As I get older, I continue to discover that many of the beliefs I cherished as a child were not really truths. They were, rather, proverbs my Irish mother used to say to encourage her daughters to behave appropriately. Because of a letter I received during the past Easter season, I was reminded of the inaccuracy of yet another of these childhood beliefs. When we were upset because of some negative name-calling by a playmate, my mother would try to soothe our hurt feelings with the saying: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
A recent letter from a friend described an incident that she had witnessed in a downtown department store. She had stepped on to an elevator and was followed by a well-dressed young man and two professionally dressed women. A third woman began to enter the elevator when the young man said to her, “Don’t get on here; you’ll break the cables.” The heavy-set young woman stepped back with a very red face. My friend spoke up immediately, told the man that his comment was rude and got off the elevator. The other women got off, too, surrounding the embarrassed younger woman and encouraging her not to let the man’s rudeness upset her. The woman, who was obese, said that similar incidents had happened to her before and that it was really difficult to feel good about herself when people made such remarks.
On reading the letter recounting this incident, I was reminded once again that the jingle I had repeated so glibly as a child is not true. It doesn’t really take sticks or stones to make us feel bad about ourselves; sometimes a few words will do.
For the first few days after Easter, I was unable to forget this letter and the situation it described. I knew that what happened to one portly young woman in a Pittsburgh department store was minor compared to the suffering in Iraq, the poverty in third world countries or the homelessness in our own. For me, though, the elevator episode symbolized all of those miseries. The man’s remark was so judgmental, so uncaring of the feelings of the young woman that it made the distance between his attitude and that which causes major world problems seem small.
I have told this story to many people, commenting on the rudeness of the young man’s behavior, extolling the strong words and rapid action of my friend, expounding on the beauty of the supportive women surrounding the younger one. I wondered aloud if I would have had the courage to speak up as assertively in such a situation. After one of my many recountings of this tale, a rather anxious, middle-aged woman responded differently from most who hear my story. “That man must be as afraid of elevators breaking down as I am,” she said. “I try never to ride them. My fear sometimes makes me walk up 10 flights of stairs. I guess it could even make me say something as rude as what he said. I hope not, but I can’t be sure.”
I have looked often since then in the mirror that that woman held up to my self-righteous judgment of the man on the elevator. His words were certainly unkind, but I knew nothing of his heart. I wish I had been as quick to impute less offensive motives to him as I was to empathize with the overweight young woman. A friend of mine suggested that in judging him as I did, I was behaving like the people she calls the “oppressors for justice.” She gives this title to those who abuse or oppress one person or group of people in their defense of another. Anti-abortionists who take the lives of doctors who perform abortions in order to defend the lives of the unborn would qualify for this category. Pro-choice liberals who malign the anti-abortionists would too. There is no doubt that my judgment of the man in the elevator earned me a position on my friend’s list as well.
The present situation in the church regarding incidents of sexual abuse by priests is fertile ground for “oppressors for justice.” It is a temptation for those who feel the pain of the victims to ignore the injustice perpetrated on priests whose reputations have been ruined by allegations that are not credible. In their zeal to prove their concern for victims, the bishops have adopted a zero-tolerance policy that equates a single indiscretion of an immature young priest 40 years ago with the behavior of an inveterate pedophile who has abused scores of young men and women. Unless the “oppressors for justice” have their way, justice for the victims need not mean a lack of justice for innocent priests or for one-time, long-ago offenders. On the other hand, those who defend the bishops who moved pedophile priests from parish to parish, or diocese to diocese, citing the need to protect the image of the church from scandal, are surely acting like “oppressors for justice” in their lack of empathy and care for the victims of the abuse committed by these priests.
Perhaps the answer for those of us who sometimes tend to act like “oppressors for justice” lies in remembering that not all my mother’s proverbs are inaccurate just because the “sticks and stones” one is. Maybe her favorite saying about not judging people until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes is still worth remembering—and living by. I thank God for the anxious woman who reminded me of that.