The debate over the capping of welfare benefits, both the Government's defeat in The Lords by the bishops opposed to a £26,000 cap on payments and Lord Carey's criticism of their actions has thrown into relief the issue of how far, as Christians, we should speak out. Those on both sides may try to claim the moral high ground or may see their view as the most truly "Christian" one. The Bishop of Lewes, Wallace Ben, has this week withdrawn his support for a book which, among other things, advocates legalising marital rape. The book was produced by a right wing think- tank called "Christian Voice" - how ironic that a group espousing views which so many find deeply offensive should see itself as a voice piece for Christian values! Indeed, when we hear Christians with diametrically opposed views speaking out on moral and social issues, we may well ask if there is any such thing as a definitive "Christian voice" on complex or controversial moral issues.
I believe that Christians should engage with political and social issues and should speak out against injustice. And yet when we do so it is inevitable that we will sometimes hold different positions depending on our politics, our understanding, our interpretation of scripture and the world around us. Even when it comes to downright atrocity, we may not be united. Many Christians, while deploring the loss of life in war, may believe some wars are morally justified to prevent greater evil. Religious fervour is often one of the most effective weapons of jingoism and propaganda, while sadly there are some "Christian" groups and websites that spew hatred and incite violence against their fellow human beings.
Perhaps this why the bible warns us to be careful how we use our speech, not always to remain silent, but to think carefully about what we commit to words and about the consequences of our words. Perhaps one of the best known verses is the one in James 3 which warns that we should bridle our tongues,
"Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!"
It seems to me that similar advice is given in the whole bible, Jesus warns us that, "by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."(Matthew 12) while the Psalms ask God to put a guard over our tongues and in Colossians we are told that our speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt so that we know how to answer all men. It seems that when it comes to our speech, we are constantly told to exercise caution, and to think about our motives for speaking out, that when we speak out we do so from good and honourable motives and that we consider others' points of view and so are able to "make answer to all men".
I do believe that, although the issue of when to speak up can be a difficult judgement call, that we should speak up when we perceive injustice and have decided it is right to challenge it. At the same time, it can sometimes be appropriate to curb our tongue, especially when to speak might do little good, or be for our own personal ulterior motives or might cause unnecessary hurt or pain. As we are told in Ecclesiastes, there is a time to speak and a time to remain silent. The line between wisdom and folly lies not just in what we say but in knowing how we should say it - and whether we should say it at all.