A priest friend of mine called yesterday afternoon and asked what I planned to say this Sunday.
I told him “I'm preaching for six minutes on rudeness, taking my cue from the second reading [James 3:16-4:3]. Simple subject, simple sermon.”
And that was my honest intention. But I failed—for a good reason. As I reflected on what St. James says, I became convinced that it’s not simple at all. In fact, it’s deadly serious stuff, and needs a very careful look.
In the first place, the readings tell us that how we treat one another reflects what’s going on inside our hearts. There are a whole lot of good reasons to avoid conflicts and disputes and selfishness, but for the Christian the number one reason is spiritual.
When we act in ways that aren’t peaceable, gentle, merciful and fruitful we not only harm our neighbor, we turn away from God. We know this because St. Paul describes life in the Spirit in almost those exact words.
St. James also reminds us that small sins lead to bigger ones. Weren’t you a bit startled when he went from talking about conflicts and disputes to murder in just a sentence or two? It’s true: most of us won’t kill each other because we’re not getting along. And yet disordered desires and ambitions are actually the root of both minor squabbles and fatal fights.
You can see proof of this in the first reading. The godless have nothing more serious against the just man other than the fact he makes them feel uncomfortable. But that’s enough to lead them to torture and kill him, because nothing checks their hatred.
Jesus was not crucified by psychopaths or sociopaths or bloodthirsty murderers. He was condemned by religious folk like you and me who failed to deal with their personal issues—envy, ambition, and pride.
The root of some horrendous crime is mental illness, certainly, and at other times unadulterated evil. But often enough the source of great wrongs is much less dramatic and much more ordinary. It can even be petty.
One of the best books I have ever read was Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by the sociologist Hannah Arendt, who had attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official responsible for organizing the details of Hitler’s “final solution.”1
Arendt argues that Eichmann showed no trace of anti-Semitism or psychological illness. Her use of the phrase the “banality of evil,” refers to Eichmann's claim that he bore no responsibility because he was simply “doing his job.”
But we’ve all heard that excuse. For me what was really astonishing about the book was Arendt’s discovery that Eichmann was less of a monster than a clown—he was a boring little man who helped with some of the worst things ever done in human history because he wanted to fit in, and he wanted to impress his superiors.
Even a team of Israeli psychologists had to conclude that in most respects Eichmann was “normal.”
If this is even partly true—and Professor Arendt’s conclusions aren’t universally accepted—we get an idea of how “ordinary” sins can deform the person and lead to the very heart of evil. There are, in other words, no harmless sins—sin by definition is harmful.
Let me take you from the drama of the death camps to more familiar places—perhaps to a staff meeting at work, or a family dinner, or even a parish council meeting. Does it matter if we commit ordinary sins in these settings?
Academic studies published this year have shown that just witnessing rudeness can reduce your performance of both routine and creative tasks.2 The researchers also found that witnessing rudeness decreased citizenship behaviors—that’s a fancy term for acting kindly and thoughtfully. On top of all that, it “increased dysfunctional ideation.”
“Dysfunctional ideation” is just a really fancy term for “stinking thinking.”)
All that from just listening to people being rude. And the study looked at both rude authority figures and rude peers. Same result.
On top of all that there’s the research I cited a few weeks back that showed how sitting next to co-workers who bad-mouth your employer makes you more cynical, less trustful of your bosses, and more likely to engage in bad-mouthing of your own.3
Small sins. Big results.
Just before the passage we listened to this morning St. James talks about “taming the tongue.” I don’t know why we don’t read these verses as well—they are very practical, and St. James pulls no punches. He points out that a great forest is set ablaze by a small fire. To do great harm it doesn’t even take a fiery tongue: sometimes a spark will do the trick.
He adds that when we put a bit in the mouth of a horse, we guide the whole horse; similarly, when Christians hold their tongues, they control themselves. The tongue is like the rudder of a ship—very small, but it determines where you’re going.
It’s hard to think of any sin more common than sins of speech—whether we’re talking about gossip, criticism, slander, anger, detraction, rudeness or insincerity. There are pastors who need to tame their tongues, there are parents who need to tame their tongues, and there are children who need to tame their tongues.
There are seven year olds who sin by what they say or how they say it, and eight-seven year olds who do the same. I won’t say anything about ninety-seven year olds in the hope they have the problem licked.
So let’s take this lesson seriously, all of us—young and old, at home, at work, and at church— so that together we can enjoy the “harvest of righteousness that is sown in peace.”
1.Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). (Rev. ed. New York: Viking, 1968)].
2.Christine L. Porath and, Amir Erez, “Overlooked but not untouched: How rudeness reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 109 (2009) 29–44.
3.J.M. Wilkerson, W.R. Evans, and W.D. Davis, “A Test of Coworkers’ Influence on Organizational Cynicism, Badmouthing, and Organizational Citizenship Behavior,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2008 (38) 2273-2292.