Chapter 12: The Human Tongue—A Call to Responsibility

The Living Commandments
by John Shelby Spong

Chapter 12: The Human Tongue—A Call to Responsibility

The essence of the Jewish Law was codified in the memorable form that the Jews called the Ten Words. That was done many hundreds of years ago. These Ten Words were designed to govern the relationships between a person of the Covenant and the God of the Covenant and between two or more people within the Covenant. It is interesting to note that when the rules governing human behavior are reduced by the Hebrew people to the number of ten, no fewer than two of the ten have to do with human speech. "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."

The capacity to speak, symbolized by the physical tongue, is the primary way through which we human beings express ourselves, and nothing reveals more deeply the biblical insight into the sinfulness and brokenness of human life than our verbal means of self-expression.

An ancient Talmudic story tells of a king who sent two of his servants out with very interesting instructions. One was asked to bring back the greatest thing that mankind has ever known, and the other was asked to bring back the worst and most destructive thing that mankind has ever known. Both, according to the story, returned with the human tongue.

From the tongue come forth the words that build relationships, express love, bring peace, pronounce blessings, call people into a fuller life—words that proclaim liberty. Parents separated from their children know the joy and meaning of a voice that seems to leap the vast expanse of distance via the telephone. It was the tongue that gave Socrates, Isaiah, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill their immense power and their tremendous gifts of leadership, for each of these people could move a nation simply with his speech. They could articulate the deepest yearnings of a people and galvanize the emotional resources of a nation.

However from the same human tongue also come lies and gossip, slander and curses, vilification and character assassination, cutting words and false witness, rumor and innuendo. The tongue expresses the inner being of a person better than anything else, so twice the Ten Commandments aim their insights at this member of the human body. When one takes the name of the Lord in vain, one reveals that he is separated from the deepest ground of his being; he is separated from God. When one bears false witness against his neighbor, he reveals that he is separated both from his neighbor and from himself. It is this insight that drives us into the biblical definition of sin, a definition that is far deeper than the behavior of human life, far deeper than the level of our deeds.

Biblical sin is a description of our human existence. Sin is the description of life that is lived separated from God, alienated from oneself, and cut off from one’s neighbor. Sin is a description of life that is lived in inadequate love, an inadequacy that drives us constantly to seek affirmation. When one analyzes what might be called "the sins of the tongue," one sees this inadequacy and alienation in operation.

What is gossip, for example? It is more than the malicious word of one who seeks to do harm. Gossip is an insidious attempt by an insecure person to gain power. By passing on the gossip, a person is announcing not so subtly that he or she is important, "in the know," that he or she has secret sources of information. The more important the subject of gossip, the better the neurotic needs of the gossiper are served. Gossip columnists turn out their columns, whisper magazines turn out their scandal sheets, and insecure hearts of little people feed their sick souls on the results. They make these businesses into a million-dollar industry feasting on the private lives, mostly imagined, of public figures. There is a tremendous price to be paid for being a public figure. There is a price in indignity, privacy, and in the truth itself, because around every public figure are thousands whose insecurity feeds on the inner life of the public person.

There is one other level of gossip. When a person passes gossip, he is in fact cutting the victim down. In the heart of insecure human beings, cutting someone else down enables one to imagine that he or she can in fact build himself or herself up. By magnifying another's faults, I can minimize my own. Beneath the gossip that we hurl, sometimes in fun, sometimes in maliciousness, there is a broken, insecure unloved life searching for importance, for being, for love. The tragedy of human behavior is that so long as we seek to build ourselves up, to overcome our deficiencies, we in fact only spin webs around ourselves, isolate ourselves more deeply than ever from one another, and reveal our desperate need for the love of God. One does not provide for himself or herself the love he or she needs by cutting someone else down. Thus both the victim of the gossip and the gossiper become victims of life. To the life victimized by the need to gossip, we hear the ninth Word of God, "You shall not bear false witness."

In addition to gossip, although frequently a part of it, is the human experience of falsehood we call "lying." What is a lie? Now obviously there are all kinds of gradations and motivations behind telling falsehoods. Let us get underneath the kind of mentality which says that you ought to be truthful to the point where it hurts, so you go to a party and say, "This is the lousiest party I’ve ever attended!" feeling virtuous because you are being honest.

What level of our being is served by our bending the truth? A lie is a way that we, in our insecurity, recreate the world of reality so that that world ministers better to our needs. We lie to enhance our image, to build our prestige, to overcome our sense of inadequacy. Hence all lying is finally self-serving, for if we enhance our image in our own eyes, we hope that we are doing the same in the eyes of others. We tell our falsehoods in such a way that we look better not worse. If we are going to lie about how big the fish we caught is, we never shrink the fish in the telling of the lie. But we do shrink our golf score.

For an interesting insight into human nature, talk to some of those members of our society who, in fact, are constantly lied to, to the point where they have come to expect falsehood. Talk to a traffic policeman, for example, for these are among the world’s most disillusioned people. Traffic policemen have been lied to so often by so many people in every strata of life that they trust no one. They expect to be lied to. So pervasive is this expectation that they are thrown for a loop if they ever happen to confront the truth.

Let me make a confession. A few years ago in the early winter I was stopped by a policeman in Richmond, Virginia on a Saturday afternoon. I was exceeding fifty miles an hour in a thirty-five mile zone. The red lights of his unmarked car began to flash, I pulled over, got out of the car, and went to confront my accuser, so that I was looking down on him instead of having him looking down on me. I had just come from a wedding, and was clad in the black clerical garb of my profession.

"What’s your hurry, Reverend?" he asked.

"Do you want the truth or a wild story?" I inquired.

"The truth would be refreshing," he replied.

So I gave it to him. I said, "The truth is I just got through conducting a wedding, and I have been angry all day that anyone would be so insensitive as to schedule their wedding on the one Saturday in December when the Washington Redskins were playing the Dallas Cowboys in a return match, with a shot at the Super Bowl going to the winner." I told him that I knew that if I rushed home from that reception, I might get to see the last five minutes of that game. "That’s why I’m speeding," I said.

There was a pause. "You know, Reverend," the policeman said smiling, "I think I understand that. That seems to ring true. I wouldn’t want to hold you up any longer. Merry Christmas!"

Within the prescribed speed limits, I made it home. I saw the last five minutes, but the Skins lost, and it was a very black day.

To insecure people, who bend the truth to minister to the sense of human inadequacy, the ninth Word of the Lord says "You shall not bear false witness."

The Commandment against false witness originally had its setting in a court of law, before a bar of judgment. To lie when a man was on trial for his life, and the truth or falseness of the charges being investigated could cost him his life, was to strike a blow at the very heart of the system of human justice. It is no wonder that in many ancient societies one found guilty of false witness in a trial was punished severely. The Bible said that one who bore false witness would be punished with the same penalty as the person on trial would receive if convicted. The Romans would hurl the bearer of false witness to his death from a cliff. The Egyptians would cut off the nose and ears of one found guilty of bearing false witness in a trial. All of these were ways, some rather bloodthirsty, of recognizing that one who would destroy another person with a lie was a destructive element that society should not tolerate.

Lies, rumors, and innuendoes hurt. They hurt the victim, and they hurt the originator. They destroy the sacred fabric of life and the sacred fabric of trust, which are essential to our living together.

Again, a story from the Jewish tradition: Based on circumstantial evidence, a character-assassinating lie was told of a much-respected elderly man in a particular community. The victim, when he began to hear these things about himself, went and confronted his accuser with the facts that made the lie perfectly obvious. The originator of the juicy story apologized and asked if there was anything that he could do to right the terrible wrong that he had done. The elderly man, according to the story, walked into the bedroom and took a feather pillow from the bed. Taking out his knife, he split the pillow open, and then, going to the window of the second floor of his house, he dumped the feathers from that pillow into the breeze so they blew in every direction.

"Yes," he said. "There is something you can do. You can go out now and gather up all of those feathers and put them back inside this pillow."

"But, sir," the other man protested, "that is impossible. I could never recover each of those tiny feathers."

"Yes, it is impossible," the old man agreed. "Just as impossible as it is for you to take back all the hurt and the pain that your malicious rumor and absolute lie has done to me. You cannot recover the suspicion that you have sown, the damage to my character. That can never be undone."

Life is fragile. Truth is sacred. Character is always vulnerable to those who would wound it with false or malicious words; hence, the ninth Word of the Lord speaks to the destructive tongues residing inside the heads of insecure and sinful human beings: "You shall not bear false witness."

Thus far, we have examined this Commandment psychologically. Let me now drive this Commandment beyond that psychological point which gives insight into the nature of human life and try to arrive at another level. It is a complementary level concerned with the false witness that arises out of human ignorance. It is not the ignorance of not knowing enough facts, but the ignorance of being unaware of or insensitive to human nature. This is the kind of ignorance that feeds human prejudice, the kind of ignorance that distorts our objectivity and enslaves the human spirit. It is the kind of ignorance that perceives the partial and proclaims it to be the whole; that is unaware of its own subjectivity and therefore makes and repeats false and prejudicial assumptions; that cannot separate the truth of experience from the interpretation of that experience. On this level, all of us human beings are the victims of false witness as well as the bearers of false witness.

Let me illustrate what I mean. In a debate before the Executive Council of the national Episcopal Church a black man made some highly critical, judgmental statements about the United States of America. He, a citizen of this country, called this nation an "oppressive state," a state that broke the spirit of many of its citizens, grinding them under in a quest for profit. He was immediately challenged by an executive vice president of a major United States corporation, who extolled America’s virtues as if God alone had created everything that was ours, and we were almost perfect. He lauded American business, making it appear to be the savior of the world. He minimized, if he even admitted, the faults of this land. He expressed the faith that even our minor faults were quickly being dealt with and would soon disappear.

As I listened to the debate, it was obvious that truth versus falsehood was not the issue here, even though both speakers were convinced of the objectivity of their thoughts. Rather, here were two competing conceptions of reality, both of which were true—true to the vision of the respective speakers but neither of which was necessarily true to the visions of the hearers.

The black man looked at the America of his experience, where a lid had been placed on his opportunities because he was black. It was an experience in which he had grown up in poverty, the poverty of second-class citizenship. He was allowed to vote only in the later years of his life. He was a product of a vastly inferior, segregated school system which used the hand-me-down textbooks that came from the white school system, while all the time listening to the white people proclaim that ours was a separate but equal school situation. This man’s experience was that blacks are the last to be hired in properous times and the first to be laid off in depressed times. These were the eyes through which he looked at this nation. He watched American leaders go into a national panic when white unemployment reached six percent. But he knew that black unemployment never sank below ten percent; and among black males under twenty-five, unemployment has ranged up to fifty percent in some recent years.

This black man listened to white politicians talk about the abuses of the welfare system. He heard government leaders talk about balancing the budget by cutting back on the food stamp program, even while they rescued a struggling aircraft corporation with massive federal aid. This black man saw America open its heart to resettle thousands of Vietnamese refugees and to find jobs for them, even while the native black unemployment remained at an all-time high. The black citizenry watched these Vietnamese victims settle into homes in neighborhoods from which the black American population has been systematically excluded. Blacks watched minor concessions being made, token integration here and there, while the power base of the society changed very little. They saw segregation being preserved, even where it was no longer legal to do so. All the time these things were going on, the gap between the average white income and the average black income in this nation continued to widen, while the white population says such things as, "We have made significant progress in race relations in the last ten years."

This is the reality that this black man saw and out of which he spoke his critical and judgmental words about the America that he experienced. From where he stood, he thought his words were objective, for they were certainly real.

Then the executive vice president of the large corporation spoke out of his experience. He saw a very different United States. He saw a land of unlimited opportunity, where one with ability could climb the corporate ladder to success and affluence, for that was his experience. He saw the ingenuity and the ability of people being rewarded. His experience was of an America where genius meets opportunity and receives the good life as its prize.

He saw the great, affluent, prosperous middle class in this country being produced by a free economy, and he saw abundant resources being turned to alleviate the distresses of mankind.

Having never been the victim of prejudice, he tended to be judgmental about those who could not and did not make it within the system as he did. In all likelihood he might hold the view that those who do not succeed really were inferior. He was confident that people like himself who rule the business establishment do so because they have innate ability. He did not understand the distortion that enters the human spirit with prejudice. When this man heard America being criticized, nothing about that criticism rang true to his experience, and he responded by criticizing the first speaker. Instead of facing the issue, he sought to show him up as some kind of charlatan or revolutionary or communist.

Both of these viewpoints were accurate descriptions of the way each of these people had experienced the same nation. When they argued with each other, both of them were guilty of being ignorant. Both of them had taken their partial experience and elevated it to be the total experience. They were judging each other because they did not share the same vantage point. They were perfect examples of what it meant not to be aware of the realities of life, ignorant in the sense of being insensitive or of taking a partial experience and believing itto be the total experience of all human beings. These two men have identified their partial views and subjective experiences as objective truth. In the name of their angle of vision, without being aware of what they were doing, they were both bearing false witness against their neighbor.

The way I perceive reality is not the way reality is. The way you perceive reality is not the way reality is. That is a crucial distinction, a distinction that the ignorance of unawareness never quite comprehends. I see this in many shallow, affluent people who live their lives in the tiny circumscribed environment of the affluent suburbs. Their children go to the private schools; their social life revolves around the country club. They talk only to each other, and in their own narrow swath of life, they spend their time reinforcing one another’s prejudices until they honestly believe that the majority of the world is white, Anglo-Saxon, affluent, and Protestant. Those who do not fit this mold, they seem to believe, exist to serve their convenience. They live as if it is their divine right to run the world.

To be unaware of the true dimensions of life, to be insensitive to the realities beyond your narrow little swath of existence, to talk to no one save the people who mirror your own prejudices back to you, to be the victim of your own narrow insecurity in life, this is to bear false witness just as surely as if you testified to the truth of a lie under oath.

When I lived in suburbia serving an affluent, socially uniform congregation, my primary experience socially was boredom. Every party we went to was attended by the same kinds of people, the same social strata. They looked alike, they acted alike, they talked alike. They drove the same cars, they liked the same kind of bourbon and scotch. They would say the same reinforcing things to each other week after week after week, and they never understood the meaning of life. They had limited themselves to a small piece of reality. It amazed me to watch a child of this environment spring loose and go off to a broad experience, and then come back home only to discover that their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles think the youth has been contaminated with "all that New York thinking." This, on a deeper level, is nothing less than the bearing of false witness.

To be very specific, I am convinced that this is also the particular and prevalent sin among those of us who call ourselves Christians. God can be experienced, but God cannot be explained. Words can point to God, but words can never capture God. Creeds can be formed to contain truths but creeds can never be formed that will exhaust the truth. God is bigger than the human frame of reference which tries to talk about him. God is bigger than any of the words of any human being about him. No matter how hallowed by the ages, no matter how thin or how gilt-edged the pages which we say contain the holy words, God is beyond the understanding of the Bible. God is beyond the understanding of our holy traditions, beyond the creeds, beyond the Church itself. No human system of thought can ever be ultimate. God, alone, is ultimate. Anything less than God will be destructive the minute we elevate it to the level of ultimacy. If you do not believe this, look at Christian history. Look at what we have done to human life in the name of the God of love. Christian history is dotted with the pock holes of the disastrous results of small minds who elevated their partial truths to the level of the ultimate, so that they could feel secure and be convinced that they were right. Then their religion became a club with which they beat into submission anyone who did not agree-and always in the name of God.

In my own tradition there seem to be those who are convinced that God is an Episcopalian. He isn’t. Neither is God a Baptist or a Presbyterian or a Methodist or any of the other varieties of Christians that mark this nation’s religious heritage. God does not prefer the King James Bible or the Book of Common Prayer. The Episcopal Church and the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, I pray, all participate in and point to what God is, but God cannot be identified with those human things. The idolatry that grips the emotional lives of some people in religious matters is incredible.

Protestantism does not capture the truth of God. Neither does Catholicism. And while we’re at it, let us be sure we understand that God is not an American; he is not white, black, or oriental. He is not a he. Yet each of these ways of describing him can, we hope, participate in the meaning of God. But please be aware of the limitations of human language and of human concepts.

God is not even a Christian. Christianity itself is also a human system, inspired of God, we pray, and so it is our attempt to understand that inspiration. We hope that Christianity points to God, shares in God, and participates in what God means, but God can never be limited to our Christian context. Until we accept this, our religious arrogance will violate his word against bearing false witness. Is it possible for us human beings, in the insecurity that marks our existence, to walk in the partial light of the truth that we can comprehend? Can we affirm that truth with deep conviction and power and at the same time remain aware that we always see through a glass darkly, we never see face to face?

We can acknowledge the possibility that every angle of vision will produce a new insight, and that the new insight is neither right nor wrong, it is just another way of comprehending. We can emotionally embrace the knowledge that God is like the sea beneath the sun—he always changes as we look out upon him, but in fact he never changes. It is our perception that is always changing.

Can we celebrate the truth that we do possess without using that truth to build up our sagging egos, to overcome our insecurity, to affirm our rightness, so that we must defend our truth or impose our truth? To follow Christ is a pilgrimage and an exploration that leads us into an unknown tomorrow where there are no landmarks and no certainties, where there is only the faith that God will be in every tomorrow if we but have the courage to enter it, to be open to it, to live in it, to be who we are without fear.

Christians are not settlers, but pilgrims. Whenever we become settlers, we put our wagons in a circle and we go to war. Christians are pioneers. The Christian life is always the life in process; it never arrives. Once you arrive with your Christian conviction, you become an idolator.

Christians are not keepers of museums who gather to admire the treasures of yesterday, though some of us act as if that is what we are. We are, rather, the bearers of the call of God to break every barrier, to expand every creed, every synthesis of yesterday, and to walk by faith into tomorrow, always searching and exploring and expecting a new revelation. Unless we know this, we will, out of our vast and all-consuming ignorance, inevitably and regularly violate the Commandment "You shall not bear false witness."

How very weary the holy God must get of our speaking of him in our shallow clichés! How weary he must get of our charges and countercharges as we seek to impose our limited vision upon him and defend it against one another! The only way to avoid the insidious and regular bearing of false witness is to escape the ignorance of being unaware of reality, the ignorance of being insensitive to the vastness of God’s truth. As we grow older, we recognize that life begins to look different. We are wiser, we say. Not so, we are just older. Age does not give us wisdom; it just gives a new angle of vision. No better, no worse—just new. The fact is that we always think we are right from whatever angle of vision we look out upon life. We are always tempted to identify the reality that we perceive with the reality that is.

I can remember so well that as a young priest I would identify with the groom at every wedding. As I grew older, with daughters reaching toward those marriageable years, I suddenly realized I was looking at weddings through the eyes of the father of the bride, and the weddings looked very different. Marriages look different and feel different when you identify with a different participant. I still do not know, and probably never will, what it looks like to view a marriage through the eyes of the bride, or through the eyes of the mother of the bride or the mother of the groom.

There is nothing objective about your experience or mine. The minute we think there is, we violate the ninth Commandment. "You shall not bear false witness" is thus a call to escape the ignorance that plagues and distorts all human beings. "You shall not bear false witness" is a call to a new awareness, to a new sensitivity. It is a call to come out of the ignorance of our killing prejudices, the blindness of presuming that our view of life is objective, the slavery that comes with identifying our partial truth with the ultimate truth.

"You shall not bear false witness" is a call to a life that is open, free, vulnerable, and risky, but that is where life is lived, and that is where its meaning is found.

"Know thyself" is ancient wisdom. Know thy limitations. Know thy blindness. For only as we do does the need to bear false witness begin to fade, and the vicious, self-serving attacks of our human tongues upon the sacredness of life begin to cease.