It was one of those Internet forwards one gets from good friends exercised about one thing or another. I got it from several sources. This one was about Jane Fonda. It came on the heels of a particularly meaningful encounter with a priest who is both friend and mentor. It has changed my life, in a small but significant way.
Like many of these urgent forwards that make the rounds, this one was a mixture of truth and fabrication—some truth regarding Jane Fonda’s trip to North Vietnam, mixed with many falsehoods about what went on there and what resulted—the result being to paint her in an extremely unflattering light. The missive went on to urge imminent action against Fonda’s being named one of America’s Most Influential Women—an honor she received more than ten years ago. And in the midst of it was the line “Never forgive a traitor!” That line cut to my heart when I read it.
Make no mistake, I have no particular affection for Fonda’s politics, then or now. But I also have no fondness for the sins of gossip and calumny and detraction and hardness of heart that seem to be increasingly common in American life, even amongst those of faith. Gossip, including calumny—spreading untruths about a person –and detraction—telling an unkind truth to someone who has no right to know, in order to harm another’s reputation—are now an accepted part of American discourse.
I think we’ve forgotten, as Christians, that we owe a duty of charity to everyone, even (especially) those we do not like, and especially to our brothers and sisters in faith and that duty is not abstract but concrete, real and demanding that we change the way we go about living our lives. In an age of Internet and alternative media where opinion passes for fact and talk is non-stop, we have forgotten that, one day, we will be held accountable for every idle word, never mind every ill-considered one. Perhaps we have forgotten that to gossip--to pass on calumny or detraction is to participate in another’s sin even as we commit our own. Perhaps we excuse it because everybody does it or because we blithely take all the information we receive at face value, and don’t bother to check it out, especially when it fits with our preconceived notions. Perhaps we have forgotten that our own good name guarantees the validity of all the things we say, at least to those predisposed to hear them from us.
Perhaps we don’t really understand what calumny and detraction do.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that calumny—passing on untruths about an individual-- was a sin against the fifth, seventh and eighth commandments (sixth, seventh and ninth if you use the Protestant numbering). Such gossip kills the reputation of another, it deprives its object of the possession of his good name, and it directly transgresses the prohibition against giving false witness. Detraction-passing on an unkind truth to an individual who has no need of hearing it—does the same.
We would be outraged if these things happened to us, but seem to be unaware when we do it to others. After all, gossip--calumny and detraction--- generally are passed on in the service of politics, of sounding a warning bell, of preventing some wrong real or imagined—even in passing on a prayer request. (I am amazed at how many hurtful and scandalous details people insist on sharing about others when asking for prayers. For the record—all I need to know is the name of the person I am praying for, and really, not even that God knows the problem.)
As Christians, we have an obligation to mind our tongues—and our keyboards. The forwards I got included out-and-out lies, not only about Jane Fonda, but about POWs who supposedly—but did not—suffer as a result of her visit. And it omitted the fact that twice she has publicly apologized for her behavior. On the balance, even the truthful portions seem to have been directed at an effort to demean Jane Fonda in the recipient’s eyes—and to harden hearts against her; hence the “never forgive a traitor” language. Gossip, calumny, detraction and unforgiveness rolled into one tight package.
But it was something my priest-friend said to me this last week that brought this all into focus. Somehow conversation had gotten around to the capture and killing of Libyan Col. Ghadaffi. I observed, somewhat hesitantly, that when I heard the news, my first sense was of overwhelming sadness at the great potential of a life that seems from all external evidence to have been a vehicle for evil rather than good.
He replied, “I think about the men who killed him, and what that act cost them, what price they paid for that. How they are diminished by that killing.” His words took my breath away.
That’s the rub. Not just the fact that violence of any kind affects others, but it affects us as well. I’m not prepared to discuss the culpability of Ghadaffi’s execution, but even if justified, it did not leave anyone involved unchanged. And violence, whether physical or verbal, justified or not, necessary or not, always leaves injury in its wake, one result of our fallen world and our prideful natures.
And that is the real cost of that Internet forward, and why I will read no more of them. It was violence in writing and it was unnecessary and it diminished not just Jane Fonda, but me.
For an instant, however, small, I was angry and felt (un)righteous indignation well up within me. For a moment in time, mostly over things that, as it turns out, were outright lies, I wanted revenge. The adversary distracted me from God and His love for me and for Jane and managed to convince me, however transiently, that my brokenness and my anger and my desire for punishment was somehow whole and justifiable, perhaps even noble.
Until I remembered. As I measure, so will it be measured to me. As I forgive, so will I be forgiven.
Vietnam was a long time ago. God will not hold me bound by the sins of my youth and I refuse to hold Jane Fonda bound by hers. And I have it on good authority that God forgives traitors; ask St. Peter.
Jane is a sister in Christ. She has a claim on my forgiveness and my prayers no matter what she has done, and I am in no position to judge the content of her heart, then or now. Her actions are long since over and she has apologized for them. She is in no position of either secular or ecclesial authority and poses no great threat to anyone or anything even if she were being nominated for some meaningless Hollywood honor. I am entitled to oppose her political and moral positions, if she chooses to enter into discourse about them and to dispute them vigorously. But I owe her my silence when my speech serves no good purpose and would, instead, damage her. In love and charity, I am bound to show her the kindness of not passing on invective, half truths and lies or even unkind truths that serve only to demean her.
I am called to live the life of Christ. To be visibly different, transformed in action as well as in sentiment. To live radically in love, even loving—desiring at my own expense the good for--- those people I don’t especially like. In my heart and in my life; in my thoughts and in my words, and--oddly enough—in my Inbox and my Outbox.