Last week Mary Selby posted a great review of the movie “To Save a Life,” addressing the terrible tragedy of teen suicide. Shortly after reading her article, I learned of a young woman in Massachusetts who had taken her own life. Though we may never know all the reasons for her grievous decision what is undisputed is that Phoebe Prince was suffering torment on a daily basis from relentless bullying.
Phoebe Prince was a beautiful, young, fifteen-year-old girl. She was a daughter, a sister, and a friend. Having come from Ireland only last year she was a recent immigrant to the United States, a resident of Massachusetts, and a student at South Hadley High. Friends shared that Phoebe was the victim of bullying that went beyond the hallways at school and followed her into her home and onto her computer and phone through Facebook and text messaging. This new form of intimidation has been termed Cyberbullying and is becoming more and more frequent.
Herbert Nieberg, associate professor of criminal justice at Mitchell College in Connecticut and a psychologist who specializes in adolescents told ABC News:
Kids go on to Facebook because they get a wider audience than in the hallway. Everybody likes to watch the action. Why do three girls on Long Island beat up another young woman and put it on YouTube? They vicariously enjoy identifying with the aggressor.
The schoolyard bullies beat you up and then go home, The cyberbullies beat you up at home, at grandma’s house, where ever you’re connected to technology.
Kevin Cullen of The Boston Globe reported that Phoebe Prince was one of the targets of South Hadley’s notorious Mean Girls. He added that these Mean Girls not only harassed Phoebe verbally and in print while she was living but went on to mock and defame her in death posting disparaging remarks about Phoebe on her Facebook memorial page.
Who does such a thing? Where is the remorse?
The elements that drove this fifteen-year-old to suicide and the unthinkable slander she received after her untimely death is evil in a very real sense. Let me be careful here. I am not saying that those individuals who bullied this young girl are responsible for her death. It is impossible to determine all of the factors involved.
But what becomes patently clear through the course of this story is that at least some of those who tormented Phoebe Prince displayed utter contempt for her in life and death. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.
The dangerous myth of the 20th century is that people are good and getting better. It’s a terrible lie. The most chilling horrors of the 20th century can be traced to this deception. The biblical worldview says quite the opposite that we had the choice to be good but chose not to be.
In his book The People of the Lie, author M. Scott Peck, M.D. (The Road Less Traveled) writes of dealing with the problem of evil.
Be careful – full of care.
Evil people are easy to hate. But remember Saint Augustine’s advice to hate the sin but love the sinner. Remember when you recognize an evil person that truly,“There but for the grace of God go I.”
In labeling certain human beings as evil, I am making an obviously severely critical judgment. My Lord said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” By this statement – so often quoted out of context – Jesus did not mean we should never judge our neighbor. For he went on to say, “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the [speck] out of thy brother’s eye.” What he meant was that we should judge others only with great care, and that such carefulness begins with self-judgment.
…The battle to heal human evil always begins at home. And self-purification will always be our greatest weapon.
While I don’t hold to Peck’s entire philosophy I appreciate his attempts here to address the problem of evil. We must address our own sin. Still as a Christian I realize that self-purification is impossible. We are not in and of ourselves good, yet we have tried to self-help ourselves and our world into goodness. We have countless books, seminars and counseling sessions to prove it, but these things are void of power without the grace and love of Jesus. The reality is we cannot achieve goodness or overcome evil on our own.
If we desire to see the evil in us and around us stamped out there does need to be purification, but our role in the process is one of surrender. The cleansing process occurs when we acknowledge our sin and come humbly to the cross of Jesus. It is only when we express our inability to free ourselves of a guilty conscience (or lack of) that we become truly free, cleansed by the blood of Jesus which covers over all of our failures and satisfies the penalty for our sin:
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Hebrews 10:22
These words give me pause as I consider my first reaction to the story above. While justice must be served, and I champion holding any who may have contributed to Phoebe’s death accountable, I must be careful in my own judgment. Everything I have seen and heard surrounding this story makes me want to lash out and punish all of those who use their words and fists to bully others into fear or submission, but I run the risk of becoming that same bully with my own self-righteous words. So rather I am choosing to guard my tongue.
The phrase Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me is a nice idea, but what a ridiculous statement. I remember singing that like a nursery rhyme while bullies teased me and my brother on our way to school. But, the statement wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. Words can hurt. I still toss and turn over menacing words. They stick, they bury themselves inside of us, and they bring death of one sort or another.
With stories like Phoebe’s in the news could it be more evident how careful we must be in regard to our own speech with our children, our friends, and our acquaintances?
Words are powerful. We can speak words that bring life and encouragement or spout gossip and filth that leads to corruption and ultimately death. I wonder what terrible words and actions these bullies had been subject to before they regurgitated it onto their unfortunate victims.
So, today I am choosing words that bring life.
I pray for this heart-broken family who has lost a daughter and a sister. I pray that their hearts would not turn bitter with the evil they have encountered. I pray that they would find comfort and peace in the arms of Christ.
I pray for all those who had a hand in teasing or taunting Phoebe that they would come to their knees and agonize over their sin. I pray that they might ask forgiveness and find it through Jesus shed blood.
And I pray for each of us that we might consider more carefully the words we use on a daily basis. May we remember that our words can never return from where they came. Words will either encourage and promote or discourage and destroy.