Sticks and Stones: Words and the Power of Forgivenesss
As a child, there was a popular refrain my school mates and I would sing – “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.” Those words of defiance could be brazenly thrown in the face of a bully who accosted you with demeaning language. As I grew up, I realised that those words were not entirely accurate. Mean and caustic words could take your self-esteem down a peg or two and scar you for life.
In an age where so much is recorded, intentionally or unwittingly, careless words can cause the instant dismantling of reputations, cause you to lose your income and become a social pariah. The court of public opinion is in full session, and it is never adjourned. This is the state of play in an age of social media where words are used as ammunition not just by bullies but those who have a particular agenda whether political or simply to grab headlines and increase ratings.
Are we to brand the Irish actor, Liam Neeson, a racist for all time for his account of wanting to enact revenge on man of a certain race who was responsible for the rape of his friend? [https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-the-liam-neeson-case-teaches-us-about-evil/2019/02/08/86ad4a98-2bc8-11e9-984d-9b8fba003e81_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.cd69017d3f95] Neeson joins a cast of other prominent public figures who have been publicly castigated for uttering racist remarks – comedienne and actress, Roseanne Barr and newscaster and talk show host, Megyn Kelly, being amongst them. In less than a year, the latter two have seen their careers and prestige take serious nosedives after having enjoyed decades of ascendancy.
Ironically, Neeson was at a press junket promoting a film about revenge in which he plays a father seeking revenge for the murder of his son. Neeson expressed remorse for his real-life violent desires, and the fact that he sought counsel from a friend and a priest at the time. The fact that this came out in an interview to promote a film, showed a need to clear his conscience in some way. Although, confession may be good for the soul, it is usually bad for the reputation. It is ironic that the public can stomach Leeson enacting revenge on screen in a work of fiction but not in real life. Yet, have we not all at some time, wanted to seek revenge?
When Jesus was asked for his judgment on the woman caught in adultery, his response was telling – “Alright, stone her. But let those who have never sinned cast the first stone!” Non-plussed by his statement, all her accusers disappeared, and Jesus left her with those encouraging words – “Neither do I [condemn you].Go and sin no more.”(John 8:3-10, NLT) Let’s face it – human beings have never been very good at forgiveness. We prefer the pride of one-upmanship – “I could never do such and such” as opposed to the humility of acknowledging “there but for the grace of God, I go”. We don’t want to see the true state of our hearts which are capable of such evil , starting with desires and thoughts to full-blown actions, given the right trigger circumstances. As God stated so poignantly to the Prophet Jeremiah – “the human heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? But I know. I the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives. I give all people their due rewards, according to what their actions deserve.” (Jeremiah 17:9-10, NLT)
When King David went against God’s instruction and took a census of the people, God gave him a choice of three punishments. The options were dire – “Three years of famine throughout the land, three months of fleeing from your enemies, or three days of severe plague throughout your land.” If I were David, I would have been hard-pressed to choose, but his reasoning was illuminating – “let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great. Do not let me fall into human hands.” (2 Samuel 24:10-15, NLT)
In the court of human opinion, a simple apology will probably not suffice. There are centuries of unacknowledged suffering and injustice resulting from victims of racism and their ancestors. Just as Neeson’s expressed desire to lash out against any ‘man of a certain race’ in revenge for his friend’s victimisation, was an extreme reaction; are we to seek to destroy Neeson’s reputation because he is of the race which is now being denounced in certain quarters as purveyors of all that’s evil. This raises suspicions that identity politics may be rearing its ugly head. All races are guilty of racial stereotyping of other races; the integration of the races is a wonderful ideal which has never been achieved. It is only when we meet people of other races who do not conform to our stereotypes that we become truly educated and reformed.
But unlike most fellow humans, God does not want us to carry the burden and shame of our horrible thoughts and actions for the rest of our lives. He wants us to confess the wounds, hurts and evil intentions of our soul. Then we can seek forgiveness and experience restoration. This catharsis enables us to move forward in life without going around in circles, being held hostage to our memories and a lifetime of regret. Forgiving others does not demean us by letting them off the hook. Ultimately, we must take on board, as did King David after committing adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband – “against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight.” (Psalm 51:4, NLT) It is God who sees the hidden thoughts and intentions of the heart, whether we confess them or not. It’s His laws which will ultimately judge us, not the opinions of others who are human like us. In Neeson’s account of fantasy meets reality, we can all learn a useful lesson in forgiving others, and benefitting from the redemption that only God can offer.