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By Edwin Astill
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never harm me.
I suppose many of us will have used or heard this saying as a means of comforting someone who has had nasty things said of them. However well intentioned the saying is simply not true. St. James, in his Epistle (Jas. 3: 1-12) gives powerful warning of the dangers the tongue can get us into – and by extension the thoughts that give rise to the word.
We can be very cruel in the things we say, sometimes deliberately, and sometimes without thinking. These words wound and can even lead to a lifetime of misery for the victims. Whereas once we had only to suffer verbal bullying in the playground, workplace or even for some – alas! – at home, now we are faced with the phenomena of “cyber-bullying”. Not only does the victim suffer, but also the perpetrator.
As humans we are too often driven by the need to conform to our peer group. Even rebellious youngsters can be just conforming to their own group’s views. We who are older are equally in thrall to these pressures. We all owe a great debt to a man called Ignaz Semmelweiss (1818-1865). This Hungarian obstetrician worked in a Vienna maternity hospital, which had a very high mortally rate. Doctors would be dissecting cadavers, and would simply wipe their hands on their aprons before attending to women in labour. Semmelweiss concluded that this practice was causing the high mortally rate, and started washing his hands. The mortally rate dropped accordingly. However, this ran counter to the prevailing view that disease was spread through air. Semmelweiss was subject to abuse and eventually sent to an asylum for the mentally ill, where he died.
Failure to speak out in the cause of justice is the other side of the coin. Our NHS has been shown to repress “whistle-blowers” who see cruel and unprofessional behaviour. We must acknowledge the bravery of those who go against the unreasonable and unjust norms in society. The penalty for so doing can be high: it led Jesus to the Cross.
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