'Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words can never hurt me.'
Do you remember that little rhyme from childhood? I wonder whether kids today still sing it when they are confronted by name-calling in the playground today? Of course, whatever bravado we might ahve wanted to exhibit when we said that in public, the truth is that words do hurt. How often, whether as adult or child, have we been wounded by the words of another to the point of tears or worse?
I grew up in the North of Ireland at the height of the so-called Troubles. The 1970s were a brutal time for that part of the world, marked by a large army presence and increasingly segregation of the two communities. One of the factors that lay behind the Civil Rights Movement was the blatant discrimination shown in the allocation of council housing. As soon as direct rule was imposed in 1972, social housing was removed from the control of local politicians and put in the hands of an independent Housing Executive.
When I was four
years old, my family and I were rehoused in a brand new Housing Executive estate. It was exciting to be in a house with a bathroom for the first time! The day after we moved in, slogans were painted on our house: 'Fenians out!' (Fenian is a derogatory word for Catholic). I was too young to remember that but I did end up becoming friends with one of the only two Catholic families on the estate. Looking back, they probably sought me out as a fellow Catholic, little realising that I was a Methodist! So I grew up on our estate with the name 'Fenian lover' being shouted at me, as my Catholic friends and I were regularly harrassed and even beaten up by local gangs.
I wonder how the Canannite woman - not even allowed a name in the Gospel narrative - felt when Jesus talked about 'dogs'? There's a story in Methodism that once a liberation theologian asked a great liturgical scholar why there wasn't more of Uur Lord's CV in the Creeds. It all seemed a little thin on the details of Jesus' earthly life. 'What, like the story of the Canaanite woman,' came the swift reply, 'When Our Lord was shown to be a blatant racist?! Perhaps it's well to stick with what we've got.'
I told that story a number of years ago in a church I served which was an LEP. The congregation didn’t say much to me about it after the service but the following week my colleague from the other denominations preached a sermon on why Jesus wasn’t a racist. Make of that what you will.