In his novel, OSCAR AND LUCINDA, Peter Carey, offers this colourful image of gossip. In a small town there are rumours about the priest and a particular young woman. Here’s the image:
“The vicar of Woolahra then took her shopping and Society, always feeling shopping to be the most intimate activity, was pleased to feel the steam pressure rising in itself as it got ready to be properly scandalized – its pipes groaned and stretched, you could hear the noises in its walls and cellars. They imagined he paid for her finery. When they heard this was not so, that the girl had sovereigns in her purse – enough, it was reported, to buy the priest a pair of onyx cufflinks – the pressure did not fall, but stayed constant, so that while it did not reach the stage where the outrage was hissing out through the open valves, it maintained a good rumble, a lower note which sounded like a growl in the throat of a smallish dog.”
Wonderful! Gossip does resemble steam hissing from a radiator or the growl of a small dog. And yet it’s so important. We form community around it. How so?
Take this example: Imagine going out for dinner with a group of colleagues. While there isn’t overt hostility among you, there are clear differences and tensions. You wouldn’t naturally choose go out to dinner together, but you’ve been thrown together by circumstance and are trying to make the best of it.
And so you have dinner together and things are quite pleasant really. There’s harmony, banter, and humour at the table. How do you manage to get on so well, despite and beyond differences? By talking about somebody else! Much of the time is spent talking about others whose faults, eccentricities, and shortcomings we all agree upon. Alternatively, we talk about shared indignations. We end up having an harmonious time together because we talk about someone or something else whose difference from us is greater than our difference, at least at that moment, from each other. Of course, you’re afraid to go to the bathroom because you already know whom they will be talking about when you get up from the table! Your fear is well-founded.
Until we reach a certain level of maturity, we form community largely around scapegoating, that is, we overcome our differences and tensions by focusing on someone or something about whom or which we share a common distancing, indignation, ridicule, anger, or jealousy. That’s the anthropological function of gossip – and a very important one it is. We overcome our differences and tensions by scapegoating someone or something. That’s why it’s easier to form community against something rather than around something and why it’s easier to define ourselves more by what we are against than by what we are for.
Ancient cultures knew this and designed certain rituals precisely to take tension out of the community by scapegoating. For example, at the time of Jesus within the Jewish community a ritual existed that essentially worked this way: At regular intervals the community would take a goat and symbolically invest it with the tensions and divisions of the community. Among other things, they would cloth it with a purple drape and put a crown of thorns on its head as a sign of their sins. (Notice how Jesus is vested in exactly these symbols when Pilate shows him to the crowd: “Ecco homo … Behold your scapegoat!”) The goat was then chased off to die in the desert. It’s leaving the community was understood as taking the sin and tension away and the community was seen to be washed clean by its blood (as we are “in the blood of the lamb”.)
Jesus is our scapegoat. He takes away our sin and division. How? He takes away our sins by taking them in, carrying them, and transforming them so as not to give them back in kind. Jesus takes away the sin of the world in the same way as a water-filter purifies, by holding the impurities within itself and giving back only what’s pure.
Jesus took away the sin of the world this way: He took in hatred and gave back love; he took in curses and gave back blessing; he took in bitterness and gave back graciousness; he took in jealousy and gave back understanding; and he took in murder and gave back forgiveness. By absorbing our sin, differences, and jealousies, he did for us what we, in a less mature and less effective way, try to do when we crucify each other through gossip.
And that’s his invitation to us: As adult women and men we are invited to step up and do what Jesus did, take in the differences and jealousies around us, hold them, and transform them so as not to give them back in kind.
Only then won’t we need scapegoats any more. And only then will the steam-pipes of gossip cease hissing and the low growl of that smallish dog inside us be silent.