Slander – an odious sin

Even in a time of great persecution under Louis XIV, most Huguenots in France were primarily concerned for their personal holiness in the eyes of God, rather than to fight for their rights. This is illustrated by the following imagined secret evening culte in a private home, based on a genuine sermon preached in Castres at the start of the year 1681 by Pastor Abel-Rodolphe de Ladevèze.

M. de Launay closed the shutters and bolted the door after the last of the brethren arrived. Caesar curled up in front of the crackling fire, which offered us welcome warmth on that cool Spring evening. Two oil lamps provided basic light and a pleasant odour of pine resin. 

Most of us knew Pslam 90 by heart but two or three folk took out their tattered psalters to sing, accompanied beautifully by young Marie on a viola and her mother on the zither. 

“LORD, Thou hast been since Thou didst shape creation
Our dwelling place in ev’ry generation. 
Before the mountains were brought forth and grounded,
And Thou the earth and world hadst formed and founded,
From everlasting stands Thy holy throne;
To everlasting Thou art God alone…”

After singing all eight verses, the ladies put down their instruments and we shuffled in our seats, ready to listen to Father’s talk.

“Indeed, we exalt Thy glorious name, Lord, as we have just intoned the wonderful words of that Psalm.” Father adopted his characteristic pious tone, his hands raised in an attitude of supplication. “And now I beseech Thee: Humble and quicken our hearts and minds by Thy gracious Holy Spirit, that we might be receptive to the unrelenting message delivered unto us through Thy most worthy servant St. James. I pray in the glorious Name of Thy Son, our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”

We all responded, “Amen”.

A Huguenot Pastor

“I have the great honour,” Father continued, holding up a well-worn booklet, “of having here a copy of a sermon preached by the worthy Pastor de Ladevèze in the Temple of Castres some years ago. However, in view of the lateness of the hour and the youthfulness of some here present, I have resolved to read only certain portions of his homily and to elaborate them in a manner appropriate for the present audience.”

Why couldn’t he speak normally?

He opened his treasured Bible. “Please stand as I read the text from the Epistle of St. James, chapter 1 and verse 26.”

Stools and benches scraped the floor as we all rose to our feet. A few older people found the place in their own Bibles. “James 1:26,” Father repeated.

“ ‘If anyone among you considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.’ Let me read that again: ‘If anyone among you considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.’ ”

He again turned his face heavenwards as he prayed, “Convict us, Lord, through the abiding words of Thy faithful servant. Amen.”

Another chorus of “Amen” and we all took our seats.

Spiritual shipwreck

Father started to read Ladevèze’s sermon. “ ‘However weak our enemy may appear, we should fear anyone who strives night and day to destroy us. Those who return from India by sea usually only think of protecting themselves against pirates, reefs and violent storms. All their concern is directed against these blatant enemies. But how much attention do they give to a tiny worm that invades the ship in port and silently gnaws at the wood? Without clamour or noise it maintains its attack on the ship as effectively as those great forces that threaten to tear it apart at sea, and those rocks on which it is in danger of foundering.”

What has this to do with the verse he read out earlier?

“ ‘Such is the fate of many Christians among us,” he continued. “They make a great spiritual effort to avoid glaring sins, which are indeed sad pitfalls by which many people are shipwrecked. Larceny…’ Do you know what that means, Marie?”

Her cheeks coloured charmingly. “Er … theft, I think,” she answered.

“That’s right.” He turned back to the text. “ ‘Larceny, murder, false witness, adultery are fearsome enemies from which they flee with all their power; and because they do not succumb to these temptations, they neglect other sins as if they had nothing to fear.’ ” He paused. “ ‘They speak with the same confidence as that proud Pharisee, whom St. Luke portrays in chapter 18 of his Gospel.’ ” 

He turned to me. “Do you remember what the Pharisee said in that parable, Gédéon?”

“He thanked God that he was better than the dirty cheat next to him.” That raised a chuckle.

“The tax collector, yes. …  ‘He prayed, “O God, we thank you that we are not like the rest of men, who are robbers, evildoers, adulterers; nor like this tax collector; for we mortify our bodies by frequent fasting, and assist the poor with our alms.” However, they have other vices, over which they pass lightly, but which, through long habit, constantly corrupt their hearts in secret. The result is that they are shipwrecked as regards their salvation, while they believe they are safe.’ ”

Now I saw the connection.

“ ‘It is to awaken these false devotees from their deep slumber that we have chosen the words of St James that you have just heard, and which we will explain to you now. There we find people who are ungodly by nature and who add crime upon crime. But we should not be surprised, because the Holy Scriptures teach us that an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. Words become corrupted in the mouths of these people; everyone is taken in and so such poison is more easily spread.’ ”

Isn’t pure doctrine and an upright life good enough?

“ ‘But there is another group of people whose life seems to conform to the rules of the Faith, who do not often let themselves fall into this sin that St James condemns. They imagine that by preserving the purity of their religion as regards doctrine and by claiming to lead morally upright lives, any simple words they utter will not endanger their salvation. You’re only half-Christians,’ – he maintains – ‘you’re deceiving yourselves, you miserable people! For if anyone among you, says St. James, considers himself religious and does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. This is what we intend to explain in this homily, with the help of the Holy Spirit.’ ”

Slander – an odious sin

“ ‘Although true devotion is very rare, there are few Christians who do not wish to be seen as sincere; most people in the Church profess this virtue. Some even claim such merit in the eyes of God. But it is difficult to find a sincere piety without any fault. For, if this freedom of speech, by which we so often insult our neighbour, is by itself capable of rendering our whole religion worthless, what should we make of the many other sins we commit, which seem far greater than those verbal punches that we refer to as clever gibes, in order to avoid the odious term they deserve: slander? We must therefore correct this false prejudice and show you with strong arguments from Christian morality that if anyone among you considers himself religious and does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless, and that he is nothing but a false disciple.

“ ‘But, you say, “Is it possible that our wit – our skill at pronouncing hasty judgements on whatever we hear – can render our religion worthless? Is this the vice that St. James denounces when he writes against those who do not know how to keep a tight rein on their tongue? No, that cannot be his intention. These great torrents of words may be a weakness; but if they offend neither the honour owed to God nor brotherly love, surely one cannot say of these great talkers that their devotion is worthless. They may tire their listeners, they may suffocate, so to speak, the conversation, but since their words are not poisonous, they do not impair charity and all that happens is that a useless sound fades into thin air.’ ”

Shouldn’t one correct a wrongdoer?

“ ‘But I insist that St. James condemns such false mockers, those indiscreet critics from whom nothing escapes, those dangerous mouths which spread a poisonous breath. They imagine that their devotion gives them the right to censor all things with impunity. These avid critics ask: Should we close our eyes to everyone’s conduct? Will our silence not give new boldness to the wicked? And aren’t we working for their salvation by exposing all the shame of their evil deeds, as a brake which holds them back when we see them running blindly to their ruin? 

“ ‘The claim is attractive, the intention grand, but let us lift the veil with which hypocrisy conceals itself in this matter, and we shall find that correcting sinners is not the prime motive behind the language of these critics. These criticisms have much more to do with vainglory, envy and hatred than Christian charity. The merit that raises our equals by birth above us, the privileges of a lineage more noble than ours, the goods and honours which put some distinction between men – these are the great motives behind this sad and slanderous spirit which makes us so greatly magnify the smallest mote in our brother’s eye. We take a secret pleasure in mortifying them, at least by our words. An evil person rejoices in being able to harm the reputation of someone who overshadows him, without risking any danger to himself. He imagines he is rising in the world by destroying his brother. By his deceptions, he begs in a cowardly way for esteem, which he would have no right to expect based on his merit, and tries to cover his shame by turning our eyes to the slight faults in the conduct of our neighbours.’ ”

Don’t pull others down to make yourself look better!

Father scanned his audience. It seemed his eyes paused on mine. “Never try to make yourself look better in other people’s eyes, Gédéon … Marie … Albert … Josephine … Pierre-François, by pulling someone else down. That never works. Our Lord sees your heart; it is His favour you should seek, not man’s. Have you understood that?”

We meekly nodded and mumbled assent.

Father returned to the text. “ ‘But if a man has indeed failed in his duty, who has given you the right to criticise his conduct so highly and to blacken his reputation? Are you authorised to set him right when he has fallen into some fault? Do so, but do it in the spirit of Christianity, and by adhering closely to the maxims which the Gospel prescribes for you in a matter which must be regulated by prudence and charity. Study the lesson which the Lord Jesus gives you on this subject in chapter 18 of St. Matthew, which is of great use in Christian life, though it is not well known or, at least, very much neglected among us today: If your brother sins, go, says the Saviour of the world, and point out their fault, just between the two of you.’ ”

The right way to respond

“ ‘The Son of God does not want your neighbour to insult you with impunity; he gives you the freedom to complain and to ask whoever insults you for the restitution he owes you; but it should be done quietly, without any fuss. Point out their fault, he says, just between the two of you, i.e. in secret. Is that how you do it? Do you approach those who annoy you with a view to bringing them gently back to their obligation? No, it seems to you such an approach would show too much weakness on your part. It is here that you fail to keep a tight rein on your tongue. 

“ ‘You are determined, at least to express your passion in words. You criticise, you openly tear apart your brother’s life, and trample underfoot one of the most holy laws of our Lord Jesus Christ, who cries out to you: Wretched sinner, why do you vomit so much gall against your brother for a slight insult you have received? Where are you heading? Where is your passion taking you? In your reaction to him, imitate the way I have behaved towards you: Correct him, but without anger. 

“ ‘Aim for correction and not vengeance. Do not expose his misbehaviour to everyone at first. Try to correct him alone, and only if this proves unsuccessful, use the further liberty Jesus Christ gives you: Take one or two people with you to give more weight to your cause and your exhortations; and only if this approach fails, tell the Church. These three steps are marked out for you to be used for the correction of your neighbour. But it should always be done with gentleness; for if any man fails to keep a tight rein on his tongue, and is sour and quarrelsome, even if his complaint is justified and however devout he may seem, his religion is worthless.’ 

“Marie, what are the three steps our Lord admonishes us to follow if we see someone sinning?”

She blushed again so sweetly and had trouble to speak. “First, go and talk to him secretly…”

“That’s right.”

“And then … and then … I can’t remember.”

“I know you’re tired but you must pay attention… Take one or two people …”

“I remember now: Take one or two people with you. And if he still doesn’t admit he was wrong, tell the whole Church.”

“Very good. That is a very important principle from the very mouth of our Lord.”

A familiar illustration

“Ladevèze goes on to show how slanderers deceive themselves, passing lightly over their own faults, in order to dwell on those of others. But, in view of the lateness of the hour, I will omit parts of his agument. He later makes use of a familiar illustration. Have any of you here ever seen a pocket watch?”

M. de Launay and I raised our hands and Father nodded.

“ ‘A watch is one of the most beautiful inventions of the human spirit, and a masterpiece of art; but if the main spring is missing from such a device, all the other parts are useless. The same goes for the Christian religion: it is a masterpiece of God’s wisdom, a body made up of many parts. But if charity, which is the most important component, is missing, that faith is nothing but confusion, and this disorder spills over onto all the other Christian virtues. Thus, it is all too true that religion claimed by a slanderous man who lacks charity is a worthless religion, which he misuses.’ ”

Parents’ responsibility

Father turned a few pages, then read on. “ ‘Let fathers and mothers be more diligent than they have been up to now in the education of their children. Study their nature well, and if you see that they have a tendency to slander, tackle this malignant inclination, correct them, chastise them; it is a holy duty that you must exercise in such an important matter. When you see weeds growing in your gardens, you attack them by hand or, if necessary, with an iron tool to cut their roots. Look on any vicious temper, any evil or mocking spirit in your children as a weed that could bear abundant fruit in the form of all sorts of evil deeds. Prune it early, pluck it out if you can, down to the smallest fibre. But, above all, beware of being a bad example to them. There is nothing so dangerous as domestic examples, for it takes a miracle of God’s grace to persuade a child that he is sinning when he is merely following in the footsteps of those from whom he was born.

“ ‘On this day, you are accustomed to make mutual wishes for a happy course of this new year.’ – it was New Year’s Day when Ladevèze preached this sermon, but the challenge is equally valid for us here today – ‘The fulfillment of your vows depends in part on you: Change your way of living and you will see that God’s blessings will follow His judgments; be sober at your mealtimes, restrained in your speech, and chaste even in your thoughts; reflect especially in your homes on the exhortations we have given you; do not be so profane as to make of them a mental game and to laugh about a terrible subject, which concerns nothing less than your eternal condemnation, if you continue in the hardness of your hearts – or the salvation of your souls if you obey the voice of the Saviour of the world. May God grant an extraordinary effectiveness to His Word this day, so that it may be a service of reconciliation and peace for you, a service by which you receive the graces of the Holy Spirit, who changes you into new creatures, formed and fashioned in the image of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honour, glory, dominion and majesty for ever.’ 

“I trust you all take this admonition to heart. Slander is indeed an odious sin.” His gaze rested on each one of us in turn. “Let us close this culte by sharing the words of the Grace together.”

The lamp was beginning to flicker and Josephine and Pierre-François were already fast asleep, but we others stood for the final prayer. “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all, now and for evermore. Amen.”

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