From all reports, Juergen Peters was a bright, sweet young man. But he was often troubled, depressed, and dark. After an intense dispute at work one day he turned unusually dismal, even for him. He walked off his job and climbed to the top of a water tower with every intention of jumping to his death. As authorities rushed to the scene, a crowd of onlookers also gathered.
At some point Juergen, thankfully, was convinced to change course. He carefully began climbing to the ground. The crowd, deprived of a sensational conclusion, did not take its disappointment lying down. Someone yelled to the boy, “Jump, you coward!”
As Peters descended the tower more and more spectators began to jeer and deride him. He hesitated, looked down at the crowd, and then climbed back up. When he reached the top again, he moved out on the ledge and flung himself off.
If Juergen Peters had made it safely to the ground that day, I don’t know if he would have received the mental health intervention he so badly needed. But I do know this: The cause of death may have read “suicide,” but those in the crowd could have been detained as accomplices to the crime.
This is a tragic, dramatic story, but a necessary one: We are destroying one another with our words as hateful, spiteful rhetoric spills from all corners of society. Road rage. Bullying at school. Toxic hate speech. Political opponents locked in verbal assault. Hordes of tanked-up adults coming to blows at a Little League game. Online “comments” that are nothing but anonymous, poisonous vitriol lobbed like grenades into a crowd. The level of hostility and lack of civility in our country is nothing but destructive.
Ancient wisdom recognizes and identifies the root of this problem: “A tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire,” the Jewish sage wrote. All of us have this potential – to strike out with hellish words that act like kindling for a raging fire.
The children’s rhyme we all learned before kindergarten is wrong: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That’s a boldface lie. Words hurt. They crush, destroy, and yes, even kill. But they are not just killing others. We are burning our whole world to the ground. May God give us the grace to keep our mouths shut.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net and listen to his talks by clicking on his YouTube channel.