Weapons of Mass Destruction

Three European countries, one country in the Americas, and four Asian countries possess nuclear weapons.

(Israel won’t say one way or the other.)One source says that these countries possess 10,144 nuclear weapons; another source says 25,000 nuclear weapons exist in the world.  Those of us who don’t make policy, who don’t work full time on national security may think that the world does not need over 10,000 nuclear weapons. Some of us grew up being frightened of the potential for nuclear war.

As we recalled the events of 9/11this past week, fears of other kinds of weapons and warfare haunted us.  And within fifty miles of us, shootings took place near the homes and businesses of ordinary people.

We are surrounded by weapons. We have no control over the majority of those weapons. We conduct our lives as if we are safe, because most of the time we are.  Statistically, the odds are 1/~25,000 that you will be shot by a gun.  According to one study, the risk of a person not living out his or her natural life because of nuclear war is at least 10 percent.

Jesus didn’t say much about weapons. In fact, the only time he mentioned a weapon at all is when Peter pulled out a sword when Jesus was arrested.  What was Jesus reply?  “Put your sword back where it belongs. All who use swords are destroyed by swords.”

When I hear the word weapon, I think of guns, bombs, and knives. I have none of those, so I guess I can’t hurt anybody.  I wish.

Our lesson from the book of James states very clearly that we each own a lethal weapon; we are born with it and we learn to use it at an early age.  One of our first words is ‘NO” and even as cute little toddlers, we learned to use that word as a weapon. From that first “NO,” we progressed to other ways to use words to wound.

Our tongues, a symbol of our ability to reason and speak, are an arsenal that is easily unleashed on our victims. James compares the power of our words to the power of a horse, a ship, and a forest fire.  If you’ve ever handled a horse, you know that you are sitting on more power than you possess in your own body. With the bit, with your legs and heels, your 150 pounds is able to control 1200 pounds of horse. A rudder is a fraction of the size of the ship, yet it controls the direction of the ship.  And forest fires that burn thousands of acres are started with one little spark.

These dynamic metaphors seem extreme, compared to our little tongues. One tongue, a few words: what power can there be in this little organ?  We can’t draw blood with our tongues. We can’t shoot missiles with our tongues. Wherein lies the power of our tongues?  The power lies in the words we use, purposely or thoughtlessly.

Sadly, we know, each of us, the power of the words that roll off our tongues.  We have been both the victims and the perpetrators of hurt, pain, and alienation that words can create.

We live in a time when freedom of speech is construed to mean freedom to say anything without thought for consequences or repercussion.  Instead of saying “I’m sorry for what I said,” celebrities say, “I’m sorry you were hurt by my words.” That is, we blame the victim of our words, not ourselves. “I’m sorry you were hurt by my words” does not imply in any way that I am sorry for what I said.  I’m just blaming you for not liking what I said.

We have constant, instant access to ways of communicating via email, Facebook, snap-chat, Twitter, Skype….there are so many ways we can instantly share our vaguest thoughts with everyone without having to even think about our words.  One of the advantages to handwriting is that we have to look at our words as we write them. Ideally, that gives us enough time for the filters to kick in and we realize our words  should not be shared.

As I often do, I asked my Facebook friends to comment on this passage and specifically on how words are used as weapons in the church community.

Ironically, some of my friends used my post to demonstrate exactly what I was trying to explore.  I had to delete the post because one friend said some very hurtful things about other church members as she replied to my post.

Here is what I posted:

“The saddest toxic tongue stories are the ones about church members who no longer attend church because they were burned by another member’s toxic tongue.  In fact, I’m going to guess that a large percentage of people who stop going to church stop because of something that was said to them or about them that hurt their feelings or insulted them or a family member.”

I had some good comments, but one thread spiraled into accusations and arguments that almost but not quite named names.  I then had my own fires to put out as the maligned person privately  messaged me about the hurt those words caused him/her. In the short time that I was away from my computer, that fire broke out and old wounds were re-opened.

Starting in the 1960’s, we were encouraged to be open-minded and honest. We were encouraged to be spontaneous.  That has morphed into a culture of people who speak without thinking, who say whatever they feel like saying without thinking about the consequences of words.  Because words are so cheap, so easy to come by, we forget how valuable, how powerful they are—until we are struck down by another’s words. My friend felt that she had every right to express her opinion, whether or not it hurt anyone.  We’ve come a long, wrong way from our Moms telling us “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

There is not doubt, just from that 10-minute fiasco, that words hurt.  Those words did not have to be shared. There was no need to further the damage that had already been inflicted, but because my friend was being “open and honest,” she could excuse herself from and even justify wielding her weapons of choice.

James reminds us: “By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.”

James, of course, talked of the spoken word, because hardly anyone wrote back then.  Now we can both speak and write, and, worse, spread quickly and widely, our hurtful words.

I know I have been guilty of abusing others with my tongue, sometimes to their faces, sometimes behind their backs.  The tragedy of this is that people seldom hold me accountable for my hurtful words. Instead, they turn away and sooth their hurt by saying bad things about me.  Or they stop coming to church or card club or family reunions.  Or, in worst case scenarios, they harm themselves because I have made them feel worthless. A word, a sentence, can condemn, disfigure, destroy a child of God’s own creating.

James says that ”we should not all try to become teachers. In fact, teachers will be judged more strictly than others.” From my own teaching experience, I can tell you that teachers should be more accountable.  We claim to be authority figures, we demand respect, and that respect comes with responsibility.  If I say something to a student who respects me, it had better be truthful and helpful and, especially, kind.  A teacher can bruise a young life so easily in a moment of pique or annoyance or irritability.  A child, a student, does not know that the teacher is imperfect; s/he hears only the teacher’s affirmation that s/he is not good enough. But don’t think teachers are the only ones who are accountable for their words. In God’s eyes, the same is true of parents, of caregivers, of co-workers, of family members, of friends and neighbors.  We are accountable, in God’s eyes, for what comes out of our mouth, not just in church on Sunday, but every minute of every day.

Remember Luther’s explanation for the eighth commandment?
(“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”)

We should love and fear God, and so we should not tell lies about our neighbor, nor betray, slander or defame him, but should apologize for him, speak well for him, and interpret charitably all that he does. 

The most important part of that sentence, in my opinion, is that we ”apologize for him, speak well for him, and interpret charitably all that he does.” 

In other words, we always speak of the good things our neighbor does, not the things that offend or irritate us. What if your neighbor is breaking the law or hurting someone?  Sharing that information with others is simply gossip; sharing it with authorities who can step in to help the situation is acceptable.  But always, always, speak good things about every one.  Everybody expects pastors to say only nice things about people; when they succumb to gossip, believe you me, they get called on it right now.  But the commandments, the book of James, the entire Bible is written for each of us.

James says teaches are held to a higher standard; that is true, but it is human rule, not one of God’s rule. God gave one set of commandments, not two or three. He didn’t give one set for pastors, one set for CEOs, and one set for everybody else.  Everybody has the same set to work with.  The same goes for the two Great Commandments, Love God, Love your neighbor.  From pope to beggar, from president to street person, everyone is called to love God, to love the neighbor God has put next to him or her.

James says “But if you can control your tongue, you are mature and able to control your whole body.”

James is giving us a mandate, not an option.  Tame your tongue.  It is yours alone to control.  No one else has power to determine what comes out of your mouth. There is much in your life that controls you…laws, your banker, your telephone provider, but you alone have control of your tongue.

One of the first songs I learned as a child had this verse:

Oh be careful little tongue what you say, oh be careful little tongue what you say. For the Father up above is looking down in love, so be careful little tongue what you say.

It doesn’t say “Be careful little tongue or you’ll go to hell, little girl.” It says that my Father up above loves me and that I take care with my words because I appreciate that parental love.  I learned that lesson when I was three years old. LIke so many lessons, I have yet to achieve perfection, but I have never forgotten it.

Perhaps we are most careless with our words around those whom we most love. They are no less worthy of our Christian behavior and respect than the persons we greet in Christian love each Sunday.

James says, “By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.” Here is the good news: by our speech we can turn chaos to harmony, help to build someone’s good reputation, and turn the world into paradise.

Our tongues can be weapons, but they can also be gifts. Our words can provide inspiration, hope, encouragement, and affirmation in the midst of life’s depths, in the midst of despair.

James’ words can be disheartening if we think only of how we can misuse this weapon.  But take this a step farther and strive to offer your words, in all times and in all places, as a gift to all whom you meet.  Amen.

James 3:1-12The Message (MSG)

1-2 Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.

3-5 A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!

5-6 It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.

7-10 This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!

10-12 My friends, this can’t go on. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?

James 3:1-12Contemporary English Version (CEV)

3 My friends, we should not all try to become teachers. In fact, teachers will be judged more strictly than others. All of us do many wrong things. But if you can control your tongue, you are mature and able to control your whole body.

By putting a bit into the mouth of a horse, we can turn the horse in different directions. It takes strong winds to move a large sailing ship, but the captain uses only a small rudder to make it go in any direction. Our tongues are small too, and yet they brag about big things.

It takes only a spark to start a forest fire! The tongue is like a spark. It is an evil power that dirties the rest of the body and sets a person’s entire life on fire with flames that come from hell itself. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures can be tamed and have been tamed. But our tongues get out of control. They are restless and evil, and always spreading deadly poison.

9-10 My dear friends, with our tongues we speak both praises and curses. We praise our Lord and Father, and we curse people who were created to be like God, and this isn’t right. 11 Can clean water and dirty water both flow from the same spring? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives or a grapevine produce figs? Does fresh water come from a well full of salt water?

1United States Russian Federation (formerly Soviet Union) United Kingdom France China Other states declaring possession of nuclear weapons India Pakistan North Korea Other states believed to possess nuclear weapons

Israel Israel is estimated to have approximately 80 nuclear warheads. Furthermore, according to Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Nuclear Notebook 2014, the total number of nuclear weapons is estimated at 10,144.  All information from Wikipedia