Slander has shaken many,
and scattered them from nation to nation;
it has destroyed strong cities,
and overturned the houses of the great.
Slander has driven virtuous women from their homes,
and deprived them of the fruit of their toil.
Those who pay heed to slander will not find rest,
nor will they settle down in peace.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Sirach 28:14-16 (NRSV) – October 29, 2014)
In law school I learned that slander is the spoken form of defamation; defamation in print is called libel. I doubt the translators of Ben Sira were making any such fine distinction; Ben Sira certainly does not. The Greek original reads, Glossa trite, meaning “a third tongue.” The British Greek scholar G.T. Emery translates this text not as “slander” but as “unrestrained talk of a third party,” which carries no particular suggestion of falsehood or defamation; gossip could be the subject, as well. In any event, our current preferred translation suggests some element of prevarication.
Which brings me to political advertising and clergy relocation . . . .
I don’t know if it’s still the case but several years ago, right after the Roman Catholic Church’s troubles with pedophilia and child sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy became big news, it became mandatory for Episcopal Church clergy seeking new callings to be background checked. One company in particular seemed to corner the market on these reviews and were used by nearly every diocese of the church; maybe they had a contract with the national hierarchy (I really don’t know). The covers of their reports had a box, a big red-flag check box, labeled something like “has been accused of sexual misconduct.” If that box was checked, it was unlikely the clergy person’s file would even be opened or looked at for a new position; their file would be tossed into the rejection stack without even a cursory review.
Note that the big red-flag check box’s label didn’t say “proven” or “shown” or “convicted” or anything of that nature, just “accused.” One unrestrained, possibly even untrue flap of “a third tongue” and one’s service as clergy was essentially done. I knew people who fell victim to slander of that sort. Accusations of misconduct are serious and should be looked into, but accusations are simply that – unproved assertions – and until proven they should be treated with great care.
The same is true of political advertisements. Elections in our country have become a farce (in my humble opinion) because of political advertisements run without regard to truth or verification. Anonymous groups run overwhelmingly negative ads making suggestions about “the other side” which may or may not be grounded in fact. They are like great big red-flag check boxes labeled “is accused of inflammatory nonsense we don’t ever have to prove,” and that’s enough to sway the electorate.
Is this any way to run a church? Is this any way to run a country? Ben Sira would suggest otherwise – our “great houses” are apt to fall if we continue to do so. Possibly they have already fallen and we just haven’t noticed.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.