Paradise lost

Posted: Oct 04, 2006 12:10 PM
Paradise lost

Riding an exercise bike at my employer’s physical fitness center, I saw live images on the large television screen shot from Paradise, Pa. At first there were no people in the scenes, just buildings and a message at the bottom of the screen about school shootings. Someone asked, “Where’s Paradise, Pa.?” I said, “It sounds like an Amish community. It’s probably in the Harrisburg area or east.” The guy next to me said, “If Paradise is an Amish community, I guess we can’t blame these shootings on television.”

Perhaps that’s true. Knowledge of the shooter is just now coming out. News reports suggest that the killer was seeking revenge for something that happened 20 years ago. If that’s true, the shooter was only 12 at that time. He was in elementary school.

Just last week I spoke to a group of elementary school students in their chapel service. As part of my talk, I asked the group of fifth through eighth graders to tell me the insults they often hear in school and on the playground. They started slowly. One hand goes up, “dweeb!” A few more hands go up: fat! stupid! ugly! dumb! wimp! brace-face! moron! sissy! The pace quickens. Hands shoot up like popcorn as the room transforms into a Don Rickles convention powered by Mountain Dew. After a few minutes of this, and 50 or more insults, I gave the kids the hook.

Their rapid-fire response to my query worked perfectly for the chapel talk. Too perfectly, I guess. I was there to relay a message about murder. My theme was the opposite of the old incantation, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Words do hurt. In fact, one great man in history equates hurling insults with murder. When I told the barb-throwing students that they were actually committing murder by calling their friends these names the room got quiet. How could an insult be equated with murder, they wondered.

During the verbal melee, the eighth grade teacher noted that for some people being insulted is like death. The insult is permanent. The pain may never go away, she said. When I wrote my chapel talk I hadn’t thought of that. I knew the teacher was right and proceeded to build on her insightful comment for the benefit of the students.

At the time of this writing, we don’t know why the Paradise killer wanted to get revenge for something that happened 20 years ago; when he was in elementary school. But we do know this — insults are like murder, like death. They may have a permanent effect on the recipient. Who was the great man of history who equated insults with murder, with the sixth commandment? It was Jesus in his “Sermon on the Mount.” When you have some time, check out what He has to say in Matthew 5:21-22.

Regardless of who you think Jesus is or was, his words ring true today. I had read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters five through seven) many times, but had never really paid much thought to the part about insults and murder. But when my pastor preached about the subject this past summer I paid attention because I am interested in public persuasion and have been concerned about the tone of our nation’s political dialogue.

Insults equal murder? Come on, really? At least in the mind of Jesus, it’s true. And it’s true in the mind of the eighth grade teacher. Sometimes, insults are like death. They’re permanent. They hurt the recipient and may never go away.

Tell your kids to be careful with their words at school. Tell them to live out the Golden Rule, also found in the Sermon on the Mount, and to love their neighbors as themselves. Milton is right, Paradise is lost. We live in a world where words kill.