Tag Archives: Proverb 18.21


“Death and life are in the power of the tongue,

    and those who love it will eat its fruits.” | Proverb 18.21

Calling all cats!

Get our tongues!

Only you can play with them.

Open your mouths and say, “Ahhh.”

Because if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

Loose lips are dangerous.

Teeth hold steady

We cannot help hate, which always stands ready.

We must hold our tongues


Every letter and every syllable

No tongues lashing

These are life and death words

Horror stories, the product of our characters

Tongue- swords, piercing flesh, dealing death

One word away from taking her last breath

This is no time to be talking out of both sides of your mouth.

You say what you mean.

You mean what you say.

Swear to me that you will use your tongue for love.

People are dying over our words, falling to never rise again.

Because of pride’s insurrection that burns our throats and makes our veins bulge.

Don’t let your lip slip.

Bite your tongue

Until it bleeds


Instead cry and say what you really mean.

Turn on your tongue.

Tell on your tongue.

Confess the sins of your tongue.

I must warn you.

It is unruly and not to be tamed.  Ask James.[1]

Still it is better than adding to this list of names:

Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon (husband of Bernice), Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger, Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones.


[1] See James 3.6-8, NRSV: “And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

Post- Racial America: Why We Can’t Get Past Race


There aren’t many fans of the word post- racial.  It seems utopian for some, unrealistic for others.  And from what I hear and read, it seems almost mythical.  It’s magic talk and there isn’t a huge market for this fairy dust.  We just cannot even imagine the characters for such a story.  Because exactly what would we call ourselves?  Perhaps, human beings would be a good fit.

We say that we want out of race but we don’t want to hear about race.  We say that we’re tired of the fruit of race but that doesn’t stop up from sowing the seeds of history.  We keep watering our present with the same stereotypes and prejudices.

We keep talking about race the same way: omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient.  The change comes when we realize that we empower race and we can strip it of its power.  We carry race; it stops moving from place to place, person to person and conversation to conversation when we put it down, when we let it go, when we no longer allow it it to travel with us.  And race only knows what we tell it; race simply says what we believe about others– sight unseen.

We must begin to say more about the word’s limitations and restrictions.  We must begin to criticize race and its progeny.  And it begins with an evaluation of race but we must begin to supervise it.  We live as its employees but we need to reverse the role.  This is the only way to rid ourselves of it, to rise above it and to make race past tense.  We must entertain the possibility and not dismiss conversations that race can be moved, demoted and cast out of our cities, our communities, our churches, our houses, our mouths.  It’s life and death are in our mouths (cf. Proverb 18.21).

We cannot get past race because we believe that:

1.  Race is in front of us.  We must realize that when we agree to live by this social construct that we put ourselves in second place.  We accept that we are second- class citizens and second guess who we are, believing that that we get no second chances because of stereotypes and prejudices.

2.  Our social history will always be our present.  We must begin to live in the light of God’s eternity not the temporality of this life.  Just like our material possessions, we cannot take race with us when we die so why hold on to it so tightly while we live.

3.  We believe in its color- coded adjectives and have come to trust them more than any other word, even God’s.  We believe that we are socially colored black/ white/ red/ yellow/ brown/ beige and we just can’t see anything else.  So strong is the vision, so attached to the reality are we that letting go would be like losing ourselves.  We believe that we are nothing more than a color and if it is taken away, then we cease to exist.

But, we are not a color and people don’t come in colors like some packaged deal or social product.  We are children of God.  We are spirit, apart of Spirit and will live beyond our flesh and its social colors.  The adjective that I would use is eternal.

4.  We are more carnal than we realize or want to accept.  Race makes us comfortable judging, walking, living in the flesh rather than the Spirit.  But, the post- racial life is a call to walk after the Spirit, to no longer walk according to the flesh, to live by and based on our skin (cf. Romans 8.5).

Trust what I’m saying to you.  Accept the possibility of a race-less life.  Take my hand and let’s walk right past race.

Finding Trackmates

“To perpetuate privilege and oppression, we don’t have to do anything consciously to support it. Just our silence is crucial for ensuring its future, for the simple fact is that no system of privilege can continue to exist without most people choosing to remain silent about it…As such, we can only choose how to be involved- whether to be part of the problem or also to be part of the solution. That’s where our power lies, and also our responsibility.”  ~ Allan Johnson

These words are posted on the Un-Fair Campaign’s website and capture one of the most important reasons why talking about race and racism is so important.  We have to make a decision.  We have to choose today whether or not we are on the side of race and its prejudices.  And our inaction is the worst action of all.  In our silence, there is agreement and participation.  It is when we choose not to speak about race and its progeny that we say the most.  Our tongues have given race power and influence.  It is with our tongues that we have built up race and a foundation made of a closed mouth is much sturdier than an open one.

But, it is also with the tongue that we can tear it down.  It can serve as a wrecking ball.  Sacred Scripture tells us that “the power of life and death is in the tongue”; its strength can be found in our very mouths (Proverb 18.21).  However, often it seems that after we give life to a concept or idea, we forget that we also have the power to bring about its demise.  We incorporate it into our laws and systems of governance, family and culture, present circumstances and future predictions.  We allow what we’ve created to get out of our hands, unable to be molded or destroyed after we have given it systemic power and influence.  Sadly, we have yet to understand the great creative force that is the tongue or that in destroying, we are also creating.

Today, I am encouraged to have found yet another running partner, a track mate as I journey toward racelessness.  It is my prayer that I would find others who are not afraid to talk about race and more importantly, to talk back to race, to not only ask questions about racism but to question, to interrogate race.  Oh, I feel like running on today “to see what the end will be”!

Nigger and Other Troublesome Words: Turning a Negative Into a Positive?

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene

Sung by Bing Crosby, I was taught the words of this song as a child and it came to mind when I began thinking about this subject.  With race, there seems to be no in- between. While there seems to be some words that are both positive and negative, even the consensus upon who can say it, brings discomfort and uncertainty.  Some argue that racialized words are both good and bad; it simply depends on who is saying them.  I have heard it said that African Americans have the habit of taking what is negative about a word or experience and making it positive.  An example of the creation of soul food through the scraps of food provided during slavery is often offered.  But, I don’t know if that is possible when it comes to words.

Can the scraps of words like nigger, redskin, cracker, oreo, Gook, Chink and now towel head be redeemed?  Can the meaning of a word change based on the mouth of the person that it comes from and if so, how? Does a particular tongue wash the word of its history?

This is the nature of race; there is no middle ground, no gray area.  It’s either black or white, in or out.  You’re either with “us” or with “them.”  We have assigned roles and we have a common, though not always mutual, understanding of who can do and say what.  For example, it is agreed that the word nigger is a bad word.  Some may find it offensive that I have even written it and would prefer that I write the N- word instead.  Nevertheless, nigger is the only word that has this designation.  Other slurs, though not encouraged to be used, are not abbreviated in this way.  So harmful is the word that it is best left unsaid or if necessary, be referenced by the letter “N.”

Today, we call it hate speech: words employed by a person that disparages a cultural group or a member of a cultural group based on the social construct of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and the like.  But, what of its impact when African Americans begin to call each other nigger?  What happens when we turn a slur into an identity? What do we say when we embrace a word that has been used as a means of attack?

Some have argued that nigger can be a good word, a positive word depending upon the group that uses it.  It seems that the meaning, intention and affect of the word changes dependent upon the cultural group that employs the term.   Somehow, the word has become a term of endearment for some African Americans and is often heard in the lyrics of popular rap songs by persons of this same cultural group.  Mos Def, a hip hop artist, has a song titled “Mr. Nigger” that serves as a sort of musical commentary on the word.  It was employed by comedians like Richard Pryor  though he later denounced the use of the word.  Recently, the inclusion of the word nigger in the American classic Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn brought the debate to the forefront again.  It was the word that was used at the time and captures the reality of that time period.  The same can be said of the word Colored, Negro and Black to which persons also made good in their use of them.

In the 1970s, the term African American as the new identity of those whose ancestors came to the American shores in chains was added to list of those one could choose from.  I prefer this one because it roots me in two soils as I am both African and American.  Still, there are those who say that they are not African, partly because of the negative and stereotypical association of the word with behaviors and thought- patterns that are uncivilized and uninformed.

These and other words like it continue to trouble us because they are and never were good.  They were not born of good intentions.  And no matter who says it, the meanings behind all of these words will always be negative because of their origin.  It doesn’t matter who says it or how it’s said.  Throughout the Bible, we are warned against the usage of irreverent, godless and perverse speech: “Don’t let your mouth speak dishonestly and don’t let your lips talk deviously” (Proverb 4.24); “Avoid irreverent, empty speech and contradictions from the ‘knowledge’ that falsely bears that name” (I Timothy 6.20; see also II Timothy 2.16); “Avoid foolish debates, genealogies, quarrels and disputes about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3.9).

The writer of Proverb 18.21 says, “The power of life and death are in the tongue.” How would you describe conversations that involve race and its progeny?  Do the racialized words bring life or death?  Or, is it still a gray area?  Placed beside the Word of God, will we continue to attempt to make a negative a positive?

Additional Readings

Agatha Christie, Ten Little Niggers

Jabari Asim,The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t and Why

Ivan Hare & James Weinstein, Extreme Speech and Democracy

James Hartigan,What Can You Say? America’s National Conversation on Race

Steven Heyman, Free Speech and Human Dignity

Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

Frank I. Luntz,Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear

Mari Matsuda, Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech and the First Amendment

Samuel Well, Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy

Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia 

Version of “Huckleberry Finn” to remove the “N” word