On Getting the Last Word

I was in Target, which is not an uncommon place for me to find myself as we await Baby H’s arrival. As I was standing in line, there was a frenzy of activity in the returns and customer service section. As I waited, I was trying to determine what was going on. There was a white, middle-aged woman who was searching for something, maybe something that had been put on hold, and she was insisting that she be allowed behind the counter to just look for it herself. The manager and the checkout clerk were both very attentive as they tried to help her and understand what she was trying to find, but it seemed as though the item or one of the items wasn’t there.

Finally, the woman gave up and very abruptly said to the young, black checkout clerk, “Fine, just let me get that and could you hurry please I’m in a rush and this has taken forever.”

The checkout clerk responded, “Of course,” and proceeded to check her out.

As she was handing the bag to the customer, the customer had to have a parting word, “This is the worst customer service I’ve ever received.”

I’ll be honest, if the interaction had ended there, I would have understood the woman because dealing with large companies is often frustrating and hearing that there is nothing that a checkout clerk or a manager can do to help your situation is infuriating. Isn’t this why so many of us avoid those customer service phone calls that we all have to make to straighten out a wrong bill or an insurance issue?

But she didn’t stop there.

Her parting words to the checkout clerk (who by the way hadn’t enjoyed the interaction she had just been having anymore than the customer had) were calling her a name, which I didn’t hear, but to which the checkout clerk responded, “As are you.” I couldn’t help but wonder why that interaction had to get to the point of demeaning and name-calling. Sure, it was a frustrating experience, but it was for both parties involved, not just the customer.

This past week’s lectionary passage was on taming the tongue and the power of the tongue to start a fire. Although I’d rather not admit it I’ve been on both sides of similar interactions. I’ve been the one to receive a tongue-lashing from a simple miscommunication or misunderstanding. I’ve also been the one (more often than I’d like to admit) that has to get that last word in and who turns interactions into personal attacks.

We see this everywhere, especially as we are the midst of presidential debate season. We have lost the ability to discuss and debate without demeaning and degrading people. I think this is what the author of James was trying to encourage us to do. This doesn’t mean that we are to be quiet or silently brood over the state of the world, but rather that we are to model what it means to have control over our tongues, so that our tongues and our words are used to provoke change and to challenge the status quo. You might find me naive, but I think as rational, human beings we can do this without stooping to demeaning and degrading other human beings who carry God’s breath of life.

Or at least we could try. And in so doing, we are accepting the invitation of Creator God to participate in creation and making this world “good” again.