Among the Lions: Job and Evil Speech

I spent December 31st walking though Madrid, Spain and the Plaza Mayor, where bright lights and laughing faces were the backdrop for New Year’s Eve. But all the wonder had been leeched away. The previous day our tour guide had walked us through the plaza, detailing how the wide, cobbled space had run red with the blood of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. So despite the sparkling crowds, I could only think of blood-soaked stones and imagine I could still smell a faint metallic odor. This fanatical violence embraced by Christian kingdoms so long ago has faded into an uncomfortable memory, a footnote in time. Today, Western Christianity is matured and inhabits an evolved world of equal rights and tolerance, where religious violence—like ISIS’s execution of 21 Coptic Christians—is abhorred. Yet, it is entirely too easy for people to overlook something that can be just as harmful as religious violence, evil speech.

In Judaism, evil speech, lashon hara, takes many forms, from ‘harmless’ gossip to spreading evil about a person. However, no form of evil speech is truly harmless. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah compares the tongue to a sharpened arrow, which is why the Talmud says evil speech has no remedy. After all, once the arrow had been fired, there is no calling it back.[1] It’s little wonder that Job imagined those in his community as archers, shooting their arrows of into him without spare (Job 16:13). Like arrows, words are fired from a safe distance, and the target has little defense. In Judaism there is a frequently adapted story about a man who enjoyed slandering others. One day he realized the far-reaching consequences of his actions, and he begged forgiveness from his local rabbi. The rabbi reminded the man that slander is in essence murder of another’s reputation, and he instructed him to go cut open a pillow of feathers. Of course, the feathers went everywhere. After the pillow was empty, the rabbi told him to gather each feather and re-stuff the pillow. “Impossible!” cried the man. “All the feathers have been scattered by the wind.” “Ah,” the rabbi nodded sadly, “It is just so with your words. Once the wind has them, they can never be retrieved.” Words are soft as feathers and deadly as arrows.

In our ‘civilized’ western Christian context, words are the weapon of choice for attack and defense. Walter Brueggemann, in an interview with Krista Tippett, noted that society reacts against fear of change in their world more than issues of sin and guilt.[2] In his mind, this is why sexual issues are so galvanizing and polarizing in our culture. The church adrenaline is caused by an “amorphous anxiety” that our society is in freefall. Therefore, the argument is not truly about gays and lesbians but anxiety over a new paradigm and the loss of the old. While it’s no longer fashionable to protest women in power or civil rights for African Americans, moral indignation about gays and lesbians is still acceptable. It is the new focus for anxiety about a changing paradigm. Brueggemann’s insight has been floating in the back of mind as I’ve read Job over the semester. Job’s friends also could not accept a change in paradigm, the idea that perhaps the world was not as well ordered as they thought. They did not want to consider that perhaps Job was right, and the righteous can lead a life of suffering and misery while the wicked prosper indefinitely. Instead of just listening or even taking Job off the ash heap and returning some shard of his humanity, they notch their bows.

Unfortunately, such anxiety—especially when its outlet is speech—is not harmless. “I have free speech!” is not a permission slip to harm others. In fact, the sages regarded evil speech as far worse than murder, because it kills the one who speaks, the one who listens, and the one to whom the speech is directed.[3] After all, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue; and they that indulge it shall eat the fruit thereof” (Pro 18:21). In 1980, the president of Bob Jones University said that he believed society would be much better off if homosexuals were stoned to death. He didn’t apologize until March 2015. While his apology was certainly appreciated, those arrows can never be retrieved nor can the feathers be gathered. Such vicious, religious rhetoric is far-reaching and long lasting. In ancient wars, one of the first acts of battle was to shoot myriads of arrows into the sky, hoping they would strike as many opponents as possible. Words are like this. They are often shot aimlessly into the sky with no care of how or whom they harm. In my synagogue, there was a well-liked young man, who eventually told his parents he was gay. However, he couldn’t reconcile his identity with the hate rhetoric he’d always heard. Despite their shaken paradigm, his parents showered him with love and support, occasionally bringing their son to an LGBT synagogue. Their home synagogue was also very supportive, but it was not enough. The arrows had long ago been fired skyward, and the young man committed suicide. Words are not victimless.

The Psalmist says, “My soul is among lions, I do lie down among them that are aflame; even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword” (Ps. 57:4). Job 16 picks up both these biblical metaphors for violent speech, the gnashing of a predator and being struck by arrows. Job’s says of his friends, “They have gaped upon me with their mouth; they have smitten me upon the cheek scornfully; they gather themselves together against me” (16:10). Their actions supplement the vivid, violence Job ascribes to God in the chapter. His friends are not just “wearisome comforters,” they are the minions of misfortune (16:11), surrounding Job and shooting their arrows into his heart. Their initial good intentions—to comfort and perhaps even resolve Job’s religious crisis—morph into arrows and teeth. In the end, their rhetoric becomes increasingly antagonistic. They cannot reconcile Job’s shifting worldview with their own. Job has become ‘other.’

Last month a drunken mob attacked a synagogue in London with shouts of “kill the Jews.” They left blood and broken furniture in their wake. This sort of ‘verbal violence’ is frequently dismissed as insignificant in the scope of the world, but it’s rhetoric like this that fed the Holocaust in the first place. This is only the tip of Europe’s rising anti-Semitic sentiments. Perpetuators of such violence often claim that Jews are to blame for a falling economy or some other social woe. Many of my fundamentalist friends would protest that this anti-Semitic hate-speech is not the same as participating in an anti-gay rally or protesting God’s blistering disapproval at an abortion clinic. But the point remains the same. Speech, whether intended for evil or not, can mortally injure. Whether it leads to the suicide of young man who thought God could not love him or another generation of Jews afraid to walk to synagogue. Whether they are our words or the words of those who purport to represent the Christian faith, the bows must be put down.

The LGBT issue is just one of many social and religious controversies that can garner such hotheaded, harmful language. It’s fine to have a different paradigm, but war—whether real of rhetorical—has never been the answer. Job may not offer an absolute answer to questions of Theodicy or the prosperity of the wicked, but it does force readers to reevaluate their worldview. For me, I walked the plaza anew and saw how easily I could be one of Job’s friends, gnashing my teeth and nocking my verbal arrows. In the Inquisition, lashon hara led to the deaths of thousands. Neighbor turned against neighbor, friend against friend. One word whispered in the right ear, led to the demise of entire families. What would have happened if Christians had preached love from their plazas instead of fear of the other? Perhaps, the inquisitors would have died out. Perhaps, the amazing, wondrous history of Jewish-Spanish religious and cultural dialogue wouldn’t have been extinguished. Perhaps, without Spain’s precedent, history would have kinder to the Jewish people. Perhaps.

 

[1] Talmud Bavli, Arachin 15b; Jer 9:7 [8].

[2] Krista Tippett, “On Being,” [cited 1 May 2015]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAMnq4vdDvE

[3] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 7:3; Talmud Yerushalmi, Pe’ah 1:1.

 

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