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She lowered her eyes as if she were too ashamed to look at me. Her quivering voice revealed the emotional pain she was experiencing: “Pastor, what those people are saying about me just isn’t true.”
The sad part was that “those people” were from the Christian community, the family of God, the people called to love and support one another. This lady, in my opinion virtually incapable of doing that for which she was accused, wasn’t the first to be wounded by verbal attacks from people whose Savior commanded them to love others unconditionally. And unfortunately, I know she won’t be the last.
The problem—gossip—should come as no surprise: The religious folk of Jesus’ day accused him of being a party boy, “a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber,” because he came “eating and drinking,” while at the same time John the Baptist was said to “have a devil,” since he was so austere.
The early Christians were frequently victims of malicious talk. They were not only accused of being cannibals (Didn’t they meet in a secret ritual where someone commanded, “Take and eat, this is my body broken for you?”) but perpetrators of incest (Didn’t they refer to each other as “brothers and sisters” and have something called a “holy kiss?”) and sorcerers (They spoke the Latin words, Hoc est corpus meum, “This is my body,” during their ritual of communion, which later was adapted to “hocus pocus,” a magical incantation, or so it was rumored.)
But things changed dramatically when the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 C.E. Suddenly, Christians moved from the outside to the inside, from a fringe movement to the Emperor’s religion, from ostracism to popularity.
I’m simplifying the complex development of this new religion, but in a relatively short time, it had produced a cadre of religious authorities whose role included enforcing uniformity. That meant “different” had to be denied or even destroyed. If rumor had you on the wrong side of the theological divide, you might find yourself in mortal danger.
The system was well-nigh perfected by The Inquisition during the Middle Ages. Inquisitors had to have two or three witnesses to someone’s heretical beliefs and/or practices before proceeding with an interrogation, which frequently involved torture. In an effort to avoid someone being accused by mere hearsay, victims were allowed to name anyone who might hold a grudge against them. If the accused named the accuser, the charges would be dropped. Philip Daileader, Professor of History at the College of William and Mary, says it was like playing a game of “Battleship” for your life, as you would desperately try to figure out who the person was that might have snitched on you.
Protestants may not have had a papal inquisition, but their history is no better when it comes to the darkest dangers of slander. The Salem Witch Trials, to name just one of many shameful episodes, bear witness to that.
The Inquistion has long since ceased to be, and we don’t burn witches. But the rumor mill still operates with remarkable efficiency, and the results are often devastating. Pastor Charles Swindoll tells of a suicide note with only two words written on it: “They said.”
Of course, it’s not simply among some Christians that we see the anomaly of people claiming to be on a journey to heaven while trash talking their traveling companions. It’s an all too human activity, something religion generally tries to rise above. The Buddha apparently sensed the same problem among his followers. He advocated a wonderful test for the problem of murmuring. Before something is spoken, it should pass through three gates: first gate: “Is it true?” second gate: “Is it necessary?” third gate: “Is it kind?”
If her accusers had simply filtered their whisperings through those three gates, the hurting lady in my office would not have felt shut out and alone.
Jesus, himself a victim of false indictments, tells us how we can overcome our attraction to gossip: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And humanly impossible.
Maybe that’s why Jesus liked to remind his disciples that “With God all things are possible.”
“Possible,” would include using words to build up rather than tear down.
Now that’s something to talk about.