Whatever your religious affiliation, your tradition’s view on the power of speech provides an illuminating perspective for judging the spectacle of the most recent presidential debate.
Christians turn to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, emphasizing that God’s intentions were made known through the spoken word. To deploy the gift of speech is to speak the truth, lift up others’ spirits, provide comfort, and console. Any perversion of that is a sin. Many Christians point to Proverbs 25:11 to emphasize the importance of right speech. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold inscribed with silver.” Others look for wisdom from Romans 3:13 where it emphatically states: “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips.” In James 3:6, Jesus details just how dangerous an evil tongue is: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
Many contemporary Christian writers decry man’s propensity to lie. It showed itself early on when Adam lied to God about eating the forbidden fruit. Cain lied about murdering his brother. Abraham lied about being married to Sarah to save his skin. Jacob and Rebecca lied to Isaac, falsely leading Isaac to believe that Jacob was Esau, the firstborn, an act of deceit which some writers suggest has had implications right up to the present day. You see, Jacob represented a new way of life dependent upon agriculture, whereas Esau was symbolic of the nomadic days where hunting dominated communal living. In a way, Isaac’s blessing was an acknowledgment that the tide had turned in civilization and that the ancient ways would soon be a thing of the past. The lie sealed the deal.
From the Christian perspective, it would seem that all that has gone wrong in human history can find its roots in deceit. Is it any surprise that Christianity has reserved a fiery conclusion for all who lie? Revelations 21:8 proclaims that all liars “…will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur.” If that doesn’t instill fear in you, I don’t know what will. Out of this understanding came the important Christian watchword summed up first in Ephesians 4:29: “ Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen,” and later in Mathew 12:36-37 when Jesus said: “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” It’s not just sinful to speak ill of others, but empty, vacuous speech and stories would seem to be evil as well.
The Hindu mystics who set out the principals of the faith saw the cosmos as an interdependent whole. They taught a philosophy of “non-difference of self and other, asserting that in the final analysis, we are not separate from the world and its manifest forms nor from the Divine which shines forth in all things and all peoples. From this understanding of oneness arose the philosophical basis for the practice of noninjury and Hinduism’s ancient commitment to it.”i Everything is intrinsically sacred, worthy of respect. Every person you meet on the path is holy, so we would never want to harm anyone or anything. Each harm you do to another, whether through word or action, you practically do to yourself. In a strange twist of fate, because Hindus believe in reincarnation, the group you harm today with your words might become your group in the next life! Beware of what you say.
Islam followed in the footsteps of the Christian tradition regarding the words we speak.
Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq said: “My followers, be an ornament for us, and do not be a shame on us; tell people good words; guard your tongues and keep them back from idle talk and evil words.” Reflecting their understanding of just how powerful speech can be, the Imam went on to say, “Surely the most hated man with Allah is he whose tongue people fear.”ii Moreover, “He whose tongue people hate will go to hell.”
When reading these holy texts, putting them side by side with much of the Buddhist and Hindu manifestos, how could one not see more similarity than differences when it comes to right living? Or, treating your opponent in a debate with a modicum of respect?