George Herbert on the pastor and gossip

The sin of “detraction” is revealing another person’s faults without good reason. In other words, it is a bit like gossip. An old parable is sometimes told to illustrate the dangers of it: a Roman Catholic priest once gave a woman who had confessed to spreading gossip the penance of collecting up feathers that had been scattered by the wind. This was impossible to complete. In the same way, undoing the damage of her gossiping was also not possible.

How much more ought we be aware of this sin in the age of social media, when all that we write online can be read around the world in seconds by millions and millions of people? Every barbed comment shared “strictly entre nous” in a Facebook discussion can be like a feather in the wind.

Herbert however, as always, distinguishes carefully. There are some cases where the barbed comments may be justified, and indeed part of the just punishment of a crime. Talking about people’s faults may not always be wrong: rogues must be identified as such!

Yet if they change their ways, then our opinion of them must also change. How difficult this in the modern connected world. There is an online culture of humiliation, in which public shaming is the new blood sport, as Monica Lewinsky recently said (rather courageously) in a TED Talk on “The Price of Shame”. “Millions of people, often anonymously, can stab you with their words. And that’s a lot of pain,” she said. In such a context, it is a glorious gospel that God forgets (Isaiah 43:25).

Something to ponder, before you next click “Comment” or “Reply”.

Concerning detraction

The country parson perceiving that most, when they are at leisure, make others’ faults their entertainment and discourse, and that even some good men think, so they speak truth, they may disclose another’s fault, finds it somewhat difficult how to proceed in this point.

For if he absolutely shut up men’s mouths, and forbid all disclosing of faults, many an evil may not only be, but also spread in his parish, without any remedy (which cannot be applied without notice) to the dishonour of God, and the infection of his flock, and the discomfort, discredit, and hinderance of the pastor.

On the other side, if it be unlawful to open faults, no benefit or advantage can make it lawful; for we must not do evil that good may come of it.

Now the parson, taking this point to task, which is so exceeding useful, and has taken so deep root that it seems the very life and substance of conversation, has proceeded thus far in the discussing of it.

Faults are either notorious or private. Again notorious faults are either such as are made known by common fame (and of these, those that know them may talk, so they do it not with sport but commiseration), or else such as have passed judgment and been corrected either by whipping or imprisoning or the like. Of these also men may talk, and more, they may discover them to those that know them not, because infamy is a part of the sentence against malefactors which the Law intends, as is evident by those which are branded for rogues, that they may be known, or put into the stocks, that they may be looked upon.

But some may say, though the Law allow this, the Gospel does not, which has so much advanced charity and ranked backbiters among the generation of the wicked (Romans 1:30). But this is easily answered. As the executioner is not uncharitable, that takes away the life of the condemned, except besides his office, he add a tincture of private malice in the joy, and hast of acting his part — so neither is he that defames him, whom the Law would have defamed, except he also do it out of rancour. For in infamy, all are executioners, and the Law gives a malefactor to all to be defamed. And as malefactors may lose and forfeit their goods or life, so may they their good name, and the possession thereof, which before their offence and judgment they had in all men’s breasts. For all are honest till the contrary be proved.

Besides, it concerns the commonwealth that rogues should be known, and charity to the public has the precedence of private charity. So that it is so far from being a fault to discover such offenders, that it is a duty rather, which may do much good and save much harm. Nevertheless, if the punished delinquent shall be much troubled for his sins, and turn quite another man, doubtless then also men’s affections and words must turn, and forbear to speak of that which even God himself has forgotten.


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