. Yet, since so many of them seem emotionally driven individuals the more they talk the more they unreel and they end up generating more heat than light.
We have witnessed lately egregious and inflammatory rhetoric based on fears and promoted as fact on TV stations such as FOX News and other media. We have seen the consequences at town hall meetings where speakers are shouted down and some persons even show up carrying weapons and making veiled threats of violence.
Such is the raging power of the uncontrolled tongue used as a weapon without regard to the factual truth. Persons who exercise freedom of speech in this manner corrupt civil discourse and must be exposed as ranters and cynical manipulators of the democratic process of public debate. This process presumes that rational argument and factual evidence will ultimately prevail, It only can do so, however, if enough people reject these passionate tirades and insist upon orderly discussion without resorting to name calling and threats of intimidation.
It is so tempting to return evil for evil under these circumstances where people are reacting out of fear and ignorance. One must very self consciously reject doing that since it only stokes the fires of hell rather than calms them. One strategy when in such debate is to lower one’s voice and speak softly. So softly that others must be quiet and listen. Such a tactic offers a barely audible alternative that may defuse the situation so that rational debate can take place.
One has to also point out that those who resort to such practices of shouting and name calling reveal just how intellectually and morally bankrupt their position is when it cannot stand up to rational discussion and scrutiny as to the facts.
I keep remembering the end of the McCarthy smear campaign which gave that Senator so much power and visibility. At the very end someone asked him, “Have you no shame? At last, have you no shame?” That needs to be asked of those who are similarly engaged in smearing those with whom they disagree, calling them Nazis (ever so ironic since the Nazis engaged in just tactics themselves and disrupted the meetings of those they opposed in much the same way as these people are doing).
Our national covenant as a democracy with a guarantee of free speech and free press is that we will allow all to express their opinion, but at the same time we expect all to respect the opinions of others. When the latter is abandoned by people convinced that they know the whole truth and all others are liars we have lost the right of free speech and with it the principle which protects all other liberties.
Religious belief as we all know can become a refuge for those who seek the security of unquestionable truths. It can be used as a weapon to silence those who dissent. But the Scripture can also reveal the hypocrisy of such misuse of religion, and one way it can do so is call attention to the misuse of language and words to obscure unpleasant truth. Jesus himself was convicted by mob rantings at his ‘trial’ before Pilate. Let us beware of such tactics lest the truth again be sacrificed to appease the fears of the mob and protect the privileges of the few.
Again I stress that we must speak from the still center of our lives rather than off the top of our heads when we are in situations where hard words are being uttered. This is more than just a political strategy for us, it has to be – a lifestyle! Nonviolence has to do with who you are and not just a tactic you adopt when convenient.
To follow such a lifestyle of being nonviolent in speech and action requires a way of reminding oneself of the underlying decision involved in how one responds moment to moment. One needs a mantra which steadies your soul in the midst of conflict. Or as St. Paul said, “Pray without ceasing.” One needs to find such a phrase that rings true and settles your spirit so that your fears are calmed and ‘boldly go where no one has gone before’ when it is necessary to do so.
Much of the conversation we need to have, therefore, is first with ourselves. Do we recognize our own fears? Do we know what our pet peeves are and why they are so important to us? Do we recognize situations that can set us off? Do we have a bag of tricks to use to center ourselves and regain our composure? Are we able to say to another person, “I made a mistake, you are right.” Or, “I am sorry, I misspoke.”
The aim here is not be become a milquetoast or doormat, but rather to set the heart free, for where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So it is a matter of learning to walk by the Spirit and in the Spirit and so find the freedom God intends for us to enjoy.
Longtime LGBTQ+ advocate and activist Rev. Sarah Jeane Flynn transitioned in 1978 following the dissolution of her marriage. Now retired from the clergy, she serves on the advisory board of the Vermont Department of Corrections. Born in Chicago in 1938, she earned her bachelors in anthropology and history from the University of Texas in 1961 and that same year married as a male. She moved to New Jersey to study at Drew Theological School, where she earned her M.Div. in 1968. For years she served as a United Methodist supply pastor in Connecticut and became pastor of a small parish outside Hartford. In 1995 she became a member of an Independent Catholic Church and was received as a priest in that communion. In 2003 she and her partner Joanna Cole moved to Burlington, Vt., where they became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint Paul, on All Saints Day, November 1, 2009.