'Sticks and stones may break our bones but names will never hurt us.' It sounds good doesn't it? It suggests that as long as we feed continually on this mantra then the taunts and insults of haters will simply roll off of our backs. The rhyme makes it sound as if our words lack the the power to inflict deep and lasting wounds. It promises to keep us inwardly strong and stalwart. Too bad it's a lie. Names hurt. Words scar. We have seen this time and time again.
Long before this rhyme was thought up, James wrote 'The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.' (James 3:6) It is a truth testified to far too often. Gossip destroys people and communities.
The root of gossip is selfish pride. It is selfishness which says that we need to be the center of information, and it is arrogant pride that reduces someone's identity to the sole product of the stories we hear and tell. The sly whispers in the parking lot, the casual utterances of 'well that's not what I heard', the willful re-telling of events in someone else's life, all play on the idolatrous notion that we are more important than others. We speak about matters which we have no right to speak to. We tell stories that are not ours to tell.
Sometimes this seems innocent enough. We tell of another's medical diagnosis under the rhetoric of 'people should know.' Or, as often is the case in the church, we aggressively plumb for deeply personal information, often referencing why it is important that we know such information. 'Why are they on the prayer list?' we ask. "Have you heard about so and so?" "I need to know how to pray for them.' In this we reduce the other to the sole product of the stories we hear or the tales we tell. We fundamentally deny their personhood through the insistence that we know what is best for them. Shirley Hughson writes "One of the most frequent and hurtful occasions of pride is the readiness with which most of us give our opinion or instruct others, on any subject that might be introduced into conversation.' It is 'enslavement to talking' writes Johnson.
It used to be that gossip was reserved for shadowed conversations occurring in the background. Social media has changed all that. In a world that is so laden with text - from Internet forums to text messages to social media posts - the manner in which we speak to each other is of utmost importance. Just like face-to-face gossip, we need to see the words we write as coming from the deep centres of our being. Our words, whether typed on a keyboard or spoken in private, bare our souls and they declare what is in our hearts. When our gossip or bullying destroys the personhood of another, we should feel deeply ashamed.
The tongue is a restless evil precisely because through it we are able to hurt someone more deeply than sticks and stones could ever do. "With the tongue we bless The Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God" (vs 9). Our words cut to the heart and are able to destroy the soul. How can this not be seen as hellish behaviour?
Here is an interesting thought experiment: What would happen in the world if we gave up gossip? What effect would there be if we embraced the refusal to speak out of turn, to whisper behind another's back, to keep our disparaging remarks to ourselves? How would the world be different?
For those of us in the church, this shouldn't really be a thought experiment; it should be the very manner in which we live out our faith lives. The matter of how we speak to each other is not merely a matter of politeness or social nicety. It goes to the heart of faith. Our holiness, or lack thereof, is displayed for the world in how we speak to each other. James concludes his discussion on the tongue by stating that 'out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.' (vs.10)
What if we simply decided not to tell other people's stories - good or bad. What if the phrases 'guess what I heard' or 'Did you hear about ..' were viewed to be as offensive as the worst four-lettered swear. Doing so would release us from the enslavement to talking, and the prideful wielding of others' stories. It would focus us away from self interest, and the building up of our own image, and ground us in the call to bless and edify others.
With celebrity expose's around every corner, we need to be reminded that it is not our job to have all the information in people's lives - or to tell events that are not ours to tell. Refraining from gossip-filled conversations is a simple act by which we free ourselves from the 'information is power' way of thinking. No longer are we concerned with the management of our image - which too often is seen as related to another. In refraining from gossip we strive to be content with not knowing the ins and outs, the latest scoop, or the rest of the story, as we release such matters into the gracious keeping of God.
May the words of our mouths, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable to God, our rock and our redeemer.