Several times this past summer, I’ve accompanied a friend on Sundays to her Mennonite Church. The Mennonites have a strong tradition of social action and the practice of non-violence. Though I miss the ritual of the Catholic Mass, I’ve appreciated Pastor Kevin Chupp’s compelling sermons. Lately he has been plumbing the meaning of St. Paul’s famous passage in 1 Corinthians:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Last Sunday, Pastor Chupp reflected as well on the Epistle of James, which includes one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture:
What does it profit if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
James offers some equally interesting insights about our speech. He calls the tongue “restless,” “uncontrolled” and “full of deadly poison.” This description seems particularly apt at a time when even the political incivility we’ve grown accustomed to has become increasingly shrill. Last week, public figures used terms such as “fat pig,” “crackpot” and “dictator” to describe their opponents.
James says at the start of his epistle:
“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”
The words caused me to consider: what if I stopped myself every time I was tempted to speak negatively about another person?
To begin, I decided to refrain from complaining, griping about or criticizing anyone for the rest of the week. I reasoned that — just as Dorothy Day once said every act of compassion that we engage in causes a ripple — so too the unkind words we speak spread out, increasing the overall disharmony in our world .
For the first few days my new practice proved easy enough. Then someone I deal with on a professional basis raised a ruckus about a matter I didn’t think was at all a big deal. I groused to a mutual friend that the other person was behaving like a “prima donna.”
How quickly I slipped back into critical, judgmental mode!
The important thing is not how many times we fail, but how many times we pick ourselves up and try again, Thus, I’m back to trying to keep my vow of not speaking ill of others, even if at times imperfectly.
Writing on marital love in his 2016 pastoral letter, “Amoris Laetitia” (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis encourages us in the hard work of dealing charitably with those who test our patience or with whom we disagree:
Keep silent rather than speak ill … [This] springs from an interior attitude. Far from disingenuously claiming not to see problems or the weaknesses of others, it sees those weakness and faults in a wider context. It recognizes these failings are part of a bigger picture. We have to recognize that all of us are a complex mixture of light and shadows.
In other words, love doesn’t have to be perfect. Nor does it have to be without flaws to be real and true.
The message of St. Paul, St. James and Pope Francis boils down to this, Pastor Chupp says: “You are brothers and sisters and you ought to act as though you belong under the same roof.” So often our country seems more like a group of warring tribes rather than a family “under one roof.”
This week, can consciously refrain from speaking ill of others? Even if we don’t hold perfectly to that practice, we can vow to do better the next time. As Dorothy Day tells us, we can toss our pebble and cause a ripple of peace.