The haunting image of Dr Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines in a blood-stained shirt after he was hit with a stone during a “vaccine unrest” when he tried to enter Parliament to propose that the word “voluntary” be removed from a section of St Vincent’s law, shows that during this pandemic, while we may all be in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat.
This stone-throwing incident highlights that the experience of leaders and followers are glaringly different during a public health crisis. Thus, while governments assert greater power, those they govern feel more powerless and such differences in perception invite interactions which foster a clash of principles when rights wrestle with responsibilities.
Many protesters remain adamant that their rights are threatened. They protest that their rights to freedom of choice, their rights of refusal and their rights to mobility, severely restricted by lockdowns, are being eroded. This is true.
However, their right to a peaceful protest had not been taken away, their right to express their views had not been withheld and their right to individual choice in some sectors of employment which does not endanger public health has not been compromised.
Interestingly, while individuals retain some rights during a public health crisis, many must temporarily give up other rights in exchange for the protection of the State.
In circumstances as these, should one’s individual personal rights take precedence over a community’s collective right to protection and preservation? Are governments not bound to undertake responsibility and seek the greatest good for the greatest number of its citizens, thus ensuring that the rights of the nation come before the rights of individuals?
Perhaps more disturbing than wrestling with rights and its conflict with responsibility, this incident demonstrates our recurring disregard for the elderly and our disrespect for public office.
What kind of society produces someone (young or old, male or female, confident in proclaiming rights but cowardly in exercising responsibility) who dares to stone an elderly 75-year-old statesman who has served his people as Prime Minister for the past 20 years?
Through the mob’s confrontation with the Prime Minister, we are reminded of the biblical story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8: 1–11) when the self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees felt justified in bringing the adulteress before Jesus, demanding that she be stoned according to the Law of Moses.
On the surface, the scenarios appear radically different, but both contain the elements of protest, the individual versus the group, the demand for justice, the assertion of rights, the act of writing and motivation fuelled by external influences (misrepresentation and misinformation).
Jesus appeared to maintain a stoic silence when He “bent down and started writing on the ground” (Jn 8:6). What did Jesus write? Faced with changing circumstances, was He attempting to write something new into the law as Dr Gonsalves was attempting to do? Or was He simply buying time to respond instead of hastily reacting to a stormy situation?
“And as they continued to ask him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who has no sin be the first to throw a stone at her. And he bent down, again, writing on the ground. As a result of these words, they went away, one by one … ” (Jn 8: 7–9).
When Jesus “straightened up,” He diverted attention from the woman, turned His gaze on the men and then, turned their eyes inward on themselves— inviting them to self-examination and reflection, not violence.
Perhaps in this storm, Jesus’ invitation is the same. It is an invitation to introspection regarding our flippant disregard for the elderly, especially those in public office.
He is asking us to consider our motivations propelling individualism over community, our compulsion for violence over dialogue and our repeated assertion of individual rights over our communal responsibilities.
His is an invitation to reflect on the dilemma of leadership and row towards understanding and mercy—instead of throwing stones, and words, at our leaders in public spaces.