"The tongue is mightier than the sword!" No one knows for sure who first came to this conclusion. Maybe he or she was inspired by Scripture, which tells us, "Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" (Proverbs 12:19).
As usual, whenever the inspired text points out a sin, it also offers a remedy.
None of us needs a reminder about the evil of gossip -- meaning spreading stories about other people, whether true or untrue. We are all wounded by it, so we know from experience how destructive it is to communities, families and personal relationships.
I use the word "sin" because both slander and calumny are not only forms of defamation -- for which, at times, one can even be prosecuted -- but they are also sins.
Calumny is any false and malicious statement designed to injure the reputation of someone or something: a family, a society or an institution. Detraction is the same thing, really, except that what it states technically has a "factual" basis. (I put "factual" in quotes, since detractors rarely bother too much with facts and tend to embellish them anyway.)
Gossip is gossip, and it always hurts someone -- including the person who gossips! Gossip is a killer!
It follows that the person who gossips is a killer, a destroyer. Anytime we destroy or kill, something inside of us dies, too. For one thing, gossip distances people from one another and disrupts the connections that make any society or organization work well.
Gossip has the same effect as a bomb or any other act of war: It breaks things. Like a shattered piece of crystal, it leaves shards that others can step on and get cut by.
The saddest thing about gossip is that it is a cowardly alternative to what could be a great power of healing. It may be that the temptation to gossip is the devil's way of trying to destroy a person who could actually be a great leader or community-builder. The person who gossips could otherwise be a healer!
Often, people talk about other people in order to feel a sense of being powerful, important or smart: "If I spread this news, others will respect me more, because they will know that I have inside connections, special information (because I am special) and that I am a person to be reckoned with."
Unfortunately, once the word is out, the source of the detraction or calumny rarely gets respect or admiration. On the contrary, more people talk about him or her and their vicious tongue!
It's not very good for the soul or the ego to be a destructive force, either. It leaves nothing but emptiness and isolation, never the satisfaction of a good day's honest work.
A person tempted to gossip may actually be running away from his or her potential to be a leader or healer. Often, the temptation to gossip comes from a deep awareness that people and things are not as they ought to be.
St. Paul has advice for anyone in such a situation. It begins with fraternal correction: If you see a brother or sister who has done something wrong, first go privately to that person and point out the problem. If that does not work, then bring another witness or two, but keep the matter among you. One does not kill a flea with a sledgehammer!
Sometimes, the behavior of an individual could be potentially harmful to a larger group. In that case, going to a person in a authority who is in a position to address the behavior is the best course of action. It does no good just to spread the rumor around. It only makes things worse by multiplying the number of victims.
The fifth commandment, as we all know, is "Thou shalt not kill!" To destroy another's reputation can be as deadly as murdering him or her with a weapon, considering how hard it is to get a good reputation back.
At the same time, deciding to act constructively in correcting a bad pattern of behavior or a dangerous situation is an act of great virtue. It's even courageous, if it involves coming forward and confronting the problem.
Which alternative would we think that Christ is calling us to take? Like Christ, our task is to drive the devil out, not to become one ourselves!