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speaking Responsibly

September 6, 2010

speaking responsiblyThe social fabric of our country appears in our time to be fragile.  From multiple manifestations of increased xenophobia, to cultural and religious fragmentation, to hostile and vile political discourse, we seem increasingly unable to communicate with and trust each other to the minimal degree required for civil discourse and shared civic responsibility.  To some degree all of these symptoms appear related to a loss in the foundational disposition of trust, or what the spiritual tradition calls faith; without a basic level of trust, human society, much less human community, is not possible.   In order to have trust or faith in each other we must be able to believe in the truth of what the other says to us; we must inhabit a culture of truthfulness in speech and responsibility for our words.  The measure of responsible speech is not its efficacy but its honesty, its responsibility to those being addressed and to the Truth.  In our time it often seems that the value of speech is measured more by its manipulative success and financial effectiveness than by its veracity; for the most part there is no accountability or responsibility to the truth even for those whose voices dominate our airways and our public discourse day after day.  What difference might it make in our common life, if our public leaders, our journalists, and our media personalities of all political persuasions were held accountable for the truthfulness of their assertions?

    In the Sermon on the Mount as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches:

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.”  But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.  Let your “Yes” mean “Yes” and your “No” mean “No”.  Anything more is from the evil one. (Matthew 5, 33-37)

In our social lives, oaths are solemn and even religious acts.  At those moments where the very possibility of a shared social fabric and of human life in common are at stake, we ask each other to be honest and truthful by swearing before heaven, or earth, or our own life.  We do this because we recognize that there are limits to lying, dishonesty, and irresponsibility if a minimal level of trust and human community are to be maintained.  In civil society it is not a crime to lie, but only to lie under oath.  In the Kingdom that Jesus announces, however, we are responsible to the Author of Life for every word we utter.  Any word not grounded in the truth of things is from the evil one.  At all times, our speech is not to be a mode of manipulation and obfuscation but an expression of the Word from which we come.   Whenever we speak, we are responsible for our words both to those whom we address and to the One who is the Source of our speech.

    The Sermon on the Mount is not primarily a prescription for living but a description of the life of Christ in us.  One of the most significant indications of that life is our responsibility to the Truth in our speech and in our actions.  In his new book Ethics of the Word: Voices in the Catholic Church Today, James Keenan, SJ quotes the theologian Nicholas Lash:

To be human is to be able to speak.  But to be able to speak is to be answerable, responsible, to and for each other and to the mystery of God.  (p. 19)

To speak in the most distinctively human way, says Lash, is to be answerable and responsible for the truth of each word we utter.  Jesus reminds us that this duty of responsible speech is not occasional but rather universal, a universality of responsibility that makes oath-taking meaningless.  Although as limited human beings we shall never attain the fullness of the call to be responsible in speech, there are, on a daily basis, unending opportunities to practice this call. Every time we speak to others we stand before the call of Jesus and the summons of Reality to speak in truth.

    Prayer may be the experience by which we learn most fully the significance and the difficulty of being answerable and responsible in speech.  In prayer, we find ourselves speechless before the awesomeness of the Mystery in which we live and move and have our being.  In prayer we struggle to find an adequate expression of our truth before the one who is Truth.  This poverty of our speech reveals to us the depth of our responsibility to God and to and for all others.  In authentic prayer all glibness disappears; all performance ends.  Remaining in this difficulty and darkness purges our pretense, affectation, and self-promotion.  We may discover that we are mere infants struggling to utter words that correspond to a truth that calls us beyond ourselves.  Perhaps at its core our cultural crisis of honesty and responsibility is a crisis of transcendence and prayer.

    Adrian van Kaam speaks of the need in every time and culture for communities of “value radiation,”  communities of persons who keep alive through commitment and practice the foundational values that at various times are in danger of disappearing.  In our current time of constant talk, opinion, seduction, and manipulation, it is imperative that there remain those who commit themselves to the practices of praying in the secret of their own solitude and speaking humbly, honestly, and responsibly.  Distinctively human life, life that remains open to and responsible to the Spirit of God, requires that our human capacity for speech remain connected to its Source, that it not lose its connection with the Way, the Truth, and the Life that our lives, and so our words, are meant to serve.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.