Paul’s two letters to the Corinthian Church are object lessons in how to resolve conflict. The faults of the church are a catalogue of immorality and dysfunction. Paul’s vulnerability is striking as he seeks to deal with it. However, there is no sense of what Kim Scott called ‘ruinous empathy’ with what they’ve been up to. He seeks no mitigating circumstances. What we see is radical candour. You can’t resolve issues unless the truth is out there on the table.
At the end of the correspondence, of which we have selected highlights, the outcome is uncertain. In 2 Corinthians 12: 20, as he looks forward to another visit to them his fear is “that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.” Not qualities you want in a community seeking reconciliation!
Many years ago, I was a member of rowing club which had an internal dispute. It started with a disagreement and misunderstanding about an equipment purchase. Something that could have been resolved with a bit of humility and grace on both sides quickly escalated into something that destroyed the club. It was an object lesson in how to achieve that end. You start by being determined to be seen as completely in the right (even if you aren’t). You then caricature the opposing party as universally untrustworthy and Machiavellian, and view everything they say through that lens. You then gather people around you in a closed group and feed them your sole narrative. That nicely escalates the dispute from just a few people to whole groups of people. Before you know it, you have factions bitterly opposed to each other. By that stage you are into holy war territory. So much is invested emotionally in the dispute that climbing down feels like a sort of death. An objective observer finds the whole thing extraordinary, but in a dispute of that nature objectivity is the first casualty.
The writer of Proverbs recognised that there are ways to stop this in its tracks. Proverbs 26: 20 – “without wood a fire goes out, without a gossip a quarrel dies down”. Paul goes even further. In Romans 1: 29, Paul puts gossip in the same category as murder, strife, deceit and malice. Our culture regards it a harmless tittle tattle; there are even journalists who specialise in it. But gossip isn’t harmless. Every time we pass on unverified information, or truths that should remain confidential, we are silently assassinating the character of the person we are talking about. Such gossip circles can destroy relationships. When I was a parish priest in secret negotiations with a shop owner about purchasing the building to become a community café, I had a conversation with someone in the village who told me with great authority exactly what was going to happen to the shop, who the owner was going to sell it to and when, and what they were going to do with it. The trouble was it was complete nonsense. Their authoritative claim was simply the culmination of gossip around the village and had no basis in fact.
In that case it was fairly harmless, but I know of quite vicious and harmful rumours that have circulated in parishes with no basis in fact either. We would do well to put the brakes on when tempted to share something and not leave our critical faculties at the door when we are gossiped at. There are always two sides to every story.
As we prepare to remember Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem this weekend we see some of this stuff working out in Jesus trial. Witness after witness is bought to condemn Jesus. I’ve no doubt that some of the witnesses earnestly believed they were telling the truth – well someone reliable had told them! It didn’t take much ingenuity on the part of the Jewish leaders to gather all of this stuff together to make a case. The fact that the conflicting, gossiped rumours were shown to be untrue or misunderstood made them even more culpable in their determination to have Jesus executed.
Jesus mysteriously said, “anyone who says to a brother of sister, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Raka is an Aramaic word basically meaning airhead or idiot. Fool in this case is literally to write someone off in character, motivation and spiritual destination. Jesus’ sobering warning is that if anger leads you there its not somewhere you want to be. You don’t get to that place without a lot of gossip first. I need to hear that in my conversations as much as anyone else.