Growing up, I found all those sermons about gossip hard to understand.
I understood the sinfulness of capital-g Gossip, of course: backstabbing, slander, malice, harmful words were wrong. But that also wasn’t what I understood as “gossip.”
For me, gossip was more of a cultural thing, an information trade: a part of my Appalachian upbringing. All the older ladies who lived around us in the hollow embraced gossip as a way of life, as stories shared over fenceposts and over coffee in brightly-lit kitchens. They were the living descendants of Rachel Lynde in Anne of Green Gables. Their words were rarely hurtful or harmful; there was little backstabbing or slander. Rather, there were discussions about if so-and-so was sick, and where such-and-such had gotten his wheelbarrow, and whether that neighbor two streets over was ever going to marry that nice lady he was seeing. Most of the ladies who participated in these “gossip” sessions were Christian, and would have told you that “gossip” wasn’t what they were doing.
Later, I found out gossip also wasn’t nearly so gendered as I had imagined it to be; the men I knew gathered and swapped stories just as much as the women did, sharing tales and information they’d heard at work or when they were out at the store. Guys talk, too, and still do: during the game, over work lunches, in corridors.
And so over time I separated it out: there was “bad gossip” (the kind of speaking about other people that hurt them) and “good gossip” (the kind of speaking about other people that didn’t hurt them). It’s also true that that the Bible generally associates gossip with evil intentions and measurable harm. Titus 3:2 warns believers against speaking evil of others; Proverbs 16:28 cautions against spreading strife. Ephesians 4:29 forbids “corrupting talk” and Psalm 101:5 condemns slandering your neighbor. By that measure, discussing Joe Mountain’s wheelbarrow supply is hardly a sinful act.
And yet I think it’s worth thinking about what we do when we speak casually about others, even in a “harmless” way.
Proverbs 26:20 reminds us that “for lack of wood the fire goes out.” In other words, when we refuse to engage in speculative conversations about others, we remove the potential for harm. Even if we’re well-meaning and well-intentioned, choosing to pipe up about somehow else when they’re not present – even if we’re just talking about their wheelbarrow or what they did for vacation – means that we’ve opened the door to discussion about that person. The fuel is ready; one ill-meant comment is all that will set it off.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, even harmless gossip cultivates an attitude of entitlement to the lives of others. When we talk about others – and what they are doing, and why they did that thing, or where they got that thing – we are implicitly asserting our right to be, as my students have put it, “all up in their business.” But we don’t have that right! In fact, 1 Thessalonians 4:11 commands believers to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: you should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders…” The judgments we make about others and the opinions we form about them are cultivated in those moments of ownership when, by talking about someone, we feel that their life is rightfully ours to comment on or discuss. Such acts lead to can lead to feelings of superiority and to the idea that we know best – it can lead us to treat other people as characters in the great story of our lives, rather than as fellow human beings.
It’s always good to catch up on what people are doing. One of my favorite things to do when I go home is to hear stories about what’s going on in my old stomping grounds. But in those discussions and those moments of sharing, it’s important not only to avoid slander and malice and the obvious ways of causing harm, but also to remember that we must not create the opportunity for those acts to arise – and that, in the end, talking does not give us ownership or superiority over the lives of other people.