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16 August 2013

The power of words

"Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say" (Ecclesiastes 10:20).

I'm guessing that you don't think about Folkestone that often. In the past, you might have driven through it to the ferry; nowadays you're more likely to have been under it on a train. But a recent item in the local news has "prompted a storm of protests" and raised some interesting points.

Apparently celeb fashion designer Karen Millen tweeted that she didn't think the regeneration of the town would happen in her lifetime. This touched a raw nerve, since Folkestone has been talking about a Cardiff Bay-style regeneration scheme for as long as most people can remember, and many would agree with her sorrow that nothing seems to be happening about it all.

The "storm of protests" from those who heard her "damaging the reputation of Folkestone" have led to her apologising for her comments. But of course by now the damage has been done, and I'm sure you now have an even lower opinion of Folkestone than you might have had before you read this.

This is not the first story of someone famous having to withdraw and apologise for comments on social media, and it reinforces the message of James, who, had he lived in more technologically enlightened times, might have written: 'All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the keyboard. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.'

We all have things we wish we had never said, but we now live in a world where 'birds in the sky' can literally carry our words to millions.

I think two important points come out of this. The first is that whatever you say there will be someone who will be upset by it, often in an irrational way. In fact Ms Millen's tweet expressed her sadness at what she feels is a lack of regeneration progress, but some of the good burghers of our fine town could only hear it as a damaging slight on the place they love. The world is full of people who will take our comments the wrong way, whatever we say.

As a preacher I know that only too well. And of course once the words have left our mouths or our hard drives we can't suck them back again. In our world, attempts to explain what we really meant usually fall on deaf ears: the damage has been done, whether we intended it as damage or not.

Second, this story really does reinforce the need to be careful about what we say, through whatever media we may say it. James is not the only biblical writer to urge great care in what we say. Jesus himself taught us that all kinds of evil come from within us, and Christian maturity is partly about gaining the wisdom to know when to speak (or tweet), and when to suck it up and be quiet. And, given the first point above, that whatever we say is likely to upset someone, there is extra need to be cautious and careful.

Christians in my experience give quite a lot of attention to how they behave: too seldom do I hear the Psalmist's prayer: "Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips" (Psalm 141:3).

John Leach is about to start as tutor in liturgy at St John's Theological College in Nottingham