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On Our Propensity to Gossip

(I write my columns in Spanish for the Café Hispano audience, afterward I translate them into English.)

As I mentioned last month, since 1973 I have benefited from the fellowship of my sisters and brothers who share my culture in the Spanish Church of Berrien Springs, Michigan. This is a singular church that provides a Spanish enclave for the many students from Latin America who go to Andrews University. Besides, it is actively involved in attracting humble migrants who come seeking a more promising future than the one they could have had in their countries of origin. The church, therefore, has great educational and economic diversity, giving it a special character.

Something in the Hispanic culture intermittently makes me uncomfortable in my church. This characteristic has been present since the church was organized because it is impossible to escape the culture to which one belongs. There are those who insist that the Church must be “unworldly,” but this objective is a chimera. The Church, I think, must be a transforming agent within culture, the leaven that transforms flour into bread dough. To do this, it is necessary to identify and work on the cultural elements that need to be transformed.

Within the Hispanic culture, and therefore within Hispanic Adventism, the cultural element that weakens and disturbs the confraternity of the Church is our predisposition to be the agents of gossip. We like to be informed about the private life of our neighbors, and as soon as we have some indication of it we become agents who pass on dubious information so that all our acquaintances are “in the know.” Gossip circulates without barriers, and everyone is informed about “what is interesting” in the lives of others. Since we know this to be the case, fear of gossip is one of the most effective controls of conduct. We live asking ourselves: “What will they say?”

The need to know what goes on in the life of our neighbors is part of the make-up of traditional societies. In his book The Myth of Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, Mircea Eliade distinguishes two types of societies: traditional and historical. In a traditional society, people understand themselves to be living in a universe regulated by the cycles of nature. Each year, a cycle begins in which what the gods did “in the beginning” is re-enacted on earth. By participating in the activities of the gods human beings obey and serve them. In these societies, individuals find their identity in the tribe, and what happens to one member affects all members. Privacy is not a recognized value worthy of being defended. The life of others is, really, a part of me. To comment, evaluate, and try to control the life of my neighbor is a demonstration of my belonging to the group.

For centuries, individuals have tried to break loose from traditional societies in order to live as free people capable of doing what had not been done before, that is, to make history. Historical societies are characterized by he individuality of its members. Humans establish their identity by what they do independently, using their freedom. Each individual has the right to live as she/he pleases, and no one has the right to determine her/his future. Constructing historical societies is an ongoing project because traditionalist tendencies are very difficult to abandon. Eliade himself seems to doubt that the human project of living as historical beings will some day succeed.

I refer to Eliade’s typology to shed light on the problem of gossiping in my culture. It would seem that Hispanic culture is more firmly attached to what Eliade describes as a traditional society. In contrast, the culture of the United States seems to have progressed more on the road toward a historical society. This means that gossip, which is also freely found among the people of this country, is less common on account of a strongly individualistic identity. Among Latinos, with our more communal identity, it seems normal to be involved in the life of others.

Without doubt, identifying with our neighbors and being part of their lives has its advantages. Having a network of firm and durable friendships makes life more bearable. Feeling protected by the love and interest of others gives security to our daily existence. Counting on the moral, psychological and financial support of those who are part of our life makes the future less fearsome.

However, when all our relatives, and all the friends of our relatives, and the friends of the friends of our relatives feel authorized to judge our actions and expect us to accept their wishes as commands, our lives are limited by the wills of others and become the content of popular entertainment.

It is, indeed, necessary to live conscious that God will judge us, and that God’s will must be the object of our constant search. Recognizing this, however, has nothing to do with the judgment of our life by the gossip of the community. Since gossiping has no limits and adhesion to the truth is not one of its characteristics, passing along gossip rarely serves a useful purpose. Its purpose, instead, is to titillate the imagination and establish that we are among the first to know. Winning the gossip race means being the first to know.

It is lamentable that Hispanic churches easily become grids for the distribution of gossip that destroys the image of all those who become protagonists in such tales. The most undesirable feature of such situations is that the participants in the grid are perfectly happy with themselves by being involved. This means that they are pledged members of the ecclesial family. Being agents of gossip in no way awakens the conscience. Rather, it confirms our well-being as members of the tribe. Of course, what takes place in the Hispanic churches in the United States is the continuation of what takes place in the churches of our countries of origin.

It is necessary to place oneself in the position of the protagonist in a tattletale. It may be, after all, an inoffensive, interesting anecdote. It is also possible for it to be cruel and dehumanizing. He who discovers himself to be the protagonist in such tale feels encaged and tortured, most likely unjustly. Cages are prisons that take away one’s honor, but, unlike prisons, they are also exhibition halls for the entertainment of the spectators. Anyone who is encaged wishes to escape his jailers and torturers. In some cases, it is possible to move to another city. In the United States, membership can be transferred to an Anglo church, where individualism gives more liberty of action and people are less prone to enter the privacy of others. In many cases, however, the person encaged escapes his jailers and torturers, leaving the Adventist Church altogether. In this way, the Church loses many members because, effectively, gossip is not only a cultural characteristic; it is also a grave offense to Jesus’ commandment: “Love your neighbor.”

If Hispanic churches are to be transforming cultural agents, its leaders must use their imagination to introduce ways of combating our predilection for gossip. One of the ways could be to get members to react negatively when a tattletale is being told, being conscious of the results of such tales. If a sufficient number of members let the tellers of such tales know that they are not happy with their action, maybe this bad habit could be eradicated. The one who gossips should be put to shame, and in the Hispanic culture shame is still a force. I fear, however, that it will be difficult to achieve this goal. The one trying to shame the gossiper knows very well that if he does so, he himself will become the protagonist of a new tale.

Herold Weiss is a professor emeritus at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. For twenty years, he was an affiliate professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, in a western Chicago suburb. He is the author of A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity.

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