As a young person growing up in the evangelical church I remember always considering James to be my favorite book of the Bible. In reflecting back on why I found it so important at the time I think what drew me to James was the sort of clarity I seemed to find there. It is certainly no accident that this passage is paired in the lectionary readings with the Proverbs. Among all the books of the New Testament there is a sort of practicality to James—strong vestiges of the Hebrew Wisdom tradition.
Because of this sort of practical approachability James has long been a field ripe for memory verses and nice practical sermons. James’s statements about the tongue have been a particular source of this sort of hortative guidance for many of us. In my days in youth groups and the like it was trotted out regularly to make clear to us younglings why cussing was inexcusable for Christians.
But when looking at James more closely, there is something far more serious at work in these sayings about the dangers of the tongue. Notice the strength of James’s language: the tongue sets forests on fire, corrupts the body, indeed it even “sets the cycle of nature on fire.” What is striking about the infernal language James uses about the tongue is that it refers to the power of words to consume and destroy—most centrally to disrupt and destroy the world around us.
Given that the statements James makes about the tongue occur precisely in the context of a warning against becoming teachers (v. 1), what might we make of all this? It seems that James is not simply talking about the danger of cursing or speaking wrongly, but specifically about the dangers that attend those who speak with authority, who have power over others, just as the pilot is able to turn the whole ship and all those one it at will, simply by moving the rudder (v. 4).
What I want to suggest here is that James’s exhortation about the nature of the tongue is not simply a reproof about the deceitfulness of our own speech, but about how that deceitfulness manifests itself in positions of power. What lies at the heart of the problem James speaks of is duplicity, doubleness. This is, as we are all too aware, something that distinctly attends those in positions of power and authority. Blessing and cursing seem to always come from the mouths of our leaders whether in the church or the world.
What James underscores is the radically powerful nature of duplicitous speech in the world. Today more than ever we are aware of the power of words, and specifically of lies, to destroy and lay waste. What James draws our attention to is the radical power of ideology in our world. The way that language becomes a weapon with a will of its own, an instrument that is set on fire by hell indeed.
James’s conclusion is rather simple: “Brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (v. 10). If I may venture one more suggestion here, I would advise us to take the statement that “this ought not to be so” not merely as a wistful statement of the “Why can’t we all just get along?” variety. Rather, here James is echoing Jesus’s own statements about the nature of power:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matt 20:25-28)
As James is quick to remind us, “we all make many mistakes.” We are called to refuse the form of power that is practiced in the ideologies that set nature on fire all around us. The deceitful words of those in power, the words of blessing and cursing from the same mouth, these the words we are called to reject. This is why Christians should always be the most reluctant to speak with authority, the slowest to claim that their words should be obeyed. The words that set the world on fire all to often come from our own lips. As we seek to follow after the Messiah who told is that “it will not be so among you” we do well to listen to James as we strive to be wells that produce fresh water and fresh water alone.