210912 Lectionary 24B
September 12, 2021
Sermon: “To Speak as Jackals or Giraffes”
Ok, so this week it’s all about the power of words - for good or for ill, for healing or harming, for peace or violence, for life or for death.
(The wisdom tradition we’ve been tracking in these past weeks often thinks in these kind of binaries. It’s always the wise versus the foolish way. This kind of language sometimes repels people of our age, but it’s important to recognize that the sages never believed the world we actually live in is divided up into such black and white categories; our moral choices and ways of speaking and being with each other are always undergirded by a grey mix of motivations and inclinations. We’re wise and foolish, saints and sinners at the very same time. But it’s useful to distinguish, at least rhetorically, the two possible paths that always lie before us. And today, again, we’re distinguishing two ways of using our tongues—to use words that open up our hearts and the hearts of others to life, or to speak in ways that close us off to empathy.)
James marvels at the power of the tongue to shape the world and change the course of lives. He’s amazed that we can speak words of beauty and blessing to each other in one moment, and then spew forth ugliness, judgement, and hate in the next breath. Mostly he’s pessimistic about the possibilities for good, though. The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. It sets the world on fire.
And this is literally true, as you know. Think of twenty-plus years ago, and really down to the present—how preachers in some parts of the world got (get) really fiery about the West as an “evil empire,” and a tool of Satan. We saw the results of those kind of words twenty years ago yesterday - a massive inferno and then a pile of rubble made of the World Trade Towers. 2996 dead. And of course the war of words was returned. An “axis of evil” was described and a “war on terror” launched. No one knows exactly how many died in the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. Many, many thousands. I’m not trying to make moral equivalences here or delve far into the rights and wrongs of war — only to underline the truth that James points out: words set the world on fire.
The poison power of words in politics is obvious. We’ve all become so weary (and wary) of such words in the past half-decade or so, especially. And it always seems that the toxicity ramps up at election time when people are striving to win power. Name-calling and mud-slinging are time-honoured traditions in politics at election times. (I don’t want to seem cynical about politics or politicians as a whole. As public servants they have an incredibly hard job and an incredibly important role as leaders.) But in 2021 we can’t be innocent of the fact that words have power and toxic words have toxic power.
So there’s politics, international and national, in which we witness the fires that are started by toxic tongues. But I’m most interested in words at the personal level. Words spoken between friends, spouses, work-mates, or siblings. Here is where most of us feel the effects of words most keenly, and where most of us struggle to understand the most life-giving ways of speaking.
Marshal Rosenberg was a psychologist who systematically and most clearly laid out two ways of speaking, two kinds of language that we can use with each other. One closes off compassion and empathy, the other opens hearts up to understanding and love. He represented these two possibilities by two animals: Jackal and Giraffe.
Jackal uses language that is life-alienating. Jackal’s language is filled with judgments, labels, evaluations and criticisms. He (or she) is concerned with whether a person, action, or thing is right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate. Her language is full of absolutes: can’t, should, must, ought to, have to, etc. Jackal believes other people, or circumstances in general, cause him to feel happy, sad, angry, etc. As a consequence, he is always trying to assign blame to others or figure out who deserves rewards. Jackal wants to control others’ behaviour in order to feel ok in herself. Jackal is prone to fixing, advising, or turning attention to himself when talking with someone in distress. Jackal doesn’t really listen. I tried to illustrate some of Jackal’s qualities in the children’s message.
Giraffe, on the other hand, uses language that is life-giving. Giraffe observes events and uses neutral language to describe them. Giraffe’s is concerned with what she and others are valuing and how they feel. Giraffe has a large vocabulary of feelings for when his (or other’s) needs are either met or unmet. Giraffe makes requests of other people, never demands. Giraffe listens and has a wide horizon of perspective—is never constrained, never feels that others are controlling her feelings or possibilities for action. Giraffe listens with empathy and expresses himself authentically and vulnerably. Giraffe is committed to find solutions that meet everyone’s needs—not just her own—and is willing to wait and communicate for as long as that takes. Giraffe asks, “What is alive in me and you right now? and What can we do to make life more wonderful?”
Rosenberg, like the book of James, thought that Giraffe language was very uncommon. Most of us speak Jackal as our native tongue, and it gets us into trouble very, very often. We judge, we criticize, and we blame. We fail to listen to the hearts of others. And this only evokes the same kind of behaviour back again. But we can learn other ways. We can learn Giraffe’s language and perspective. We can train our habits toward patience and compassion. We can bless with our tongues instead of curse.
etc. ex cordia