“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear,” so wrote St. Paul to the church in Ephesus. It was good advice then and is now, however regularly ignored. What is evil talk? Some of the fundamentalists I know claim it is anything blasphemous, by which they mean whatever is inconsistent with their understanding of holy truth. Popular entertainment often casts evil as a caricature of the devil, vampires, zombies, or Lord Voldemort, in such a way that ordinary human beings are excused from the guilt of evil, no matter what they say or do. They may be in error, naughty, or just plain bad, but not evil. I’m more inclined to believe that evil is whatever is cruel, hurtful, deceitful, or unjust, and that the evil that comes out of our mouths is as damaging as any act.
This past election season reveled in cruel, hurtful, deceitful talk that became acceptable, even honored, among a large sector of the population as a legitimate expression of public discontent. With evil talk legitimatized, the ubiquity of unrestricted social media encouraged many to shrug off whatever social constraints had held their words in check, unleashing floods of cruel, hurtful, deceitful talk beyond measure. Freed from the tyranny of political correctness, all manner of vile words and deeds have been let loose on society with impunity, and sometimes applause.
If what is clearly evil talk has become more common place in the public arena, including among leadership, what some declare as evil has also been dumbed down. What I mean is that if your social and political values are not consistent with mine, then I can label them as evil; evidence not required. Having glued the label on, any accusation you make of verifiable social or political evil can be excused as just your opinion against my prior assertion, and, therefore, unworthy of further discussion. Decades ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an essay on “Defining Deviancy Downward” that criticized the erosion of standardized social values of the post war years. He had the right idea but aimed too many of his barbs in the wrong direction, trying to defend values that had been used to oppress whole classes of citizens, and was unable to accept redefinitions that would accommodate demographic changes and a more expansive understanding of social justice. What he had right was the sowing of seeds that would mature into a field of weeds in which evil talk itself would be the deviance defined downward.
So let’s go back to the top. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” It’s not only about constraining evil talk, it’s about speaking only what is useful for building up as needed. Is what I am about to say useful to others for building up as needed? Building up what? From a Christian perspective it means building up a more just, less exclusive community working together for the well being of all. Within the Church it means building up communities of faith. Emanating from the Church it means building up the communities in which we live, heeding advice from the prophet Jeremiah that in the welfare of the city where we live lies our own welfare. Building up as needed. What is needed? Therein is room for a lot of debate, but debate that must be framed in language intended to build up, not language that is cruel, harmful, deceitful. Let your words give grace to those who hear, and let it be so.
It’s something to work on because it’s not an easy thing to do. The tricky part is that we are not excused from confronting evil talk when we hear it, but must do so boldly without falling into it ourselves. At the same time, we are not given warrant to accuse someone of evil talk without verifiable evidence that can withstand informed scrutiny. We cannot subtlety imply that another is an enemy simply because they are not doing or saying what we think is best for building up. We cannot label ordinary incompetence as evil, though we must confront the evil that it enables. We can call ignorance ignorance and stupidity stupidity, but only if we make clear what knowledge and intelligence means given existing conditions. It takes a degree of humility I often lack, so don’t be quick to take me as an example. For that matter, St. Paul wasn’t a very good one either. Best bet is to stay focused on Jesus.