Don't light a fire you can't put out

'DON'T start a fire you cannot put out'. That was a message I noticed posted outside a Belfast church recently.

Upon seeing it I immediately thought of Nero. On the 12th of July in the year AD64 the ancient city of Rome went up in flames. This was no accident or even ‘an act of God’, but the cunningly devised scheme of the egomaniac ruler Nero, who deemed himself to be a skilled architect and city planner.

Nero was impressed by the record and reputation of one of his predecessors Augustus. This Augustus, who ‘found Rome wood and left it marble’ is mentioned in the New Testament as he was the emperor who called for the census which brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in the days when ‘Quirinius was Governor in Syria.’

Nero planned to burn down part of the city and then rebuild it according to his heart’s desire. As the flames leapt into the night sky discernible for miles around, Nero played the lyre and so gave us the cliche beloved of small town politicians, ‘fiddling while Rome burns.’

Public opinion turned against Nero and he blamed the whole episode on the Christians and instituted persecution against them.

But the sign outside the city church was not aimed at physical fire, but the verbal, moral and spiritual destruction some people careless of their words and influence inflict upon society.

This maxim has a message for those with influence within their community. Alexander Pope, in one of his poems, prays a judgement upon those who have perfected the sinister skill of ‘yet without sneering teach the rest to sneer.’

Saint Matthew records how the Chief priests manipulated the crowd in the presence of Pilate and wrote in chapter 27: “The Chief Priests persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus crucified.”

All communities know the type, who incense excitable people and send them out to say and do the unworthy as they stand back and claim innocence. Joseph Conrad wrote in this regards: “We all live at the mercy of the malevolent world these manipulated people were taught.”

The late Roy Jenkins called a political opponent, and his judgement could not have been blacker; “He is to politics in our land what the upas tree is to Java.” The upas tree poisons all animal and vegetable life for miles around.


This maxim outside the city church has a message for all whose words have influence over people, especially the young. In one of his letters R.L.Stevenson confided to a friend: “I met the devil at Edinburgh station.” We wonder who he could have been referring to!

In the book of Exodus when Moses performed miracles to impress upon the Pharaoh the claims of his nation, Pharaoh’s magicians urged him to resist Moses as they could attempt similar wonders and uncommon occurances. But when Moses performed acts unknown to them they desisted and urged the Pharaoh to do the same.

But now the Monarch was bent on defiance and his magicians, having started him on the road to destruction, were powerless to stop him. Many instances of similar gravity can be recalled and recited by us all.

Evil people open the door to fearful sins for the innocent and then leave them to their judgement. But those who have been, in Paul’s words, “Partakers in another’s sin” will not escape the condemnation of the Almighty.

We are all concerned about our carbon footprint these days and rightly, so then let us be equally concerned about our verbal footprint and show restraint lest we harm and lead astray the ‘lamb’s of Christ’s flock.’

Sir Walter Scott, the prolific author who wrote millions of words, recalled upon his deathbed, that he could not recall a line he would have wished he had blotted.

“I have debased no civilized value,” he whispered to his family. He lit no uncontrollable fires!