I turned around slowly and surveyed the fourth graders seated at my table. They were staring at me with wide eyes, shocked at what had been said and holding their breath to see my reaction. I tried to gauge their faces, to guess who had said it. Finally, a controlled but angry whisper escaped my lips, “Who said that?”
No one volunteered. The girls looked at their shoes, the boys looked at each other, waiting to see who would be the first to point a finger. I thought for a moment and sat down, speaking slowly to emphasize each word, to make sure they understood.
“Do you know why I care who said that?
Do you know why there are consequences for calling someone a name like that?”
Fourteen little eyes looked up at me curiously, silently.
“First, there are consequences for that because I love whoever you said that about. I don’t know who said it or who they said it to, but I love each and every one of you, and it makes my heart hurt that you would ever call another person that ugly word, especially one of your classmates or friends.
“There are also consequences because I want you to know that I take that word very seriously. What if one of you went back to your teacher, or your parents, or another student and told them that someone said that in my class today and I didn’t do anything about it? They might think that I don’t think that rule about what words we can and cannot use at school is a big deal. They might think that I think the same thing about whoever you said that to. They might think that I use words like that myself. They would definitely think that I am not a very good teacher.
“None of those things are true, though. I think that rule is important, because in this classroom we use our words to love each other. I’ve already said that I love each of you, and I don’t use words like that, ever, because they do not show love for others.
“So there will be a consequence today, for whoever said that word. Because I need to protect my name, so that when people hear ‘Ms. Haltiwanger’ they don’t think any of those wrong things about me. Do you have any questions about why this is so important?
Then I’m going to ask again. Who said that?
I taught English learners this year. They had a lot of trouble understanding why certain words they said were such a big deal to me or to their other teachers, and why there were such harsh consequences. I always tried to explain why I took the rule seriously, and if necessary, what the word implied so that they could understand for next time. Often they didn’t know what the word really meant or why it was a “bad word”. They were still learning this new language and the consequences didn’t seem, to them, to fit the crime.
I’ve written before about the second language experience as it relates to God. Before the fall, Adam and Eve communicated with God in his language, learning first how to communicate from him.
Since the fall, all humankind has struggled to believe that what God created us to be, what God desires for us, is truly what is best for us. We hear the language of sin and darkness and we struggle to ignore it, to keep it out of our vocabulary. But the struggle is not the end! In Christ, we are new creations. We are re-taught our old language and given opportunities to practice using it every day (see the rest of this post here).
I have struggled recently with understanding the harshness of the consequences God gives for sin. For the wages of sin is death… it seems like the punishment outweighs the crime.
As I explained to my students why there were consequences for using words like that, Ezekiel 20 came to mind:
But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out. (Ezekiel 20:14)
God has to protect his own name from profanity in the sight of the nations. He needs to show that he takes sin seriously, that he loves those who have been sinned against, that he believes in the rules he has created and cares about people following them, that he is a good God.
It often seems to me that a God who punishes sin could not also be a good God, and I think it is complicated and confusing and I by no means understand how God can be good and compassionate and wrathful and just all at once. But a teacher who did not punish rule breaking would not be a good teacher, and a parent who did not punish disrespect would not be a good parent, and therefore it is inconsistent of me to expect that a good God would never punish or discipline his children.
I am still learning and questioning and searching, but thanks to some foul-mouthed fourth graders I am beginning to understand that there is good in God acting for his name’s sake, that indeed he would not be good without doing so.