How fitting to have a youth group bonfire the night before we heard that “the tongue is a fire … itself set on fire by hell!” (James 3). And in the weird and wonderful way that the lectionary throws up readings, this text came up not only the day after the bonfire (which was awesome, thanks for asking, not least thanks to the prayer shield which gave us a dry 90 minutes for the precise window of time we were scheduled to stand in a field watching things burn; I’m not sure what I think about that; so let’s just pray much harder for the rain to head north), but two weeks after someone asked me what I thought about gossip.
Gossip is so often named in the church as bad, bad, bad, that I am suspicious; so on Sunday I reflected on how healthy gossip can build community (here). After the reflection, someone commented that they had been told as a young person never to talk about anyone else; and that meant that they never even shared good news, not even with their spouse. The idea of healthy gossip was new, and suggested intriguing possibilities of positive communication. Yay!
But other questions arose. What about the times we are caught up in a conversation which turns spiteful? Or when we ourselves need to debrief about someone? What about when the negative situation is about a professional service provider? Our conversation was winding, with multiple contributors. I have distilled our congregational wisdom to these points:
1. We seek the image of God in every person. Our work is to look for that image and name it; if others are gossiping around us, our invitation is to counsel kindness. This is not always easy, particularly for teenagers, and particularly when close friends are getting nasty about someone. We recognised that calling out verbal viciousness, or offering a different viewpoint, takes courage. Yet listening to others bitch makes us feel small and mean. Calling it out or offering a compassionate alternative is hard, but it helps us feel solid inside; it builds character. We also acknowledged that there are times when we just can’t manage it; then, perhaps, rather than participating, we can try pushing the conversation to another topic altogether.
2. We too are made in the image of God. In everything we do, we move deeper into or further away from that image. As we speak, we can monitor which qualities are emerging: the Satanic qualities of malice, meanness, accusation, verbal violence and judgement? Or the godly qualities of patience, kindness, forgiveness, gentleness, compassion, and love? If we hear ourselves accusing, judging, or ripping shreds off people, we can stop, apologise to our listeners, and change the topic to something more reflective of spirit-life.
3. We can allow hurt to be crucified: When someone is hurtful, toxic or unjust, there are times when we need to debrief, and for that we need a cone of silence. In other words, we tell one discreet and trusted person, who will not pass it on. Other times, we really don’t need to debrief; any “debriefing” is actually just an excuse to rehearse the hurt. At these times, we can allow the hurt to be crucified. By this I mean that we are called to be Christlike: and Christ took the violence of the world on his own body to the cross. He did not retaliate, or repay evil for evil, but instead poured out love and forgiveness to the end. Likewise, when we are hurt, we can recall stories of Jesus absorbing criticism or violence; we can offer up our experience into the mystery of his suffering; we can attempt to return love for hate, generosity for meanness, compassion for bitchiness, forgiveness for judgement; and we can do this because the Spirit is working within us to bring more love, life and healing into this world.
4: We keep people accountable: There is a difference between gossiping negatively about peers for our own gratification, and sharing information about people who have not conducted themselves appropriately. People in power have the power to wound, and this means they must be kept accountable. If a professional has acted inappropriately, write to the professional outlining your concerns or, if necessary, make a formal complaint; and warn the vulnerable. Our Scriptures have very strong words for those who abuse their power. Our priority is not to protect the reputation of powerful people, but to care for the vulnerable. We do this by gently, lovingly but firmly keeping the powerful accountable, as difficult as this can be.
Of course, this is a very difficult line to tread. At every step, we need to be asking, Will my words harm or heal? Am I tearing down or building up? What is the path to integrity and freedom, both for me and for others? Taming the tongue takes discipline. Faith is a gift; but discipleship includes becoming aware of our actions and motivations, and deciding to live and speak in ways which bring more life, love and healing into the world. This journey into self-awareness can be very slow, even painful, work, but it is good work, and it carries us ever more deeply into life in all its fullness.
A reflection emailed to Sanctuary, 19 September 2018 © Alison Sampson, 2018.