And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
“And the tongue is a fire.” This scripture always comes to mind when I eat Mexican or Thai food. I love it when spicy food makes my tongue a fire. When we enjoy the feel of spicy food, we speak of how the food has a good “mouth burn.” Our mouths may be on fire, but it’s an enjoyable burn, one we crave.
We can often experience that same pleasant “mouth burn” when we get off a good zinger, or when we feel smug and superior after putting some anti-gay Christian in their place with a well-played argument over scripture, or marriage equality, or rights for LGBT people. In that moment our tongues are on fire with righteousness, with the feeling of being right, with the feeling of having proven to the other person that God is on our side.
Sadly, once that mouth burn fades and we’re left to survey the situation with some perspective. How much do we really accomplish when we use our tongues of fire – or ire – against those who oppose us? James is right, the tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” We may have been “right” in our arguments, but have our tongues of fire built relationships or destroyed them? Have our tongues of fire created new friends, or still more enemies?
This is the power of the tongue: It can hurt, or it can heal. We can use our tongues to curse, or to bless. Too often, we choose the mouth burn of righteousness to the tame tongue of relationship building.
It’s completely understandable, however. The LGBT community has been the target of terrible, hateful, evil and poisonous speech. Groups like the Family Research Council and American Family Association balk that their organizations have been tagged as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They say they’re simply standing up for what they believe, and they believe homosexuality is wrong.
The SPLC, however, says they have tagged these groups as hate groups because of their speech, specifically because these groups “have continued to pump out demonizing propaganda aimed at homosexuals and other sexual minorities.”
These organizations use their words to paint LGBT people as pedophiles, anti-Christian, anti-family and dangerous to the world. There is an eerie similarity, in fact, to how the religious right talks against LGBT people and how the Nazis propagandized against the Jews, especially in their threat to Christians:
“Jews consider Christians ‘heathens’, want destroy them” – Nazi propaganda film, “The Eternal Jew”
Gays want to silence Christians, blame them … “the real motivation behind such hate crime laws is to silence Christians.” – America Family Association ACTION ALERT via email, 10/16/98
Words have consequences, and in the LGBT community, we have reaped the whirlwind of this kind of hate speech. We have been demonized, our relationships outlawed, our very lives rejected by the churches, and the laws of local, state and federal governments changed to discriminate against us. The basis for all of this discrimination has been words – lies told about our lives over and over again until they are believed to be true.
These words of hatred and condemnation have driven many of our brothers and sisters to suicide. Still others have sought to “change” their orientation through “ex-gay ministries” that cause far more psychological and spiritual damage. These words have prompted bullies of every stripe to taunt or physically assault LGBT people in school or on the streets.
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can be just as deadly. So, I completely understand our community’s temptation for verbal revenge, that yearning to feel the mouth burn of righteousness by giving as good as we get.
This, however, is not what God calls us to do. Jesus, too, had his detractors. The scribes and the Pharisees did all they could to discredit him, telling the crowds he was a blasphemer who wanted to tear down their religion and demolish the morality they had set in place for the masses.
How did Jesus respond? Well, there were instances where even Jesus indulged in the mouth burn of righteousness, calling his detractors hypocrites and vipers, but overall, his response was very consistent – he spoke words of love, he spoke words of peace, and he continued to live his life as he believed God called him to live.
This, too, is our calling. We are not called to respond with words of hatred or anger, no matter how good the mouth burn of righteousness feels. Instead, we are called to respond with respect – and as Jesus showed us – you can respectfully call someone a hypocrite or a viper, as long as you’re ready to back up those words with more words – and actions – that promote peace, love, equality and unity.
In that same discourse to the scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew 12:34-37, Jesus gave them a warning about words. It’s one we would do well to heed today:
For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.
God judges us by our words, and those who have spoken hateful and bigoted words against the LGBT community will have to account for those words one day. Let us, my brothers and sisters, resist the temptation to feel that mouth burn of righteousness. Let us watch what we say to those who speak hate to us and about us. Refuse to let them bait us into speaking words that condemn no one but us.
Instead of responding to hateful words with still more hateful words, let us insist on speaking nothing but words of peace, words of love and words of mercy. Do not let the hurtful words of our opponents affect you. Instead, continue to speak words of justice, words of equality, and words of equity into this world. Those who need to hear them will take heed and the tongues that are on fire with words of love, and the lives that are on fire with unconditional love for everyone, will ultimately win.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.