As Christians we must avoid uncharitable talk, or gossip, and be bold enough to take a stand against it when we hear it.
“If something uncharitable is said in your presence, either speak in favor of the absent, or withdraw, or, if possible, stop the conversation.” St. John Vianney
How many times have you been in a conversation at work, or with your friends, when some uncharitable remarks were being made about someone who was not there. We call it “talking behind another’s back.” This is not mere ‘gossip,’ but a comment that clearly denigrated, or maligned the person who was not present. Do you also remember how it made you feel?
Often, the source of the comments is jealousy, or anger. Worse yet, they may come out of an excessive pride, a looking down one’s nose at the target of one’s words. These kinds of remarks are the products of those deadly sins.
It is because of this awareness in our own consciences that we are instinctively uncomfortable when conversations like this happen in our presence. Yet, we often remain silent in these situations, or laugh along with the speakers. Why do we do this? Mostly because we are afraid. We are afraid of the anger that might be suddenly pointed directly at us. Sometimes these remarks are made by friends, people we really love, and we are afraid that if we refuse to go along with their opinionated remarks, we might lose their friendship. Or, we may, legitimately fear how that person might talk about us behind our own backs.
All of these are real, emotional responses to such things. But as Christians we know that one of the phrases that Jesus used most often with his Apostles and disciples was, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus knows that fear is the most common force behind our failures to live up to the noble character that God gave us. Fear is the tool that the Enemy of God uses most to take our eyes off of Jesus.
Recall when Jesus, in the midst of a storm, is seen walking on the water by the Apostles and Peter cries out, “Lord, if that is you, tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” Jesus said. And Peter stepped out of the boat and began to walk, on the water, toward Jesus. But when he took his eyes off of Jesus, he saw the wind and became afraid and began to sink. Jesus caught him and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:22-33)
When we hear negative remarks being spoken about someone who is not in our presence we need to keep our eyes on Jesus, and in the courage of our faith in Jesus, we need to do as St. John Vianney suggests in the quote above. We need to “speak in favor of the absent, or withdraw, or if possible, stop the conversation.” This is hard. We will feel the natural fear that comes to us when we take a stand that is different than the that of the crowd. But we must remember who our role model is too. Jesus promises us that he will always be with us, especially when we cooperate with the moral good. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, ” What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)
We have all experienced these uncomfortable moments. It is up to us to refuse to participate in them at the very least. But it is even more Christ-like for us to do what we can out of Christian love for both the person who is the target of such comments, and for those who are making the comments. For, the truth is that they are both God’s children. In doing so we stand up in love and compassion to protect the one who is being maligned behind his or her back, but, in that same love and compassion, we may help those who are doing the maligning to see the true nature of what they are doing, and give them a chance to grow in their humanity. And yes, of course, we will be afraid to do this. But God will support us in our courage and in our ability to deal with the potential angry, or mean responses that might come our way for doing so.
Christians are called to live justly, compassionately, and courageously in this world. Jesus is our model. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is with us always. We believe this, but there are times when our belief must be incarnated in our actions and our words too. As Christians we would rather suffer for having done what God wants us to do, rather than to live ‘safely’ by going along with what is not right.