Sunday, October 17, 2021

Crimes of the Lips

Once again, I have two stories for you. The first will take us to early in the year 505, to the city of Arles in what you'd now know as southern France. And there and then, a man named Licinianus can't stand his boss. See, Licinianus was a notary who worked in the household of the city's new bishop, a young man in his mid-thirties – incredibly young, and already promoted to such a prominent role of authority, with plenty of ideas on reform. This bishop, Caesarius, had been promoted past plenty priests with greater age and experience, in part because Caesarius was a favorite of – for that matter, a relative of – the last bishop, Aeonius. Licinianus figured that was the reason, anyway. And he didn't like it. He was mighty jealous.

Well, Licinianus thought up a plan. These days, Arles was under the rule of the barbarian Visigoths. And their king, Alaric, was feeling cornered. Two other barbarian tribes, the Burgundians and Franks, were on the move, and in situations like these, Alaric was a paranoid man prone to caution. Alaric had already exiled the bishop of another city under suspicion of conspiring with foreign powers. And, lucky for Licinianus, Caesarius happened to be a native of the Burgundian kingdom. Luckier yet, Licinianus, as the bishop's notary, was in the ideal position to claim insider knowledge into what Caesarius was up to. So he declared an accusation before Alaric – it wasn't true, but (he figured) who cares? – that Caesarius was conspiring to help his Burgundian relatives seize control of the valuable port city of Arles. Alaric was worried enough to act without investigation. Better safe than sorry! So he exiled Caesarius from Arles to Bordeaux, further from the Burgundian border.

Now, Caesarius was guilty of no such treason. Caesarius didn't much care whose rule he lived under, just so long as they let the church do its work and they treated people with dignity. Caesarius got on his knees every night and every day to pray for peace between nations and for the welfare of his city. He did that in Arles. And he kept it up in Bordeaux. Over the course of the next year, as Alaric waited out the crisis, it became obvious Caesarius was no subversive. Caesarius seemed content to preach in Bordeaux about the obligation to obey King Alaric in every just order. And as Alaric realized he might need Caesarius' help promoting a legal project, he started to think more clearly about the charges. And it became increasingly obvious that Licinianus was nothing but a liar.

The day came when Licinianus the liar stood before angry neighbors hefting stones in hand to hurl. But when Caesarius found out, he rushed to action – to beg for Licinianus' life, that he might yet repent and save his soul. Licinianus was spared, and Caesarius was welcomed back home with fanfare. Over the years to come, political powers would come and go. The holy bishop Caesarius would deal patiently with church gossip, with more accusations, with more seasons of imprisonment or exile, until at last, in August 542, he flew to his glorious reward.1

But fast-forward another six centuries, to March 1144. The scene: Southeast England, the rapidly changing city of Norwich. And in the church-owned Thorpe Wood outside town, on the day before Easter, a peasant led the forester to an unpleasant discovery: the strung-up body of a 12-year-old boy. An investigation identified the body as the child of a high-status Anglo-Saxon family from the countryside, the son of Elviva and her late husband Wenstan. Their William had come to the big city as an apprentice in the leather trade. What a tragic loss he was – educated, ambitious, bilingual, from a family well-connected in the church.

In the midst of a brutal civil war when soldiers were routinely torturing and killing anyone they caught who seemed well-to-do, young William's death initially aroused little public fuss. The investigation was brief and inconclusive. But William's uncle Godwin, a priest, approached church leaders and grumbled his suspicions of Norwich's Jews, relative newcomers to town. Nothing much was made of it until several years later, after the crushing failure of the Second Crusade. Crusader knights often had to borrow large sums of money to afford to fight overseas, and so when one Anglo-Norman knight, inflamed and demoralized from his crusade, came home to Norwich and found he was hopelessly in debt to a local Jewish banker, he simply arranged for his creditor to be ambushed and stabbed in the woods. When this knight was put on trial before the king, his defense team had a striking strategy. They alleged that another investigation needed to take precedence. They alleged that the knight's victim, the banker – and, with him, the whole Jewish community – were guilty of a grand conspiracy to have crucified that boy William as a human sacrifice for Passover six years earlier!

The charge was utterly untrue. But it got the knight's trial adjourned indefinitely. Local monks hailed William as a martyr. And this 'blood libel' against the Jews of Norwich spread. First in England, then in France, then all over, it proved a convenient tale for many. From then on, down through history, it became easier for unsolved murders of children in Europe to be pinned on Jewish communities. In the centuries to come, accusations like those led to exiles, tortures, burnings, and worse for the Jewish people.2

Now, what do these stories have in common? False witness, that's what. Licinianus bore false witness against Caesarius in accusing him of a treasonous conspiracy. The knight's defense bore false witness against the Jews in accusing them of a murderous one. And today, we're going to be looking at three types of false witness.

The first kind of false witness, you might call 'defamation.' That's a fancy word from a Latin root for 'spreading a bad report.' You might also call it 'calumny,' from a Latin root for 'accuse falsely,' or 'slander,' from the Greek word for 'scandal.' And whatever you call it, this involves making false negative claims about a person. As we talked about last Sunday, Jesus is the Truth, and so God calls people to be truthful. Lies – knowingly false words – are already ruled out. So it's obvious why knowingly false or knowingly exaggerated negative claims about a person, aiming to diminish his or her reputation, are worse still.

Nor is God shy in telling us just what he thinks of slander. “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD!” (Leviticus 19:16). The psalmists aren't shy either: “Let not the slanderer be established in the land – let disaster hunt down the violent man speedily!” (Psalm 140:11). “Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly, I will destroy” (Psalm 101:5). But a righteous person “does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to a neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend” (Psalm 15:3). Jesus lists 'slander' and 'false witness' among things that 'defile' the one who speaks or writes them (Matthew 15:19-20). Peter urges: “Put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander (1 Peter 2:1). And Paul agrees with Peter: “Put... away anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (Colossians 3:8; cf. Ephesians 4:31).

The prophet tells us that it's a sad state of society when you can say, as he could, “Let everyone beware of his neighbor, and put no trust in any brother, for every brother is a deceiver, and every neighbor goes about as a slanderer” (Jeremiah 9:4). But here we are today, and slander – to one degree or another – is a mighty common sin. You see it in our partisan divides, with terrible results. I've listened to some of my left-leaning friends slander everyone who votes the other way as being white supremacist, as irrational, as hateful, as backward. I've listened to some of my right-leaning friends slander everyone who votes the other way as America-hating, as stupid and senseless, as perverts, as sell-outs. Both are slanders, because most voters on either side want to better the country, according to their vision (right or wrong) of what a healthy society would look like. But I've had to give up friendships with some people because they just wouldn't stop slandering their political enemies.

Over a century ago, one Scottish preacher covering this commandment put it better than I can. He said, “The ordinary method of many politicians consists simply in blackening the character of their opponents. The public are invited to regard the leaders of one of the great parties as monsters who can never be guided by reasonable or patriotic motives, to attach to their utterances the worst possible meaning, and to see in their policy nothing but a tissue of personal ambition, jealousy, and cunning. It will be well if God grant us not to give ear to such bearing of false witness against public men as is plentifully practiced among us.”3 And isn't that true today, with how modern American politics goes? The politicians and pundits of one side want you to look at the politicians on the other side as monsters, to impute them bad motives, and to filter everything they say through the worst possible lens. And to accomplish that, they slander. They bear false witness. Too often, we parrot such slander.

But, of course, we encounter slander just as commonly in our personal life. That's hardly new, as our county newspapers bear out. A century and a half ago, the Lancaster paper remarked, “Deprive some of us of that great staple of conversation, slander, and some of us would be at a loss what to talk about. … There are people to whom slander is the very breath of their life: social spiders, hideous and venomous in secret, and in darkness they weave their webs of destruction.”4 And over the next decades, our county courts heard their fair share of slander cases. In the 1870s, I read of one fellow suing another in Manheim for passing along a made-up story claiming he'd been arrested for forgery.5 In the 1880s, one man sued another in Bart Township for “circulating reports that he was dishonest.”6 In the 1890s, one county doctor sued another doctor for publicly accusing him of perjury about a local ball player's injury.7 In the 1900s, a man sued his former Salisbury Township neighbor for postcard harassment accusing him of being a horse thief.8 In the 1910s, a fellow in Brecknock Township sued his neighbor for spreading rumors that he'd hired an arsonist.9 In the 1920s, one woman sued another in Christiana for “circulating reports affecting her reputation for chastity.”10 And on it goes.

But slander happens far more often than it gets brought to court. People insult each other, judge each other, misrepresent each other. People try to tear one another down. People spread nasty tales, impugn each other's motives, fire off accusations, say bad things about other people that aren't deserved. Bishop Caesarius warned against it, reminding us not to “speak ill of another,” not to “slander,” not to “bear false witness.”11 He said, “If you see obscene language, insults, curses, abuse, slander, or murmuring coming out of a man's mouth, you can clearly recognize who dwells within him” – the devil.12 But Caesarius also thought slander was a particularly challenging sin to avoid: “Who is there from whose mouth an evil word does not sometimes issue?”13 “Without effort, who can withdraw his tongue from slander?”14 And for that reason, he listed “refraining from slander and other evil speech” as a kind of “good work” on par with hospitality and visiting the sick.15

But there's another form of false witness we have to watch out for – and that's flattery, false positive claims for a person or a group. Israel's wise men used to say that “a flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28), that “a man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet” (Proverbs 29:5). The psalmists see flattery as another offense against truth: “They flattered him with their mouths, they lied to him with their tongues” (Psalm 78:36). They complain about how common it is: “Everyone utters lies to his neighbor: with flattering lips and a double heart they speak” (Psalm 12:2). “For there is no truth in their mouth..., they flatter with their tongue” (Psalm 5:9). So they prayed, “May the LORD cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts!” (Psalm 12:3). That reminds us that, when flattery is applied to who you see in the mirror, it's called 'boasting.' To boast in anything under your control, or about yourself, is just self-flattery. The psalmists aren't fond of that, either: “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes: you hate all evildoers” (Psalm 5:5). Paul tells his churches that “we never came with words of flattery” (1 Thessalonians 2:15), unlike others out there who “by smooth talk and flattery... deceive the hearts of the naive” (Romans 16:18).

Once again, political flattery is every bit as common as political slander today. Just as we're always out to paint black the character of the folks on the other side of the political aisle, we're eager to whitewash the character of whoever's on our side. Things we'd furiously condemn if done by somebody in the other party? Put the other letter behind their name: we'll find some way of excusing it or changing the subject. We believe accusations easily when they're for somebody in the wrong party, but if the same accusations are made about somebody in our tribe, suddenly we insist on withholding judgment. That's flattery – we flatter the like-minded by insisting on their innocence and their virtue beyond what's merited. And when we wrap up our own identity in being a such-and-such voter or a so-and-so supporter, political flattery and political boasting have melded into one. No side of the aisle is immune. We've all heard people excuse their favored president for what they condemned the other guy for, be it sexual behavior, warmongering, cruelty of language, political record, you name it. Double standards abound. But if we aren't willing to call out bad ideas and bad conduct when they come from our political corner, but only when it's across the aisle, then we're flatterers. And that makes us false witnesses.

It gets personal, too. One major form of flattery is excusing somebody's sin, telling them either that it isn't sin at all, or that it's so minor they needn't worry about it. A common one in our day and age! We needn't rehearse what we've discussed under other commandments to be aware that there are massive movements pressing and seducing whole churches today into condoning this sin or that sin under the false name of 'tolerance.' And when they do so, when they excuse sin, that's flattery. But we mostly notice it only when it's flattery of sins that we here aren't already flattering. As we've learned these past few months, there are plenty of sins that Evangelical churches have been flattering so long that we no longer realize it's flattery. And of this, too, we need to repent. Caesarius compared it to medical malpractice: “Now if we are true spiritual physicians, brethren,” he said, “and attend carefully to the remedy of your souls, we should not flatter anyone, nor should you do so to us. Let us confess our sins, not excuse them.”16

But there are other types of flattery, too. There are compliments meant to manipulate: I say what I think will make you view me favorably so that I can get favors from you – or so I can put you at ease 'til I strike. There are praises meant to entrench you in a false self-image: I shield you from a realistic picture of yourself, thinking I'm helping but actually doing you a long-term disservice. Thanks to the 'triumph of the therapeutic,' that one's everywhere today. But even Caesarius had to call out “people who are in the habit of uttering sweet words with their lips in false flattery” – and he told them to “hold on to true charity and avoid everything false.”17

There's one more kind of offense we need to cover. Sometimes you'd call it rumor. Sometimes, innuendo. And other times, gossip. All are ways of dragging people down with negative claims or stories that might even be true or uncertain in their content, but are out of place. Israel's wise men connected slandering to the sin of “revealing secrets” (Proverbs 11:13; 20:19). Airing out somebody's dirty laundry in front of those who've got no justifying reason to take a peek – that's 'revealing secrets,' that's what gossip does. Paul worried he might return to a church and find it beset by sins like “contentions, slander, gossip, and conceit” (2 Corinthians 12:20) – and he was sharply critical of believers who “learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they shouldn't” (1 Timothy 5:13). Paul – and God who inspired him – has a problem with babblers whose mouths are like a pot boiling over. And he's got an issue with the snake-charming whisperers who always hiss, “Pssssst, did you hear...?” But the wise know that “he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered” (Proverbs 11:13) – not engaging in a cover-up (that would be a kind of flattery), but letting people keep their privacy and honor except when necessity demands otherwise.

And do we really need examples of gossip today? It's the magazines at the check-out line, offering you the 'real' scoop about celebrities' personal lives. It's the whispers around the neighborhood about your neighbor's private business. It's the deep-dive into somebody's personal struggles, disguised as a third-party prayer request. It's the complaint about somebody else that's aimed to bring down their esteem in the eyes of others. It's relishing aloud someone else's sins, especially when they offer such a convenient distraction from seeing our own. The Christian tradition warns that speaking gossip is a sin. And so does it warn against willingly listening to gossip, against being too eager for a glimpse at the dirty laundry of others when you've got no need to know.

We'd be wise to listen to Caesarius: “Let us strive to put an end to all idle gossip, calumnies, and buffoonery as much as we can.”18 Caesarius said that sharing “common gossip” was like spiritual bad breath, “exhaling an exceedingly foul odor.”19 “A person who is willing to be occupied with idle gossip incurs guilt for himself and others.”20 So “in conversation, at an assembly, on the road, or wherever we are,” he tells us, “let us hasten to reject idle gossip and biting jokes, and to speak the word of the Lord to the hearts of the faithful.”21

We could go on with kinds of false witness. Paul says that things like deceit, gossip, slander, and boastfulness flow out of “a debased mind” and are clearly things that “ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28-30). And Jesus warns us that “on the day of judgment, people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). Lies, slanders, flatteries, boasts, gossip, rumors – aren't those just some of the careless words we speak? And there are others. In one Anglo-Norman confessional manual from the Middle Ages, the commandment to not bear false witness was said to cover a whole lot of sins: “all forms of lie, perjury, hypocrisy, idle words, frivolous words, words that could cause shame to your neighbor, words full of malice, words full of blasphemy, unreasonable words, words where the devil is named, prideful and contemptuous words, words that spread discord, words of lechery, and foolish songs.”22 That's a long list!

But for just that reason, Caesarius thought it posed an opportunity to be truly heroic. See, in his time and place, the old Roman forms of persecution were over. Unless you went elsewhere as a missionary, you weren't at risk of dying for the faith, didn't seem to have the opportunity for heroic Christian life. But he preached, “There are martyrs even in our day! If a man reproves evildoers with justice and charity, or warns against... perjury, calumny, and slander, he will be Christ's martyr by giving testimony to the things which please God.”23 There's something about resisting false witness – resisting lies, slander, flattery, and gossip – that can put you on the line for Christ.

And that's because Christ so lived. Jesus was slandered often – accused of being in league with the devil, or of being a party hound, or of improper friendships with sinners. False witnesses perjured themselves to put him on the cross. But Jesus never slandered back. His criticisms of the Pharisees were only voiced to those who needed to hear for their own spiritual health. Jesus never flattered anyone, never gossiped. And as he hung on the cross, being spoken against by all the world, he died for them. And he rose again to clear us from the Great Accuser. For Satan flatters us into sin and accuses us once we sin. But Jesus presents us with our sin, opens our eyes, and takes it away, vindicating us from the devil's slanders. So let us slander or flatter or gossip about no one – not a relative, not a politician, not a neighbor, not a people. But let us speak the praise of the Risen Truth! Far from all false witness, let's be Christ's witnesses in the world, testifying with our lives and speech to what most pleases God. Amen.


Lord God of Truth, to you be all glory and honor. You have created us, and you have made us social beings who depend on a good reputation in life and who need to see ourselves and others rightly. So set a guard, Lord, over our mouths; keep watch over the door of our lips, lest we slander or flatter or gossip, lest we lie or deceive or speak carelessly. Preserve us from all these sins. Cover us with your truth and mercy. Make our words and thoughts such as we will be unashamed to own before your throne of judgment on high. Let us so refuse rumor and gossip that it will never be uttered in our presence. Let us so refuse flattery and boasting that we will confess daily before you. Let us so refuse slander that we will be known for our fairness to all. For every careless word we have spoken, purge it with the blood of Christ. For every injury to our reputation, vindicate us with the love of Christ. For every uncharitable thought we harbor, correct us by the wisdom of Christ. To his name we appeal for the gift of heroic testimony to all that pleases you, God. By your Spirit of Truth, Father, make us true witnesses. Amen.

1  Vita Caesarius 1.22-24, in Translated Texts for Historians 19:20-21; William E. Klingshirn, Caesarius of Arles: The Making of a Christian Community in Late Antique Gaul (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 93-97.

2  Emily M. Rose, The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (Oxford University Press, 2015). See also Kathy Lavezzo, The Accommodated Jew: English Antisemitism from Bede to Milton (Cornell University Press, 2016), 67-69, 74-79.

3  Allan Menzies, National Religion: Sermons on the Ten Commandments (Alexander Gardner, 1888), 180.

4  “Slander,” [Lancaster] Daily Evening Express (12 April 1870): 1.

5  “Important Slander Case,” [Lancaster] Daily Evening Express (3 January 1874): 2.

6  “A Slander Suit,” [Lancaster] Weekly New Era (26 July 1884): 2.

7  “Physicians Resort to Law,” Lancaster Examiner (9 March 1895): 2.

8  “Common Pleas Court,” [Lancaster] Semi-Weekly New Era (6 February 1901): 2.

9  “Slander Suit,” Lancaster Intelligencer (24 April 1915): 1.

10  “Christiana Women Accuse Each Other of Slander,” [Lancaster] Examiner-New Era (30 August 1921): 7.

11  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 171.3, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 47:423-424.

12  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 160.2, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 47:371.

13  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 234.4, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 66:203.

14  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 236.4, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 66:213.

15  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 67.3, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:321.

16  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 59.7, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:294-295.

17  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 29.4, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:147.

18  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 7.5, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:48-49.

19  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 80.3, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:368.

20  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 19.3, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:100.

21  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 1.10, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:10.

22  “The Commandments,” in Tony Hunt, ed., 'Cher alme': Texts of Anglo-Norman Piety (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2010), 329.

23  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 52.1, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:260.

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