The case of the Hookset Four is grabbing the attention of America's media. These four women have been sacked from their clerical jobs as a result of gossiping about the town administrator who works in their firm. They had been spreading some nasty rumours about him in their daily gossip time, were caught out, and then thrown out. The story is making the headlines because of the sense of injustice that these women feel at their treatment, stating that 'this is like taking a fly and shooting it with a bazooka. It's absolutely ridiculous'.
In Wednesday's Times newspaper, journalist Carol Midgley agrees with this view. She stands aghast that something as 'harmless' as gossip should be treated in such a harsh way. The mechanisms which she uses to justify such behaviour are exceptionally interesting: 'Everyone gossips. Don't say you don't because you do - even men, though they like to pretend that they're above it. It is the lifeblood of the workplace and one of the few things that makes photocopying bearable.' Elsewhere Midgley notes that 'we are dealing with human beings - human beings who might not be in the most stimulating of jobs...', and subsequently produces a number of 'proofs' from psychologists that gossiping can actually be socially cohesive and ethically beneficial. Morally the bottom line for the writer is that if everyone is doing it, then it can't possibly be wrong. My favourite quote from her article is:
'Let's consider for a moment what would happen if gossiping was officially outlawed. About 400 celebrity magazines would close overnight. Half the motivation to come into the workplace in the morning would be lost. Water-coolers would be rendered pointless. Some people might actually burst and die from the unbearable strain of knowing that a loathed colleague had an embarassing little infection and being unable to tell anyone. If my Editor fired everyone who gossips in our office then it would be like the Mary Celeste'.
Sadly, Christians don't have much room to talk about the issue of gossiping. All that Midgley says in defence of spreading rumours can be repackaged in sanctified language, and made to sound like a Christian virtue. But in our hearts those of us who know Christ are fully aware that gossiping is sin. We fidget a little when we realise that in among the cesspool of moral degradation in Romans 1 comes the description of those who are 'gossips, slanderers' (vv29-30); and we prefer to forget that with all of the problems in Corinth one of Paul's main concerns was that when he came to see the church in person he might find gossips there (2Cor12:20).
Like Midgley's article we can view gossip as a petty, universal indulgence which does no harm. God says it's a disgrace and that lips which declare the name of Christ, should not propound harm against others. So the next time we feel the compulsion to say 'I shouldn't gossip' we should leave out the 'but' and button our lips. I know on good authority that no one has ever burst from not getting to spread the latest scandal. Equally, I know of many who have been destroyed by careless talk.