"If it's true, it's not really gossip."
"I'm telling you this in confidence."
"I'm telling you this so you'll pray for them."
"I cannot guarantee this is true, but here's what I heard."
These are among the lies—and they are lies—we tell ourselves in the Christian community to justify the sin—and it is a sin—of gossip. The Hebrew phrase lashon hara means "evil speech" or gossip. Proverbs denounces it. The ancient Jewish sages, especially Maimonides, had much to say about gossip, and none of it was good. He said gossip harms three people: him who gossips, him who listens and him about whom it is told. Maimonides also said one who listens shares the guilt.
Furthermore, gossip that is "true" is hardly better than lies. Revealing another person's sins or failures, true or not, is not our job. Gossip makes someone else look bad, and that is evil- speaking. One may think the gossip is true, but it may not be. Or it may be partially true. Or it may have been true at some point and no longer is.
Hotzaat shem ra or the more frequently used term, motzi shem ra, means "spreading a bad name." This is the graver, more destructive sin, of making a false accusation. The assassination of a good name could destroy a career, wreck a family, cause a false arrest or even a suicide, and it is indefensible.
This all begs the question, why do people, even believers, gossip or make a false accusation?
They use gossip for admission to some group to which they desire membership.
They want to be "in the know," a big shot with access to secret information. They ruthlessly use the private and painful failures of others.
They are meting out punishment or exacting revenge. They have wrested judgment from God and taken matters into their own hands.
They have a specific agenda, usually a political one. As Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, "It's not personal. It's strictly business." They may not really despise the victim, who is nothing but a pawn in some greater story. This is the worst justification of all because it dehumanizes the victim.
This leads to another question: Why do people listen to evil-speaking? Dry rot invades the culture of an organization, a church or a nation when people listen to lashon hara. The reverence for truth now lost, party affiliation and internal alliances crowd out honor. Gender and race replace integrity and mercy.
In the church, friendship is the greater issue, rising not infrequently to the level of idolatry. When that idol is alloyed with church politics, say, a drive to get the pastor removed, the pressure to listen to lashon hara and at least feign sympathy becomes a powerful emotional force not easily resisted. I must listen to my friend because he is my friend even when he is pouring the evil acid of gossip in my ear. I deceive myself; I must deceive myself that something is true that I know in my heart to be a lie or an embroidery on the truth because my friends and allies demand my allegiance.
Evil-speaking does its worst damage when protected classes are not held to the same standard of truth and proof as the accused.
In the 1890s, a Jewish officer in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused of espionage. The perjured testimony of his fellow officers was believed because of who they were: French officers. Dreyfus' testimony was rejected because of who he was: a Jew. Many years later, Dreyfus was exonerated, but not before he spent five years on Devil's Island.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, a white woman—a disturbed and obviously lying white woman—accuses a black man, Tom Robinson, of rape. A jury of white men convict Robinson despite clear evidence she is lying. Why? Because of who she is: a white woman. The truth about Tom Robinson is rejected because of who he is: a black man.
When, because of race, political affiliation, gender or friendship, someone must be believed, truth and justice are finished. There is no truth when a lie must be believed because of who tells it or what end it serves. Gossip or false accusation reigns supreme when it must be believed because the accuser is protected by race, gender, political affiliation or even friendship. No cause is so glorious nor any friendship so precious as to justify gossip and false accusation.
The issue, while relevant, is hardly new. In Genesis, Joseph is falsely accused of attempted rape and spends years in prison for it. Why? Because his accuser is who she is: an Egyptian female. And Joseph is who he is: a Jewish male.
Churches, organizations and even countries collapse from the inside when they allow truth and justice to bow to lashon hara and motzi shem ra.
Dr. Mark Rutland is president of both Global Servants and the National Institute of Christian Leadership. A renowned communicator and New York Times best-selling author, he has more than 30 years of experience in organizational leadership, having served as a senior pastor and a university president.
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