In his novel, Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey offers this colorful image of gossip. The setting is a small town where there are rumors about the priest and a particular young woman. Here’s his metaphor: “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.”
What an apt image! Gossip does resemble steam hissing from a radiator or the growl of a small dog, and yet it’s important. For most of our lives, we form community around it. How so?
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 have been thrown together by circumstance and are making the best of it.
You have dinner together and things go along quite pleasantly. There’s harmony, banter, and humor 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 on whose faults, eccentricities, and shortcomings we all agree. Alternatively, we talk about shared indignations. We end up having a harmonious time together because we talk about someone or something else whose difference from us is greater than our differences from each other. Of course, you are afraid to leave the table because you already suspect whom they will be talking about then! 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 it’s a very important one. 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 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 adorn it with the tensions and divisions of the community. Among other things, they would drape it with a purple cloth to symbolize that it symbolically represented them and push a crown of thorns into its head to make it feel the pain of their tensions. (Notice how Jesus is draped in these exact symbols when Pilate shows him to the crowd before the crucifixion: Ecce homo … Behold your scapegoat!) The goat was then chased off to die in the desert. It leaving the community was understood as taking the community’s sin and tension away, leaving the community free of tension by its banishment.
Jesus is our scapegoat. He takes away our sin and division, though not by banishment from the community. 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 sin in the same way as a water filter purifies, by holding the impurities within itself and giving back only what is pure.
When we say Jesus died for our sins, we need to understand it 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 affirmation; 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 Jesus’ invitation to us: As adults, we are invited to step up and do what Jesus did, namely, take in the differences and jealousies around us, hold them, and transform them so as not to give them back in kind. Then won’t we need scapegoats any more, and the steam-pipes of gossip will cease hissing and the low growl of that smallish dog inside us will finally be silent.