Be Honest and Unmerciful
“If you want to be a true friend to them, be honest and unmerciful.” The words of Lester Bangs to up and coming teenage rock writer William Miller in one of my all time favorite movies, Almost Famous. William was assigned to write a story on Stillwater for Rolling Stone magazine. William goes on tour with the band. The band lowers their guard to this innocent looking likable kid who seemed incredibly star struck. The climax of the tour happened in a near death experience as their tour plane nearly crashed and almost everyone made very revealing death bed confessions. William didn’t have the heart to be honest and wrote a “puff piece.” After being challenged by Rolling Stone he asked for more time to work on it. We come to a scene where William is struggling with mixed up feelings for “Band Aid” Penny Lane, the band, Rolling Stone, and his reputation. He calls up legendary rock writer Lester Bangs, who is always home because he is uncool, for advice. It is at this point Lester tells William “If you want to be a true friend to them, be honest and unmerciful.” I believe Lester meant “unmerciful” in the sense of not sparing feelings for the truth. Sometimes being honest can be a great act of mercy.
I believe there are times when we need to be that brutally honest with each other. There was a time in my life where I was making some huge mistakes. I spiritually manipulated someone in to becoming my girlfriend. It was my first year of bible school and I was fresh from a church retreat that I played a very effective significant leadership role in. I really thought I was something. When I met my new girlfriends parents during a semester break they saw how I was trying to control their daughter. I found out a little bit about this through my girlfriend and asked that they be straightforward and honest with me. They did and I was devastated by what they wrote in a letter. It was harsh at points and I didn’t take it well.
My reply was a long line of justifications and explanations. Before I came to fully accept the truth of what was in that letter I had blamed my culture, family, upbringing, my girlfriend’s family, my girlfriend etc… It was everything I could do to make sure that my self-righteous identity was intact. It wasn’t like their wasn’t any truth to my justifications, but they really weren’t that relevant when compared to the reality of my own mistakes. Eventually the truth did sink in. A few months later I ended the relationship. I was still angry. I had some interactions with my ex-girlfriend over the next year that proved I hadn’t changed enough when I thought I had changed.
Eventually I did accept what these people said. To varying degrees it was all true. Some of what was said might have been an overstatement but what do you expect from people trying to defend their family? When you tragically hurt people you can’t expect them to be perfect in response. All the issues I had with their family fell apart when I finally accepted the truth.
In the end it wasn’t even the words that hurt. The family in question did write another letter affirming some of my positive qualities and offered an apology if what they wrote was harsh. It made me feel better for about 3 days. What really hurt was the tension of realizing that I wasn’t who I thought I was. I was not the great spiritual leader. I was not the righteous man towering above others. I was just a ordinary sinner.
Judgment, in the sense of being honestly evaluated is very good thing. I believe the church suffers from a culture of nice. Too often we try to avoid conflict but in the end we just doom people to make the same mistakes and sometimes continue to hurt others. I believe there are times to let things go but when people are being abused or significantly hurt there has to be action.