‘Every Idle Word’: What if we had to own up to what we say?

The deeply disturbing exchanges in Parliament yesterday and particularly the Prime Minister’s dismissal of the real concern and fear of women MPs as ‘humbug’, together with his own deliberately inflammatory language, prompt me to repost this, which I posted at the beginning of this year. If it was true in January it is all the more true now.

For different reasons we have all, on both sides of the Atlantic, been reflecting on the way our words can travel and unravel beyond us, on the need to care for the tenor of what we say. Here in the UK we are on the cusp of a vital debate and vote on our future relations with Europe, deep passions are engaged and tempers are running high. Like many people I have been disturbed by the metaphors of violence that MP’s carelessly deploy about one another (‘sharpening the knife’ etc) and by the sheer torrent of angry abuse the MPs themselves face outside parliament. The murder of Jo Cox in 2016, just before our Brexit referendum, showed us how violent language can generate and spill over into actual bloodshed. Back in 2011, before any of these events, I had already become uneasy about the coarsening of our discourse and particularly about hate speech, and I wrote this poem reflecting on Jesus’ warning to us about the consequences of the words we use, about the fact that we will be held accountable for them. I published that poem in 2013 in my book The Singing Bowl, but now at the beginning of 2019, it seems more urgent than ever.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

What If…

But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” Mathew 12:36-37

What if every word we say
Never ends or fades away,
Gathers volume gathers weigh,
Drums and dins us with dismay
Surges on some dreadful day
When we cannot get away
Whelms us till we drown?

What if not a word is lost,
What if every word we cast
Cruel, cunning, cold, accurst,
Every word we cut and paste
Echoes to us from the past
Fares and finds us first and last
Haunts and hunts us down?

What if every murmuration,
Every otiose oration
Every oath and imprecation,
Insidious insinuation,
Every blogger’s aberration,
Every facebook fabrication
Every twittered titivation,
Unexamined asservation
Idiotic iteration,
Every facile explanation,
Drags us to the ground?

What if each polite evasion
Every word of defamation,
Insults made by implication,
Querulous prevarication,
Compromise in convocation,
Propaganda for the nation
False or flattering peruasion,
Blackmail and manipulation
Simulated desparation
Grows to such reverberation
That it shakes our own foundation,
Shakes and brings us down?

Better that some words be lost,
Better that they should not last,
Tongues of fire and violence.
O Word through whom the world is blessed,
Word in whom all words are graced,
Do not bring us to the test,
Give our clamant voices rest,
And the rest is silence.


Filed under imagination

16 responses to “‘Every Idle Word’: What if we had to own up to what we say?

  1. Indeed, perfect warning for our time and a call of return to the WORD.

  2. lynndmorrissey

    Thank you, Mr. Guite. This is profound and profoundly needed for “such a time as this.” I live across the Atlantic, and I am appalled by vitriol spewed, not just by our politicians, but by Christians, especially. How do we square, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Phil. 4:8),” with falsehoods and bellicose speech. Surely what we think will be manifested in what we say and in how we say it. I bought The Singing Bowl when I was on spiritual retreat in Iona, and this poem struck a chord. Would that we would use our words to bless and not to curse, to build up and not to tear down, to speak truth and not falsehoods. Would that we would, ourselves, would use words to share THE Word made flesh, and emulate Christ in all we say and do. Thank *you* so much for a timely word in season, and for all the beauty and truth your words convey.
    Lynn Morrissey
    St. Louis MO

  3. Jennifer Jones

    Thank you for this poem. As a member of a religious community in Australia, we really pray for the situation in the UK. So distressing to see such division in the Parliament. We often use your poetry as part of our liturgy – so thank you for the gift! Jennifer

  4. Dear Malcolm, I respect you and your God given gift of perception.But,as a South African living in England,my take on watching the fiasco in parliament, is that NP’s have no respect for their Prime Minister ,and MP’s hypocritical,as if they could do a better job? They are not being democratic? Boris is trying to do what the people voted for.His government are creating every loophole to prevent him doing so.Your poetry is beautiful

  5. Thank you for this Malcolm and for reminding us that Christ is in the centre of our distressing state just now.

  6. David C Brown

    Thank you for a sobering word. As to the politics we can only await the perfect administration of Christ, and pray for restraint in the meantime.

  7. Amen and Amen!
    I too live across the Atlantic; it seems our coarse discourse is spreading around the world. I had a professor once who propounded the theory that the sounds we utter go on and on throughout the universe. I’ve never forgotten that image; and your words—your luxurious words are an even greater reminder that Christ is listening to all of them. Peace.

  8. Reblogged this on folio and commented:
    Words of truth

  9. Grandma Jo

    Thank you for writing these words. Jo


  10. Thank you for this Malcolm. For me it has similarities to the idea of there being no such place as ‘away’. Stuff, like words, exists far longer than we are aware of it’s usefulness or effect on others. ‘Better that they should not last’ is not an option in the physical, ‘man-made’ world. Perhaps a more careful approach with the use of both words and stuff would enhance lives more than we imagine.

  11. Ros Copping

    Thank you for this gift in a poem
    It has helped me face the day with clarity

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