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. James 3:5b-6
In this series thus far I have focused on physical violence, particularly gun violence. And while physical violence is an epidemic in our society today, it is far from the only or even the most common manner in which we do violence to others. Non-physical violence is rampant and can take many forms, including verbal abuse, neglect, and vicarious aggression. It is the precursor to and foundation for direct acts of physical violence. Non-physical violence is so widespread and endemic to most of us that we fail to recognize it as violence at all. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt them,” was commonly proclaimed on playgrounds when I was a kid. But the truth is that words do wound, and their wounds often cut deeper and fester longer than physical wounds. Ditto for woundings from apathetic neglect, which can kill infants and result in chronic, emotional scarring in the rest of us. Vicarious aggression in the form of video games, violent media, and many sporting events are common methods of expressing violent tendencies through others.
The author of the epistle of James labels our tongue as a fire. The book of Proverbs, among others, has much to say about the power of our words. For example, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” Our words have power, and the manner and context in which we use them channels the impact of that power. Just as electricity can be channeled to heat a home or to electrocute someone on death row, so our words can build up and encourage, or they can wound and destroy. We often feel justified in verbally lashing out at someone we feel has wronged or threatened us, believing we are not being violent because we are not harming them physically. We joke, “At least I didn’t murder them,” even though we may believe the world would be better off without them. Jesus, however (as Jesus was wont to do) calls us out for our thoughts and words even when we have no intention of acting on them. “You have heard that it was said…’You shall not murder’…but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council.” In this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus likens the impact of angry thoughts or insulting words against another to actual murder. Who among us would not be found guilty many times over if held to that standard?
It is significant that Jesus correlates aggressive thoughts and aggressive words because thoughts precede words, and both precede aggressive acts. There is a sense in which the violent act has already been done the moment we think about it. There is a negative energy projection that cannot be retrieved once it has been unleashed, even when the physical consummation of the thought does not manifest immediately. In fact, the negative, aggressive energies we send out into the world collectively coalesce into the negative, aggressive, and violent acts we witness in and from others. The tragic violence manifesting physically in our world is fueled by the collective, aggressive energies we each contribute. That energy has to go somewhere for embodiment unless and until we learn to control it at its source – which is us. Which is me. Which is you.
Which is why Jesus insisted that we love our neighbors (and our enemies), and why he gave such a broad, inclusive definition of who qualifies as a neighbor (spoiler alert: it’s everyone). Loving someone does not necessarily mean we agree with them, support what they support, or even that we like being around them. Loving someone does, however, require that we do not harm them or even wish them harm. Loving others does not mean that we must tolerate abuse from them. It may mean the most loving and appropriate place for some troubled souls is in jail. It does mean we wish for what is best for their personal growth given the circumstances of their life-experience. We know that abuse festers abuse and violence begets violence, passing from generation to generation. Our loving response is to neither ignore nor tolerate violence, but to minimize its impact as we work to break the perpetuating cycle of negative, aggressive energy flowing to and from ourselves and others. And that work begins with and in us.
This is the 10th in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are mine and are not intended to imply the agreement or support of other individuals or organizations. If you wish to respond to my thoughts, please contact me directly at email@example.com.
 See James, chapter 3.
 Proverbs 18:21a.
 Matthew 5:21-22.