Sermon at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Lent 2020

The sin of detraction

The Venerable David Stanton Canon in Residence

Sunday, 8th March 2020 at 3.00 PM

I begin with two short stories:

Firstly, the senior civil servant who resigned last week, claiming that he was bullied and forced out. He has now begun legal action against the government over his treatment.

Legal documents now name the home secretary, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office as respondents.

This permanent secretary is claiming constructive dismissal and accusing the home secretary of bullying her subordinates and creating an ‘atmosphere of fear’ at the Home Office.

Staff have reportedly accused her of belittling officials, taking an angry and aggressive tone in meetings and making unreasonable demands of civil servants.

Obviously something has gone badly wrong with truth shrouded by intrigue, claim and counter-claim. Two individuals with two different accounts of a set of events.

Secondly, back in 1994 the then minister for Open Government, told a Select Committee that in exceptional circumstances it is necessary to say something that is untrue in the House of Commons.

Uproar ensued. Entirely hypocritical uproar, that is.

As Miles Kington put it, ‘people in parliament were shocked, yes, but not by what he said. They were shocked by the fact that he came out and said it. They were shocked by the fact that he had told the truth’.

Now we are in Lent, the church invites us to look more closely at our lives, and challenges us all to be a little better.

This afternoon I want to say something about an often forgotten sin: that of detraction. Detraction is not a common word today, but the thing it signifies is all too common.

Indeed, known by another name, speaking against others, it may be one of the most common sins throughout all of human history.

Its worth making the obvious point that Christianity is a religion which identifies truth with the message and person of Christ.

To bear false witness is not only to break the eighth commandment , its also to violate the symbol of the holy cross, for as we heard in our second lesson, whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Some Christians have taken this to mean that plainness of speaking, whether to a duke or a dustman, is characteristic of the true disciple of the Gospel: the first Quakers thought this, and called everyone ‘thou’ which was very familiar, and they spoke exactly as they found.

This was very worthy, but it made them intolerable company except for each other, and soon they moved on to America where the Indians were less anxious about courtliness and social graces.

We know that for the good of our friends and neighbours we need to place a certain restraint on what we say, have a certain tenderness for the sensitivities and weaknesses of others: some things are better left unsaid, and knowing when not to say them is a mark of our respect for the reputation and the standing of our neighbour.

Is this just a rather worldly compromise, putting hypocrisy and dissimulation in the place of Christian candour and sincerity?

Should we not bear witness to the truth in all its penetrating power in our dealings with other people? Of course we should, but before we do so, we need to remember the truth about ourselves.

When we reflect on our own conduct, the secret sins and insincere motives, the failed resolutions and the selfish compromises that we make in our work and in our home life, the way in which our outward profession of Christianity is so much at odds with the envies and lusts and spites against which we half-heartedly struggle, we know that it is only our skill at concealment which prevents our character from appearing much blacker than the reputation we enjoy. 

That is why the sin of detraction is so easily forgotten.

Let me remind you how it is defined by the theologians: we detract from someone when without good reason we reveal something about their faults and failings to others who did not know about them.

It isn’t a question of untruthfulness in the obvious sense here: detraction is not about saying something about someone which we know to be a lie in order to harm them.

It is about saying something which we know to be true, but which will destroy the respect and reputation of the person when it is revealed.

And it is in the end a sort of untruthfulness, because it deliberately fails to tell the whole truth about a person: the detractor wants to have his or her victim judged and esteemed by others, not on the evidence of his or her whole life, but on the evidence of the most damaging knowledge.

A good example of this in Scripture is the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 (five chapters on from todays reading) when Jesus chooses the house of Zacchaeus the chief tax collector as the place at which he will stay in Jericho, The people all murmur He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.

This is quite right, Zacchaeus is a crook and an oppressor of the poor, but it isn’t the whole story: despite what the crowd says, Jesus perseveres with Zacchaeus who was lost, and brings salvation to his house and restitution to those whom he has defrauded.

To ruin the honour and reputation of another person, so as to make that person unable to contribute his or her talents to the full, is to harm the whole body politic; when it is a fellow Christian who is harmed, it is a blow to the mutual up building that should characterise the Body of Christ.

That is why we see in Scripture the care which is taken to make sure that discipline in the church is exercised in a pastoral way by those who have oversight, not by denunciation of the weaker brethren by the strong.

Truth telling means the whole truth, everything that contributes to a just judgement of a person, and which enables that person to make the fullest possible contribution depending on his or her talents and abilities.

Detraction, telling only the most disparaging truths about someone, is sinful because it masquerades as honesty, while doing the work of calumny.

What must we do to avoid detraction?

Firstly we need to keep up a careful guard on what we do and say concerning other people’s reputations and abilities.

Of course, if we know someone to be a criminal or a danger to others we have an obligation to disclose it; but we have the duty to keep silent if the disparaging piece of information we have in our possession has no bearing on the person’s present competence, but would lose them any of the respect needed to carry out their responsibilities.

If we know that a colleague at work is stealing from the office to fund his drink problem, then we need to make that known; if a colleague whom we do not like applies for a promotion which we would rather someone else got, we do wrong if we reveal that the colleague we dislike once had a drink problem ten years ago.

Secondly, we need to be aware that the media, and in particular the press, have made detraction into an industry of vast proportions; anyone remotely popular or famous is subjected to minute analysis, a scrutiny which none of us could withstand without our characters ending up looking fairly shoddy at the end.

If we pore over the details of celebrity divorces and affairs, lap up the scathing profiles of members of the royal family living and departed, and relish the exposure of other people’s sexual peccadillos, then we are contributing with our interest and our money to the detraction of others.

There is of course, legitimate scope for investigation of wrong-doing and incompetence: but we don’t need to know about much of what we read in the papers.

Incidentally Evelyn Waugh used to give up reading the newspapers in Lent, and as a spiritual discipline, I think it has much going for it.

So let us this lent be mindful of the effects of detraction.

Like all falsehood it corrupts and distorts everything it touches, blighting human relationships and stultifying the good.

As we journey through this season of Lent, may we be kept from rash judgement and detraction, and may we see others, not as the world sees them, but as Christ sees them, consecrated in truth.