ROAD RULES By Pastor Anthony Payton
“Absence of Malice” is one of my favorite Paul Newman movies. In this 1981 drama, Paul Newman, plays Miami liquor wholesaler Michael Gallagher who awakes one day to find himself the front-page story in the local newspaper. The story indicates that he is being investigated in the disappearance and presumed murder of a local longshoreman union official. Miami Standard newspaper reporter, Megan Carter, played by Sally Field, had written the story about him.
The story is proven false and the federal prosecutor Elliot Rosen, who—it turns out, had a personal agenda, intentionally left the file that the story was based upon. By the time the film ends, a man’s reputation is damaged, his business is closed, a women is dead and a naïve reporter realizes that she has been used as a pawn in all of it. All because of someone else’s personal agenda.
The film, its message and the lesson it taught were so powerful that it became a part of the curriculum of many journalism classes. Even then, old school journalist realized that what was passing for serious news, was tabloid gossip, and was undermining journalist integrity. Thus, the title “Absence of Malice.”
Today, there are those that believe that gossip and news are the same thing and that it has always been that way. What was once a clear and definable line between the two, now—in this reality TV era, has become blurred. This point was driven home in the movie; when Sally Field’s character says in response to the lie she had written, “I’m a reporter! What did you expect? Don’t try to make me feel guilty.”
There is perhaps no other group that is the target of lies and gossip like pastors and preachers—particularly African American pastors and preachers. There are those that enjoy targeting those of us that lead and serve churches and communities. I knew that when I accepted my call into the ministry and have seen the escalation of it—in my own life, after becoming a pastor.
I hate gossip, for multiple reasons: because I’ve received my own fair share of hurt and pain due to words spoken about me behind my back, I have seen the damage it does to others and because what the Bible says about it.
There is never the absence of malice in gossip. In all cases, the gossiper is filled with malice, jealousy, and envy. They are under achievers…persons whose life has not turned out like that hope or thought it would. They want to be viewed in the words of today’s youth, “a baller and shout caller” but virtually no one respects them. Everything they have led has failed or declined under their watch. So, they try to tear down those who are doing something! Their low self-esteem imprisons them and their only way of escape is to place their own dirty shoes on the back of someone else! Socrates put it like this: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” Gossipers are like Andy Warhol once described himself, “I have Social Disease. I have to go out every night. If I stay home one night I start spreading rumors to my dogs.”
The Hebrew word translated “gossip” in the Old Testament is defined as “one who goes about as a talebearer or scandal-monger.” It’s not news that they share—even if it appears in a newspaper… its gossip! Gossipers often have the goal of building themselves up by making others look bad and exalting themselves as some kind of repositories of knowledge… a community hero of sort. When in reality the are pity and angry little men or women.
In the book of Romans, Paul reveals the sinful nature and lawlessness of mankind, stating how God poured out His wrath on those who rejected His laws. Because they had turned away from God’s instruction and guidance, He gave them over to their sinful natures. The list of sins includes gossips and slanderers (Romans 1:29b-32). We see from this passage how serious the sin of gossip is and that it characterizes those who are under God’s wrath.
Paul states that widows get into the habit of going from home to home, looking for something to occupy their idleness. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and God cautions against allowing idleness to enter our lives. Proverbs warns us, “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man [or woman] who talks too much” (Proverbs 20:19). According to Proverbs 18:7-8, “A fool’s mouth is his undoing, and his lips are a snare to his soul. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts.” The Bible tells us that “a perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends” (Proverbs 16:28).
Now, when it comes to pastors, and preachers, the bible says, “Don’t accept an accusation against an elder unless it is supported by two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19). Notice, the text didn’t say supported by an opinion column or a newspaper story or what you heard or what you think, but it says “two or three witnesses.” So, I ask you, how can a man or women who fits this biblical description and breaks God’s law as it relates to accusation against elders and/or pastors, not be filled with malice? Would God tell them to do something that violate his word? How can they be taken serious? How can you accept anything they say as truth? They are angry little men or women that no one cares about, so, they compensate by talking about someone else.
Okay, here is another example from the 2008 movie “Doubt,” staring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. The film’s four main actors were heavily praised for their acting, and all of them were nominated for Oscars at the 81st Academy Awards. Viola Davis received her first nomination. Viola Davis recently said that she was proud of her work in “Doubt” and not proud of her work in “The Help.” But I digress; so let me make my point. Seymour Hoffman plays a priest—Father Brendan Flynn, in the mist of a scandal started by Meryl Streep’s Character—who is a Sister Aloysius Beauvier. Father Flynn takes to pulpit and delivers a powerful message on gossip. Consider the following:
Father Brendan Flynn: “A woman was gossiping with her friend about a man whom they hardly knew—I know none of you have ever done this. That night, she had a dream: a great hand appeared over her and pointed down on her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’ Rourke, and she told him the whole thing. ‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that God All Mighty’s hand pointing down at me? Should I ask for your absolution? Father, have I done something wrong?’ ‘Yes,’ Father O’ Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, you ignorant, badly-brought-up female. You have blamed false witness on your neighbor. You played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed.’ So, the woman said she was sorry, and asked for forgiveness. ‘Not so fast,’ says O’ Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow upon your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me.’ So, the woman went home: took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. ‘Did you gut the pillow with a knife?’ he says. ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘And what were the results?’ ‘Feathers,’ she said. ‘Feathers?’ he repeated. ‘Feathers; everywhere, Father.’ ‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out onto the wind,’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’ ‘And that,’ said Father O’ Rourke, ‘is gossip!’”
I once had an African American pastor who told two white preachers that I was paying the legal bills for another preacher—who was African American too. Now, he happened to have issues with the preacher that I was supposedly paying legal bills for… As the late Bishop Jesse White would say, “Otherwise” he had an agenda for telling them this lie. When I asked him about it, to his credit he didn’t deny it, but added, “That’s what I was told.” He said, he was sorry. I later asked those preachers that he had told this lie to, if he had come back to clean it up. They said no! It would not have mattered much if he had because by then the feathers where everywhere. They flew out onto the wind! And that, I say, “is gossip with malice and not a mission from God!”
There is a major point that the talebearer or scandal-monger misses and it’s a very important one: If they spent more of their time and effort in trying to fix what is wrong in their own life, ministry, marriage and the like, the respect they crave for would readily be given. But alas, if African American history has taught us anything, it has taught us this: there is always one black man who is willing to run another black man down for his own pitiful agenda. Thus, for every Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. there is a Ralph Abernathy who thinks he is doing the world a favor and our enemies love it and our community suffers.
So, the next time you are confronted by a gossiper; offer him or her a dollar or two—no more than two, and tell them to buy themselves a dollar’s worth of business, because that’s all they have the capacity to handle. Than you—my friend, will be the one doing the world a favor!
This article originally appeared in the July 17 print edition.