“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  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… 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.”  James 3: 5b-6, 9-10

I got a tweet today from @billscher: “Thank goodness we have the Internet. Now any old douchebag [sic] can cause an international crisis.”  One tweet, one example of many this week that remind us of the dangers of speech, the consequences that can arise when we give greater regard to the speech itself, than to those who will hear it.

But the danger is not solely in the realm of international crisis, likely intentional.  How many of us have spoken in the heat of anger, from the depths of grief?  How many of us have given our tongues over to the expression of an emotional moment; how many of us have assuaged an instant of hurt by striking back at those who have hurt us?

All this with the same tongue that coos at babies, that whispers sweetness in intimate moments, that promises loyalty to our dearest ones.

The same tongue that lashes out with vinegar can so easily drip – just moments later – with honey.  How could it be possible that there is no cross-contamination?

Can we not be affected by the cruelties, the insults, the harsh truths that we speak, whether in the heat of passion or in cold clarity?  Are we not, ourselves, sickened by the vinegar that seeps from us?  Won’t some of it, necessarily, be incorporated back into our very bodies, since our tongues are not only instruments of speech, but of nourishment as well?  Doesn’t it, as James suggests, stain the whole body?

The Harry Potter  series, despite being disavowed by certain groups as being anti-Christian, is very clear in its message of the power of love… and in its descriptions of the great damage that hatred, anger, and evil can do.  Childhood cruelties that develop into adolescent malice and loathing that become fully-fledged evil in the adult body, well-nourished and cared for.  In the magical world, it is recognized that great evil can actually tear at the soul of the perpetrator of evil acts – to the point where the act of ultimate evil, the taking of a life, can actually rend the soul entirely in two.  But it strikes me that no one comes to that point of ultimate evil from a point of ultimate innocence; that many small tears and fissures must occur, so as to make the soul delicate enough to rip.  That we have to have become accustomed to small sips of vinegar, to be able to take a large gulp without becoming immediately ill.

I actually doubt that whoever it was who produced the film that has majority-Muslim nations around the globe in an uproar is wholly and completely evil.  Rather, I’d guess that he (since the evidence so far does point to the producer being male) was once someone’s beloved baby.  I’d guess that he a trusted friend, perhaps a devoted husband, perhaps a father.  He wouldn’t be the first.  How many of the people whom we, twenty-first century Americans, would classify as “evil”, were beloved by spouses and children?  That’s actually one of the few places where Harry Potter oversimplifies a situation: Lord Voldemort, it appears, was a loner – no wife, no friends, no confidantes, no ties of affection or love whatsoever.  The same cannot usually be said of real-life villains.

Which must, really, force us to reflect on the point at which a human being tips from angry to mean to cruel to evil.  What acts must we commit to move ourselves along that path?  What words must we say, or refrain from saying?  How much vinegar must there be, before the honey is entirely negated?  Or is it ever?  How soured is the honey of a man like Fred Phelps, infamous pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose love of his children and grandchildren I actually do not doubt, but whose spewing of hatred on a regular basis cannot help but defile the purity of that love?  Because those children will grow up stewing in that very same hate, pickled in that same vinegar, witnesses to the damage and grief.  Their souls shall be torn, either by the incorporation of that same hatred, or by the push-pull of loving the source of such vinegar.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

Many times, as a response to foul language, I have heard, “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”  There is an innate sense that cursing, that name-calling, does indeed make us dirty, that it can actually contaminate otherwise-loving relationships.  Jesus himself was very clear on that count: “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.”  (Mark 7:20)  When Phelps and his family are out picketing funerals and claiming that God is capable of hatred, they are defiling not only the God of Love, but their own bodies, their own capacity to love, to exist as a part of the Body of Christ.   When a politician – of any stripe – goes out on the stump to make personal attacks on a rival or on a segment of the electorate, some of the toxins spewed in public must necessarily poison the private as well: the relationships with spouse and children, with friends and coworkers.

How easy is it to slip, to let those drops of vinegar fall from our tongues?  How quickly we recover from the initial taste, the sharp sourness that quickly fades, but that accustoms our palate.  How many small tears to our soul can happen before we become aware that we are fraying, that we are soiled, that we are being split, slowly and surely, from the Body of Christ?  How great a fire must we start, before we realize the damage we have done, not just to ourselves but to those around us, until we find that we have become a disease within the Body and a stumbling block to growth and health?