(I apologize that the spacing, etc is so weird. Blogger has changed things and I can’t seem to edit some of the hidden codes in this to fix it).
James 1:19-27, Matthew 18:15-22, Luke 11:2-4
Today’s passage from Matthew is a familiar one. It comes around every three years through the regular lectionary, as it has this week. But it is also a familiar passage because I think we refer to it often in our congregations when we are talking about confrontation, problems, disagreements, and how to work them through. We all know that people almost universally in our culture find it easier and more compelling to talk about one another than to talk to one another. And we know that this is a serious problem in many communities, but perhaps especially in the church. In professional settings behaviors such as gossip and talking behind backs tends to be more regulated and have more consequences. But in volunteer communities, such as the church, people can behave in ways that are very destructive. For example, the tendency towards gossip is strong everywhere, but in our congregations perhaps it is even more so. It happens in every congregation. But I think one of the number one signs of the health of a congregation is how much power that gossip is given within a church community. Do people take what they hear through gossip, treat it as “truth” and pass it forward, anonymously? Or do they insist that people speak only for themselves, telling their own stories only, not what “someone in the church has said”?
The congregation that I served in Ohio was, frankly, an incredibly healthy congregation. And when someone tried to spread nasty gossip, or to attack others behind their backs, not only were those comments not treated as ‘truth”, not only were they not passed along, but the people who the gossips tried to attack were NEVER told, “someone in the church told me in confidence, but I think you should know…” Or “I can’t tell you who said this, but x, y, z.” These are unhealthy behaviors. If someone has said something, we are told in Matthew, they need to speak it directly to the person, to claim it, to own it. If they have to hide behind, “well, don’t tell anyone where you heard this,” or “don’t tell so-and-so that I said this” then it should NEVER be said in the first place. If we cannot own the stories we are speaking, they should never be spoken. And if it is someone else’s story, it is never ours to share. The only anecdote to the poison of gossip is transparency. I want to say that again: the ONLY anecdote to the poison of gossip is transparency. That means owning what we are saying, not passing on things that are not ours to tell, making sure that everyone owns their own actions and own words.
Why? Well, this is important for a multitude of reasons.
We all know the story of the game operator. One person whispers a story to another. That person doesn’t quite hear it the way it was said, or more often, the way it was intended and whispers it to the next person. By the time it comes back to the original speaker again, it has changed into something unrecognizable. Gossip recreates that game, usually in destructive ways. This is not because people are intentionally unkind. It’s just that we all like a good drama and so we tend, both in our hearing but also in our retelling of events, to build them up, just a little, which then is built up more by the next person, etc. I think about the parishioner of one of my congregations who told me she was leaving the church because of something she had heard. What she told me she had heard had maybe 5% truth in it. But she believed it. When asked who told her this, she hid behind “confidentiality” which meant that there was no possible way to do the truth telling that was needed in the community to dispel this particular rumor. She left because she gave gossip power; the power to determine for her what was true. She clung to the gossip, even when faced with the truth, and she left the church body because of it. Her story is not unique. This happens everywhere, and it is one of the many reasons Jesus wrote that when we are upset with someone or hurt by someone we are to go to them directly, speak to them directly. Not talk ABOUT it, but talk TO the persons with whom we are having issues.
There is another important reason why we should own our own stuff, not gossip, not speak for or about others. And that is that when we choose to champion someone else’s problem for them, we believe we are doing something good, something heroic and kind even. We are standing up for someone. We are being their savior, defender. But the truth is that what we are really doing is saying that that person is weak, incapable of defending themself, incapable of speaking their own truth. We are not respecting or honoring someone by doing the work of speaking for them.
My family watched Murdock Mysteries for a time. This is a historical fiction murder mystery series that takes place in the early 1900’s. At one point the woman coroner, Julia Ogden, is arguing with the chief of police. She is holding her own, but she at one point turns to Murdock who is just watching the argument and not saying anything. She expresses frustration that he is not defending her and stomps out of the police station. Later she confronts him on it. “Why didn’t you defend me!” To which he replied, “you did not need me to do that for you! I knew that you were a strong enough woman that you did not need to be ‘rescued’ or ‘saved’ by the big powerful man. If I had jumped in, the police chief never would have come to respect YOUR strength and your ability to speak for yourself as a full human being.” Julia was stunned, but also realized the truth of what Murdock had said. If he had jumped in to “rescue” her, it would have been a strong statement of her inability to stand up for herself and be counted as a full adult to be respected and trusted for her own words and abilities.
We do and should stand up for children. But we also know that it is more important for us to empower them to speak for themselves. We should and do stand up for people who are oppressed by the larger system. But in doing so, we are recognizing that they have limited power and that it is much, much better to empower their words than to speak for them. When we choose to “stand up” for someone else, we are taking away from them the power they do have on their own: we are lessening their perceived strength if not, in fact, their actual strength. We diminish them in so doing.
A third reason we should not do this is that those who are victimized by our unkindness, by our gossiping, by our slander, by our love of drama and our failure to listen tend to be the people who have less privilege in the first place. They have less privilege for a number of reasons: fewer social skills, less standing in the community: or in the larger world, less power because of being marginalized for one reason or another. We are called to “check our privilege” and to not live that out or act that out.
To take that a step further, a commentary written by Audrey West in the Working Preacher said it this way, “This passage (from Matthew on how to confront) can easily become dangerous and abusive if it is interpreted in the context of either individualism or legalism, both of which can result in the attempted control and manipulation of the offender due to a sense of victimization.”
The truth of this is obvious when we hear white people claiming to be victims of racism. We are the people in power. But when we abuse that privilege by claiming to be the victims ourselves, we control the situation in dangerous ways. Sometimes those with “lesser” power use these behaviors, gossip, victimization, to reclaim their own power. But there is great danger in doing so.
In the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Toula was upset because her father had told her that she cannot go to college. In his words, “women don’t need education.” And Toula approached her mother in tears saying, “Dad is so stubborn. And what he says goes. ‘The man is the head of the house.’” Her mother responded with, “Let me tell you something, Toula. The man is the head of the house. But the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants!” At the time that I heard that, I was impressed with that thinking. In Patriarchal cultures and families, then, there still is some power in the female of the couple. But then I saw the way in which she claimed her power. And it was through the victimization that we named before. “Oh, so women don’t need education because we aren’t as smart? You don’t think I’m as smart as you?” It was manipulative, but also harmful to herself because it was lacking in honesty, it did not allow her to claim her power with authenticity or strength.
I think about the phrase I’ve heard so many people use, “Who wears the pants in the family?” Usually what we mean by that is who appears to be in charge, the more dominant member of the household, the alpha dog as it were. But I remember very clearly counseling a couple where the one who “wore the pants” by everyone else’s understanding really had no ultimate power because his wife again used the victimization behavior to get whatever she wanted. If her husband would not listen to her “you’ve wronged me”, “you’ve mistreated me” statements that were made in response to any decision he made (whether it affected her or not) that she didn’t agree with, then she would take her complaint to the larger family group. “He wronged me, he mistreated me!” until the husband was badgered, bullied and pressured into doing what she wanted. People use victimization as a weapon, as much as others use dominance as a weapon. They use gossip as a way to control others, to reclaim power. But these methods of claiming power damage our own souls. We know we are exaggerating the stories, we know that we are not being honest or truthful, we know that we are being manipulative. And that lack of honest claiming of one’s own voice, one’s own truth harms no one more than it harms ourselves. It obfuscates truth. People think they are making choices based on reality, but they are not. They are making choices based on falsehoods. This happens at all levels: politically, personally, and in smaller communities as well. (It takes keen perception to see where the power truly lies in any situation. It is often not where we think it really is.)
This passage from Matthew addresses all of that. By insisting that people stop the victimization, stop the gossiping, stop the excuse of “I was told not to say who said this but…”, all of these power plays, abuses of power and dishonest interactions are ended. Relationships have a chance then of being restored based on honesty and truth and trust, rather than destroyed because of gossip and lies.
I think it is vital to notice that what this passage emphasizes again and again is that true communication, healthy confrontation, a commitment to working out problems in community begins with listening. Listening is mentioned here four times in the first three verses of this passage from Matthew. James said it this way, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
But people really struggle to listen. And what I find the most interesting is that it is often those who claim others aren’t listening who themselves listen the least. Let me say that another way: it is often true that no one listens less than the person who is accusing others of not listening.
Let me give you an example. The Presbytery I used to be part of went through a long discernment process on whether or not they would vote to support the ordination of LGBTQ+ folk. They had three separate presbytery meetings on the issue. At the first one a well-known speaker in favor of the ordination came and presented for an hour followed by break out groups for discussion. Not surprisingly, those against the ordination simply chose to not attend this meeting. They simply did not come. The next month we reversed it. We had someone speak against the ordination for an hour, again followed by break out groups for discussion. Interestingly, everyone turned out for this one, even our LGBTQ+ members for whom it was an extremely painful day. At the third meeting then we took our vote. And as a Presbytery we voted overwhelmingly in favor of the ordination of LGBTQ+ persons. The response from those who disagreed? “You didn’t listen!” The clerk of the Presbytery meeting had the numbers. She was able to point out that everyone had shown up to hear the person arguing against this stand, and that many of those who were angry with the decision, in contrast, had chosen not to listen or attend the meeting where the person in favor of the decision had spoken. And yet still, the cry rallied long and hard, “You didn’t listen!”
There is a strong difference between not listening and not agreeing. It is very possible to listen and still not agree. But while we know that is true from our own perspectives, do we give others that same benefit of the doubt?
So, returning to the Matthew passage and his clarity around how we are to talk to one another, especially when there are problems, what does all of this really mean? Several things: