The Tongue as Sword

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
— Proverbs 12:18

This week, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case about the use of threatening language. The case revolves around Anthony Elonis, who is estranged from his wife and posted threats on his Facebook page using the form of rap lyrics after she left him and took their two children. He said he would kill her, shoot up a school and slit the throat of an FBI agent. One biblical verse kept coming to mind for me as I learned more about the case: "Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing."

The language Elonis used was graphic and violent: "There's one way to love ya, but a thousand ways to kill ya..." and then the language gets more painful until Elonis concludes that "Revenge is a dish that is best served cold with a delicious side dish of psychological torture." His estranged wife received a restraining order but this did not stop him. A week later, he posted this message, among others: "Fold up your protective order and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?"

Lawyers defending Elonis say that he was merely venting his hurt and frustration over the split up and had no intent to act on any of these threats. The language he used is not different from the lyrics of many rap singers today and the language content of many violent video-games, raising a question with huge implications. What constitutes free speech and what constitutes an illegal threat in the age of Cyberspace? The government is arguing that it does not matter what Elonis intended if his language would feel threatening to a "reasonable" person, the way the federal court generally determines if a verbal threat is violent. What's under question is what constitutes a standard because free speech is a First Amendment right. You may not like what someone says, but it does not mean that he or she is not free to say it in this country.

This argument gets to the heart of language itself. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked the momentous question of the bench: "How does one prove what's in somebody else's mind?" You can only really judge people by what they say. Yet in an age where we exaggerate and use expressions of violence in non-violent ways all of the time, it is increasingly difficult to determine the veracity of language: "I could kill for that hamburger right now." "Slay me." "If I say that again, shoot me."

It will be fascinating to see how the court rules this summer on this case. In the meantime, the case should make us all a little more sensitive to language and its intentions. Words can heal. They can also pierce like a sword. Even when the sword is removed, the scar remains. I find at moments like this, a tour of some other verses in Proverbs provides solace:

  • "A soft answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath" (Proverbs 15:1)
  • "The tongue of the wise speaks knowledge, but the mouth of fools pour out folly" (Proverbs 15:2)
  • "Whoever keeps his mouth shut and his tongue silent keeps himself out of trouble" (Proverbs 21:23)
  •  "Whoever guards his mouth preserves life; one who one who opens his lips wide comes to ruin" (Proverbs 13:3)
  • "Do you see a man who is hasty with his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him" (Proverbs 29:20

If you could carry around one of these verse in your wallet to remind you of the responsibilities and perils that come with language, which would it be? Perhaps it would be this verse from Psalms, the one that is uttered before we begin the Amida, "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and Redeemer" (19:14). The mouth represents speech. The heart represents intention. When words and intention are well-aligned in goodness, the words that come out of us bring more healing and beauty to the world. We shouldn't be satisfied with anything less.

Shabbat Shalom