“And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Matthew 5:22
‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but calling names won’t hurt me’ – didn’t we all grow up with that piece of popular wisdom? Weren’t we all told from an early age not to listen to people who called us names? We read the words from the Sermon on the Mount from Saint Matthew Chapter 5 and Jesus seems to be saying that our parents and our school teachers were wrong. Jesus is saying that it’s not just our actions, but our words, and even our thoughts that matter.
I remember one Thursday morning in a Northern town where I was Rector, the telephone rang. It was my wife calling from a primary school where she had been taking the morning assembly with Jimmy, a Presbyterian colleague. The Presbyterian minister had been visiting members of his congregation in a big housing estate the previous day. There was a row of pensioners’ bungalows where the people had become afraid for their lives. The bungalows were heated by glass fronted solid fuel fires where it was important to keep the flue clean to allow the fumes to escape; if the flue became blocked there was a danger of carbon monoxide fumes in the house and of dying from asphyxiation. The marching season was approaching and the previous day, youths from the estate had placed flags in the chimneys of the bungalows. The people living there had become afraid for their lives and had phoned the Housing Executive. Men from the Housing Executive had come out intending to remove the flags and had been greeted by the youths who had threatened the men with violence.
I listened to the story, which could probably have been repeated in dozens of towns and villages. “Why are you phoning me?” I asked.
“Well”, my wife said, “Jimmy wondered if you might know someone who could do something about it”.
I phoned a man who belonged to one of the Loyalist political parties. “Billy, there are pensioners who are terrified of suffocating because wee hoods have stuck flags in the chimneys of their bungalows”.
“That’s ridiculous”, he said, “I’ll have a word”.
The next day, the flags in the chimneys and all gone.
I told that story to various people and everyone tut-tutted and not one person asked how these things came to be. Not one person asked what it was that drove young people to climb roofs to put up the flags. To regard them as fools was a sufficient response; yet it is the very response that Jesus condemns.
Applying labels, writing off people, putting whole categories of our society into a box is something we all do.
In the days of the Troubles, news reports would occasionally carry stories of the death of people involved in paramilitary violence. If someone planting explosives blew himself up, there were those who would have expressed open delight, and others who would have felt a certain sense of satisfaction at the outcome.
There was probably no real thought given to justifying feeling good that someone was dead. Being the North and being Protestant, there would have been some who would have pointed to Jesus’ warning in the Garden of Gethsemane that those who lived by the sword would die by the sword. More often there would have been an unconscious idea that this was a just outcome. Years of predestination thinking had created a strong sense that ones own community were the ‘elect’, and, if that was the case, then the other community were the damned, and if anything bad happened to them, it was no great matter.
What was surprising moving to Dublin in 1999, a scenario that was very different, was that there was a widespread sense that it was not a great problem if some people died. The morning news frequently carries news of the deaths of young men involved in gangland activities or involved in drugs dealing, as soon as the news reader says the deceased was known to Gardai, you can almost imagine the knowing nods at breakfast tables around the country.
Middle class people are untouched by Dublin or Limerick deaths in the way that many middle class people were insulated against much of the worst sectarianism in the North. Living there from 1983 until 1999 I never once encountered danger or threats, yet working class parishioners where I worked would have to contend with such realities every day. Perhaps if the middle classes were more affected, we would be less tolerant of violent crime and of the labelling of groups of people.
Jesus would have not accepted an attitude which said that the deaths of those caught up in violence was acceptable. He would not have accepted the way in which we listen to the news, the way we regard people who are different from us.
We have developed ways of filtering out those who are not like us. A friend who has done a lot of work alongside members of the Travelling Community said to listen carefully to the coverage of stories. If a person involved in an incident is a member of a minority, there will be lines slipped in to say that they were Travellers, or were Eastern Europeans, or whatever. “So”, said my friend, “the cue is for us to breathe a sigh of relief and think it has nothing to do with us”.
But, of course, it is to do with us. A society that does not address its divisions is one that is storing up trouble for the future; it is a society that will require ever more intruder alarms and electric gates. But more than that, Jesus warns us we face judgment for our casually dismissive attitude towards others.
Christian Unity is about much more than churches meeting together; it is about Christians working together to build up God’s Kingdom, about creating a community where every one of God’s people has a place.
Next time the news carries a story where there is a temptation to think, ‘that has nothing to do with me; they brought it on their own heads’, stop, and ask yourself how Jesus would respond.
“Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell”, says Jesus. May we be careful in our thoughts and our words and our actions to avoid such a verdict.