For weeks, I had nice visits at our ministry facility with a team of bounty hunters, armed to the teeth, always wearing bullet proof vests and tactical gear. We would share the same delightful interaction:
“Do you know where he is?” They wouldn’t even bother to remove their sunglasses.
“Nope.” I’d sip my lukewarm coffee, dreaming of a trip to the microwave.
“Well could you call him and tell him to come talk with you or grab his last check, and we’ll wait around the corner.”
“No, I still won’t do that.”
Three months earlier, a 13 year old girl told her teacher that her stepdad had been sexually assaulting her for over a year. This accusation triggered a fury of activity: the girl was taken to counselors, her mom was picked up from work by social workers, they were escorted to a women’s facility, while half the police force went on the hunt for the accused, who happened to be one of my staff members, and a leader in our church community.
He (let’s call him Jim) was tipped off by a neighbor when the police raided their house and he wasn’t there. He found out the nature of the accusations when he listened to a voicemail from his distraught wife. He called me and I went to find him. He told me his side of the story, that his stepdaughter was being disrespectful the night before, he grounded her, and these fabricated accusations were revenge. I told him to just turn himself in and trust the truth to come out. Did I mention he was a black man only 18 months out from a 17 year drug related prison sentence? He ran. (and I don’t blame him, that deck was stacked)
His plan was to lay low and slowly raise the bail money he would need when he eventually turned himself in, while hoping his stepdaughter would recant the accusations at some point. This was the context of my regular coffee dates with the bounty hunters.
Jim landed in jail a few months later. He was in jail for 2 months before finally having the $10k to post bail, still waiting for trial. When he got out, he was homeless, friends and family wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole because of the nature of the accusations and charges against him. He was homeless for 6 months, couldn’t get any work because all of this was obviously on his background check. The stepdaughter eventually admitted that it was all a lie, and the truth was closer to what Jim had shared with me nearly a year earlier. It was another 3 months before Jim & I were sitting in a court room hearing a judge say the word “innocent”. After being exonerated, it took an additional year for the arrest and allegations to come off his background check (still couldn’t find work). Oh and that $10k bail money is gone forever, not to mention the life he had slowly rebuilt was completely burned to the ground.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” Proverbs 18:21
I have dozens of stories like this woven into my bones, and it’s why I’ve been gravely concerned with the gradual social-cultural shift from “innocent until proven guilty” to “guilty until proven innocent”. It’s invading every thread of our relational systems with dangerous paradigms, toxic distrust, validated catastrophizing, incentivized mobbing, and a carelessness of words. More and more:
Accusers are called victims, without a second of discernment.
Victims are called “truth-tellers”.
Their allegations are called “the truth”.
Any due process is called “compounded abuse on the victim” or “justice delayed”.
To offer an alternative perspective, or even directly disconfirming evidence, can now be called at best “impression management” or at worst “gaslighting”.
We feel immense multi-layered pressure to rush to judgment, and to publicly communicate that judgment, on any brewing relational or communal conflict, regardless of what we actually know, or are even capable of knowing.
But what if, and stay with me here I know this is wild…what if we occasionally, accidentally make assumptions about one another that aren’t actually, objectively true? What if we are capable of imperfectly interpreting events in a way that is both unfair to others, and needlessly harmful to ourselves? Even crazier, what if sometimes we actually lie, like on purpose, to hurt each other?
Scripture calls this “bearing false witness”, strongly condemns it in any and every form, and I’m convinced it is the most trampled & ignored Kingdom ethic in this year of our Lord 2021.
We have the power of death and life in our tongues, we can build or destroy. I used to think those kinds of sentiments were corny and elementary. Now I’ve seen dozens of lives, relationships, and communities destroyed by these simple, seemingly harmless things we call words. Words are the building blocks of narratives. We live out of our own internal narratives, and our words can form the communally accepted narrative of others (sometimes called a reputation). Internal and external narratives take time and intention to build, but can be tore down in a second. That’s the power of the tongue, a ten year reputation and the career and relationships entangled with it, destroyed with one sentence, one accusation, one counter narrative.
We speak fluently in the language of accusation now, like it was our required second language course in high school. That homeless guy on the offramp is just lazy and doesn’t want to work. That rich woman at the restaurant is self absorbed and incapable of generosity or compassion. My teacher is an arrogant know it all. My students are entitled brats. My pastor is a narcissist obsessed with power and control. My congregation is immature consumers. My neighbor is incapable of considering anyone besides himself. My boss is a money-hungry vulture who objectifies all employees towards her own ends. My employees are conspiring to undermine my leadership and decision making at every turn. That Bible church doesn’t care about the Holy Spirit. That charismatic church doesn’t care about the Bible. The school board is conspiring with the government to take away my rights and freedoms. The school board is so committed to rights and freedoms that they don’t care at all about the risk of dying children.
Are you sure?
“Telling lies about others is as harmful as hitting them with an ax, wounding them with a sword, or shooting them with a sharp arrow.” Proverbs 25:18
I understand the previous environment we’re collectively reacting against, bringing us to where we are now. For every reputation I’ve seen unfairly dismantled, I know far more men and women who were legitimately wronged, in their workplaces, homes, and churches, who’s concerns were never taken seriously. We’re all sprinting the opposite direction, as fast as we can, from a world tipped toward the powerful in every way. Where the Mark Driscolls of the world could set the chairs and act with impunity, board rooms were filled with protectors and “yes” men (and not many women), laws were being passed to cap damages and protect corporations from “frivolous lawsuits”, and women across the country were opting to drop out of college rather than sit in the same auditorium as their carefree abuser.
Accusations should never be ignored, silenced, fumbled or trivialized. I’m running with you, I abhor that old world, but I also can’t stop thinking about Jim, and the dozens of other good men and women I know just like him, cast to the bottom of societies pit, cause of death multiple stab wounds from axes, swords & arrows. There is no path back from a false accusation. Nobody feels responsible for the false accusation, the accuser or the community that believed it. In over 15 years I cannot name a single time someone offered an apology after an accusation was discovered to be false, only justifications of why they were in the right to make it, or why they so easily believed it, often followed by a pivot to other possible accusations to make (usually starting with “Well what about….”). There’s certainly no attempt at repair for the effects of the false accusations, again that would require an admittance of wrongdoing from someone who feels responsible. The reputation is broken forever. The job is not going to hire you back. The record doesn’t get cleared. The tweets and blogs don’t get removed. That whole network of friends that ghosted you isn’t circling back to say “my bad, come on back to brunch.”
I’m watching us embrace ideas, virtues, language and ethics that trade harm for harm. It seems we once lived in a time where accusations could come with serious consequences, and so we were cautious to make declarative judgments of another person or community, probably too cautious. I don’t want to live in a world where no one feels safe to name how they are experiencing harm, but I also don’t want to live in a world where accusations are passed out more frequently than handshakes (little shoutout to that pandemic that’s still happening if you forgot, looking at you Florida).
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak”. Matthew 12:36
This is, more than anything, a call to both patience in judgment and careful stewardship of our tongues, each ethic a dinosaur in social media land. To acknowledge when we don’t know, and be comfortable not knowing a whole lot. Resisting the urge to develop a well informed opinion on every controversy under the sun. To choose the “benefit of the doubt” more often than “assuming the worst” of others, because when there is a gap in knowledge, what we fill it with actually reveals more about us than the other. To resist the moral authority snatching allure of absolute & generalized language that’s rarely a true reflection of reality. To dignify human beings with an opportunity to actually process and respond to our concerns before we transition them from hypothesis to fact and share it with the world.
I’m just as guilty of embracing these new patterns of this world, tasting it’s bitter fruit and realizing I’d set up camp in the shade of a sick tree. I’m pursuing, and inviting others to come along, this way toward patient judgment, a sober mind, and careful tongue not just because of the Jims of the world, but for all of our sake, because our words both come from and reshape the heart in this age, and we’ll give account for our words in the age to come.
“Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.” Psalm 19:14