As we watch without much edification the final weeks of the contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party and observe the confrontational nature of the discourse it strikes me that this is a violent way to choose a leader. As I watch the playing out of events at Lambeth and in Ukraine and as I follow online commentary and dispute on all manner of things from The Commonwealth Games to the Women’s football team and the latest garment espoused by the latest celebrity it strikes me that verbal violence is endemic. In almost every sphere, often sadly including the church, there is more rancour than unity, more vehemence than graciousness, more arguing than listening. We do verbal violence to each other almost as a matter of course. Sometimes it is the verbal equivalent of a load of thugs setting upon their victim and beating the holy carp out of him in broad daylight. Sometimes it is slow undercover poison, administered to destroy with sly violence someone’s reputation.
We need to learn how to speak with courage and integrity-dare one say with Godly wisdom? The Book of Proverbs teaches “sagacious discourse” and well it might, for such discourse sustains the community. Whenever speech loses its integrity, so also do the relationships that uphold the community. Ask Boris. Or Kier Starmer.
Proverbs 15 has much to say on the subject. The very opening verse says “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” A soft answer might not be ‘nice’ but it will always be devoid of moralistic judgements and accusations and will be humanising. It seeks not to threaten or blame but to restore connection. Those who blast others with red hot anger deepen division to everyone’s detriment. Moral outrage threatens relationships when it is allowed free reign. Those who listen to themselves, notice their anger and transform it into passionate care are likely to diffuse tension and foster connection.
Proverbs 15: gives us another tip. Wise speech is honest and accurate and shares knowledge with others. The best teachers communicate truth and cultivate morality. They exude honesty and accuracy.
We tell a lot of lies in the church- often to protect people’s feelings. Lying, gossip, flattery and slander are all identified in Proverbs as negative. Intentionally obscuring the truth is an act that stems from disdain. Flattery is a form of lying. It is deceptive in its intent. Gossip may be accurate but it is spoken out of turn, inappropriately and without care and so fails to contribute to others’ wellbeing. Slander aims to hurt directly; a little whisper, sowing seeds of doubt about someone’s character, destroying their reputation is folly. Speaking before listening, sharing information without consideration of its impact, interrupting are all lethal and erode relationships and even erects barriers between us.
Our need for sagacious discourse is acute. Think of the venom spewed on line, the ad hominem attacks made on individuals by news crews, the malicious slandering of political opponents and the rapidity with which we vilify those who disagree with us and who we then label as enemies. Proverbs has a lot to teach us about speaking with wisdom and compassion today. Why not read it and then try to apply it? I’ll be trying it too.