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The Sin of Gossip

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Idle chatter about others can bring about great harm.

B. Detraction – which is passing on harmful truths about others. What is said is true, but is not necessary information to be shared, and the information has the effect of diminishing a person’s reputation or harming their good name before others. For example, it may be true that Joe has a drinking problem, but it is not necessary information to share.

There may be times when it is important to share certain truths about others because it is necessary information but such information should be shared only by those who need to know it for a just cause. Further, the information must be certainly true and not merely hearsay. Finally, only the necessary information should be shared, avoiding a full rendering of everything you ever wanted to know about Joe.

3. Tale -Bearing – also called tale whispering – This may sound like backbiting, but St Thomas makes a distinction here. Whereas a backbiter seeks to harm the reputation of another absent person, the tale bearer seeks to stir up trouble and arouse people to action against a person. Perhaps he seeks to have others end professional, business, or personal relationships with the one gossiped about. Perhaps his goal is to incite angry responses toward him, or even violence. Perhaps too, some legal action is the desired outcome. But the tale-bearer seeks to incite some action against the one he gossips about, hence it goes further than the harming of reputation, to include the harming of relationships, finances, legal standing, and so forth.

4. Derision – is making fun of a person, perhaps of their mannerisms, perhaps of a physical trait, or personal quality. While some of this can be light-hearted, it often strays into hurtful and humiliating actions or words that diminish someone else’s standing or honor within the community.

5. Cursing – a spoken wish or command that another person be afflicted with some evil or harm. This may or may not be spoken to their face. Here too we see a dishonoring of a person in the presence of others. The usual goal is to incite from others, anger and dishonor towards the injured person. The cursing of a person is considered in the realm of gossip, whereas the cursing of irrational things is considered merely vain or futile speech, though not wholly sin-free.

How serious these sins of speech (forms of gossip) are will depend on a number of factors including the degree of harm caused to a person’s reputation, who and how many overhear, and circumstances of place, time and language used. Lack of intent to harm may lessen the culpability of the sinner, but not the fact of sinfulness of the act. However, to dishonor a person, especially with the intent of harming their reputation or necessary standing before others, can easily become a very serious sin.

One of the most precious things a person has is their reputation, for, on it rests their capacity to interrelate with others and engage in just about every other form of human interaction. It is a very serious thing, therefore, to harm the reputation of another. And while this harm may sometimes be mild, we ought not easily dismiss the possibility that, what we think to be a small matter, might actually cause greater harm that we imagine. St James says of the gossiping tongue: Consider how a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (James 3:11).

It remains true that we sometimes must have necessary conversations about others who are not present. Perhaps we are seeking advice about how to handle a delicate situation. Perhaps we need encouragement in dealing with a difficult person, or need to do legitimate fact-checking. Perhaps, especially in professional settings, we are asked to make and give evaluations of colleagues, employees, or situations. However, in cases like these we need to limit the scope our conversations to what is necessary and include only those who certainly ought to be included.

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