“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
James 1:19, 20
In 2004 I was working as Coordinator of the HIV Services Department in UMDNJ’s Federally Qualified Health Center in New Brunswick New Jersey. The staff consisted, in addition to myself, of two physicians, three Registered Nurses, three Clinical Case Managers and a handful of support staff. And it’s interesting that I started this job at a time when Ryan White funding – the funding that puts dollars directly into the hands of those who need it in local communities – it was a time when The Ryan White CARE Act was undergoing a great deal of change, due in large part to advancements in pharmaceutical therapies and a federal administration that de-prioritized health care for the neediest. And while it was so wonderful that so many people were living longer, our patient population turned out to be the persistent cases – those folks who might not have a healthy, well-developed family system or social culture. Many were women of color who not only tended to defer their own healthcare, they were also pretty actively disaffected in a broad range of ways by the behavior of the men in their lives. We worked really hard at Chandler Health Center to retain as much support as we could from as many sources possible. And it often became quite intense, as we tried to justify ourselves with tightly focused Clinical Quality Management – my job – grasping after what were becoming greatly diminished funds.
Lucky for me that my supervisor – Dr. Militza Suarez – a feisty little Cubana with a tempestuous nature and nerves of steel – a truly brilliant Infectious Disease Specialist – lucky for me Dr. Suarez was active in her faith community and was very open to talking about it. So it was natural for me, after spending a good portion of the day prior reflecting on the Letter of James, to come into work on a Monday morning and share how deeply it moved me. Dr. Suarez is Roman Catholic, and I think the lectionary cycle in her parish ran close to ours, so she had found herself contemplating James as well. We both felt the verses in question gave us permission from God to stop – stop speaking and, indeed, sometimes functioning at all – in order to listen for God’s voice. We decided together to be more intentional about being slow to speak and quick to listen – and we failed quite miserably and quite often. A few days after our first chat about James, however, Dr. Suarez burst into the office we shared, crowing about how helpful our chats about James Chapter 1 had been. She ceremoniously posted a small sign on the wall in front of her computer, which read: James 1:19-20. And for the next three years we were both amazed at how many opportunities we encountered that gave us a chance to continue working on this seemingly small point.
But the truth is, it’s not so small.
And James’ letter offers more than a little assistance.
Although surrounded by scholarly controversy, it is believed by many to be from the earliest stratum of the church. Its earliest readers are believed to have been the followers of The Way – the earliest Jewish Christians who looked to Jesus’ brother James as their leader, even before the Gentile mission. It’s a beautiful letter; I commend it to your reading. We’ll cover all five chapters of this letter between now and the end of September, beginning today with Chapter 1, which seems to move from topic to topic without the kind of formal structure found in many such letters of Near East antiquity. Some commentaries liken the letter to an opera in its literary form – the first chapter seems something of an overture, where themes are presented which will be more fully developed in subsequent chapters. The letter, however, is not an opera; rather it is a diatribe – that is, it’s meant to be educational, and uses a classical form whereby an unheard and unseen questioner makes inquiry and the author answers.
After addressing the letter to “the twelve tribes in dispersion”, and making it clear that the tribes are suffering a difficult and prolonged persecution, James argues against thinking that God is behind their sufferings – insisting, instead, that God gives only good gifts. It’s from the opening statement in today’s passage, a declaration of the foundation of God’s goodness and perfection, that everything begins. We are to reflect divine goodness and perfection in the world.
The first of more than a hundred imperatives in this letter then follows – imperatives through which James seeks to implant wisdom in his readers: “You must understand this!” and with that we know we’re about to encounter a major point. We are to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger”. And while “slow to speak” can seem to run counter to our calling to proclaim the good news and be evangelists – to speak of our faith experience in ways that invite others to share in our joy – here we’re directed to pay very close attention to when it is the right time to speak, and when it is the right time to listen.
The implications are profound, and can be very unsettling! We are to be quick to listen. * This is the first and most vital step in growing our capacity to become a self with a minimum of reactivity to others. Quick to listen/slow to speak – a directive that simply, yet powerfully, helps us toward emotional reaction becoming a choice rather than an automatic response to the environment through which we happen to be moving at a given moment. Listening, then, is part of becoming emotionally clear when making judgments and decisions. It’s part of focusing on strength rather than pathology. Listening is integral to personal responsibility for one’s self and one’s actions and reactions – and it creates space for us to learn that process is emotional and about relationships. And when we’re trying to work with content at the exclusion of process, our challenges mount quickly. Leadership requires an understanding of more than the components in a task or a project; it requires, in addition, an understanding of the relationship among those parts, and listening is the only way to get there. James knew this.
The implications that are surfacing here are so helpful – first, in terms of friendship and intimate relations, of course. Taken to the next level, we find the benefit of being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger, of great significance in group work – the governance of this parish a perfect example of how this imperative of James’ draws us into considering, not so much what James means, perhaps, as much as living into what our lives mean in light of James.
And that may be enough.
Luke Timothy Johnson is not so sure, though. In his 2004 book Brother of Jesus Friend of God: Studies in the Letter of James he moves through a logical progression, from the content in James letter, through deeper understanding of relationships among component parts, and into the meaning of listening as pertains to the very nature of speech ethics.
Johnson seeks to discover what it might mean to perform the script provided by James in the context of contemporary life: What does genuine character mean in today’s world? Who are the poor among us? And why does morality in speech matter?
Language, he rightly says, is a world-creating capacity – an awesome power by which humans can either structure life according to the “word of truth” so that we are a kind of “first fruits of creation”, or make a structure of meaning in which God is omitted, ignored or denied – the latter, he feels, being the greatest peril of speech.
He goes on to suggest that if the church is to be the community that “receives with meekness the implanted word that is able to save”, then the church has the responsibility to challenge, rather than be co-opted by, the distortions of language in our culture. He uses examples of advertising and politics wherein language is used to deceive or seduce – to create by means of words and images, multiple illusions, in pursuit of which, other humans can spend their energies and their fortunes.
The slippery half-truths of advertising have become a staple of politics as well. “Selling” a candidate, slandering another with negative ads – these are not measured by morals but by effectiveness. Political agendas are advanced by appeals to voters’ most primitive fears and most unworthy prejudices, and this has become so pervasive that a “hermaeutic of suspicion” is a necessary element in deciphering virtually all communications. No generation in history has been so self-consciously aware of the capacity of speech to shape perceptions of reality, and thereby shape human reality itself. No generation in history has applied the awesome resources of communication technology in service of distorted speech and perverse desire. No generation in history, indeed, has so systematically set itself to shape a perception of the world that excludes God’s claim on humans and eliminates all notion of transcendence.
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile – but the things that come out are what defile.”
And here’s something that might be difficult to hear:
The church’s ability, insists Johnson, to challenge patterns of speech is lost when the language of the church itself is corrupted. When the church defines itself in terms of power, influence, or even number of adherents, it’s using the same language and the same criteria of success as the world. A church whose language is indistinguishable from the world of advertising has nothing to say to a world held captive by advertising. The church, therefore, has an obligation to tend to its own language.
This is tough stuff.
The language of faith cannot be taken for granted. It’s fragile and constantly threatened, because it insists on the truth of what the entire world proclaims – directly or indirectly – to be an illusion: and that is God’s claim on the world. The language of faith must be nurtured – not through artificial regulation, but through use of language that remains open to the mystery of God’s power and presence in creation.
“…slow to speak…”
Reminds me of a famous quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:
“Preach the gospel always, when necessary use words!”
Not only is it advisable on many levels to hold one’s tongue as means of not making matters worse through emotional reactivity – a rethinking of the entire notion of language appears as an invitation at the end of today’s epistle:
“If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…”
Hearing alone is not sufficient. We must do also. James cannot imagine a faith that does not love the neighbor actively.
We must take action on behalf of the less fortunate, and James challenges us to imagine a Christianity in which thoughtful and compassionate service is vital, not secondary. A lot less talking, a lot more doing.
I hope you will read James, and listen closely as the next month of Sunday worship unfolds. We may all see, a bit more clearly, how we might measure our faith by our personal relationships, both in our habits and in our speech, and in our relationships with others in the community. Let’s be open to being strengthened in our knowledge that our primary expression of our religion is indeed in outreach to the poor and neglected. By such attitudes and actions, James tells us, we fulfill the divine purpose and we actually become the first fruits of all God’s creatures.