A friend recently observed that, for all of the connectedness assumed among the tech savvy generation, his experience of simply getting a reply to a text message this past week (two or three repeated text messages to several people actually), seemed to be beyond it.
Now this is not a simplistic rant against those supposedly Y Gen types from one disgruntled X Gen (aren’t they all disgruntled? – Boomer Ed), but, given that the people in question are all Christians, it is notable that, as with so much technology, an appropriate Christian ethic and response to texting often has to be back-engineered, long after the tendrils of the technology in question are tightly wound around its vital organs.
Of course the biggies of the text world – such as sexting and instant ungodly responses – are real concerns, and ones that Christians are not immune to. However it is at the subterranean, low-grade white noise level that my concern is pitched. Jesus said a lot of things about discipleship in the New Testament; love your neighbour as you love yourself; take up your cross and follow; do not worry; do not use your energies seeking after wealth etc. But slipped in among all that is the passage from Matthew 5 in which Jesus calls on people to be keepers of their word. It finishes this way in verse 37:
Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, anything more than this comes from evil.
How important was this subsection of Jesus’ teaching? Well, it was sandwiched between a section on sexual immorality and the classic “turn the other cheek” passage. So pretty important then, cos it’s not like Jesus was filling in time after running out of really heavy stuff to say.
Of course, in its context, the “Yes and No” conclusion does what the rest of Jesus’ teaching does at this point; it ups the stakes of the already high stakes of the Old Testament Law. It’s one of the “You have heard it said” passages in which Jesus sets the framework for the new community he is gathering. And the point is this: Don’t swear oaths at all, because your words have enough weight to indict you or vindicate you in and of themselves. Why? Because, oath or not, all of your words are spoken before the Lord. No sacred space can ever give your words more weight, because there is no localised sacred space. Simply put, everything is sacred because everything belongs to God. Even your body is not under your control, so don’t even swear by yourself.
Which is where texting comes in. For those old enough to know, there was a time that when you arranged to meet up with someone in town somewhere you had to do it, or risk letting them down. I well remember standing in Perth’s Hay Street mall – just outside London Court where the common meeting place seemed to be for young people back then – waiting for people who had arranged to meet me an aeon ago (four days ago in the old language), and who would generally turn up. If they didn’t there would be some explaining to do.
Not now. You can text. You can change your mind, not even midweek, but on the very day and text someone your apologies: “Can’t make it”, “Something came up”, “Raincheck ok?” Granted texting also allows us the liberty to let someone know we cannot make an appointment because something has derailed us that we had no idea about. But texting has also allowed us to break the link between our Yes and our No. It’s a step removed from actual speaking. So if we organise something by text it does not carry the weight of organising something face to face and within earshot of each other. Except of course, it does. There is no sacred space because everything is sacred, remember. Everything is God’s and for his use and glory, even our technology. And, as with all technologies, we are fooled into thinking that we can contain ourselves within the virtual world and it not affect our actual world.
Our “Yes” and our “No” start to carry less weight, to be more opaque in their meaning than God intends when we use technology without thinking theologically. Language and communication is first and foremost a theological act. God spoke the world into existence and his word carries ultimate weight because he alone speaks things into existence. And then, in the ultimate theological speech-act, Jesus comes to us as the Word made flesh.
As sinful creatures, however, our words do not always carry out what we want them to, indeed they cannot, and in addition to that, we often don’t want them to. We are flippant with our words, and technology allows us to add a layer of flippancy if we so choose. With so many words being spoken, so many virtual words being uttered, and so many text messages being sent, who can judge us for being less careful, more flippant, or just plain lazy, with our words? God can and will. It’s interesting that in Romans 3:20 the final demonstration that God alone is righteous will result in the silence of all humanity before him. And what a silence that will be. Every mouth stopped as every word, every lie, every equivocation, every lazy text that stretches the truth about why we cannot turn up, will be exposed (and every lazy blog post too – Ed). If it were not for the famous passage that follows – Romans 3:21-26 – and its message of hope, our own words, never mind our actions, would be enough to damn us before the living God. Let Jesus’ words from Matthew 12:36-37 ring in your ears:
But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.
Now that’s a text worth texting to your friends.