A country lawyer frequently writes letters on behalf of clients who feel they have been slandered by someone. All such letters are the same: they accuse the recipient of making defamatory comments about the client, deny the truth of the allegations, and threaten court action if the recipient repeats them to anyone, ever. The letters never ask for a retraction or apology, the lawyer knowing that human pride is such that no one will ever do so. Not even a court will order an apology. I once even had another lawyer write such letters on my behalf when I believed that I had been libelled by the Bar Society; it was lawyer against lawyer, and you will read more about it near the end of this article.
Having written many such letters myself, I noticed a pattern in situations where a person is accused of slandering another, a pattern in the relationships between slanderers and their victims. I believed this pattern of relationships to be peculiar to my own practice until I compared notes with a lawyer two counties away. The patterns were identical: slander cases most commonly involve brothers and sisters; the second largest category is between members of the same church congregation.
Psychologists might explain the first pattern as sibling rivalry, but what about church members? The other lawyer and I dealt with members of traditional mainline denominations, not those groups where everyone enthusiastically regards fellow members as brothers and sisters. However, there is a common element that may underlie both types of relationships, which will be considered later in this article.
Traditional Christian Teaching
One would think that Christians would never engage in defamation. Our holy book takes a dim view of it, beginning with “You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people” (Leviticus 19:16, RSV). Psalm 27:2 and 140:11 group slanderers with “evildoers.” Psalm 50:20 says God will punish anybody who slanders his natural brother; in 101:5, it is David himself who will destroy whoever defames his or her neighbour. Proverbs 10:18 opines, “he who slanders is a fool.” Jesus in Matthew 15:19, 20 and Mark 7:20–23 denounces slander as evil and defiling to the slanderer. Romans 1:29, 30, 1 Timothy 6:4 and 2 Timothy 3:3 discountenance it, while Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:8 and 1 Peter 2:1 exhort believers to put away slander along with other sins. Christian women, in particular, must not be slanderers (1 Timothy 3:11; Titus 2:3). James 1:26 counsels bridling the tongue, which could include refraining from defamation.
The thrust of the last paragraph above is not merely one possible biblical interpretation among many, one I concocted two millennia after the Scriptures were written, but was shared by post-biblical Christian authors before the middle of the third century. There is much value in consulting these early authors: (1) they demonstrate how the biblical teachings were understood by their first, immediate audiences (people who lived within the same culture and adopted the same worldview as them) and hence give the best idea of how the Bible authors intended themselves to be understood; (2) they or Christians not too long before them still had a fresh memory of the oral teachings of Christ and the apostles before these teachings could become corrupted; and (3) they indicate how the earliest recipients of grace through Christ responded to these teachings under the supervision and unwritten examples of the apostles and other early disciples who were inspired by God.
The First Epistle of Clement (included in some early editions of the New Testament), written by the first-century apostolic father Saint Clement, discountenances the defamation of one’s neighbour much like Psalm 50:20 (1 Clement 35:8).
In the late first or early second century, slander was disapproved of in extra-biblical writings, such as the Old Testament pseudepigraphal sources Ascension of Isaiah (3:26) and 3 Baruch (8:5; 13:4), as well as the Gnostic text Second Book of Jeou (43; 46). In A.D. 203, slander received negative treatment in Hippolytus’ Commentary on Daniel (1:19). Hippolytus was a prominent pastor-bishop and ecclesiastical author in central Italy who was later elected a rival bishop of Rome. A work so useful and influential that it was included in some early editions of the New Testament, the Shepherd of Hermas (Mand. 8:3; Sim. 9:26:7) gave slander similar treatment in the first half or middle of the second century. The same is true of the Epistle to the Apostles (35; 49), written in Asia Minor or Egypt between A.D. 140 and 160, about the same time as To the Philippians (5:2) by Polycarp, pastor-bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the Apostle John. Polycarp wrote that deacons, in particular, should not slander.
In the first half of the third century, defamation was viewed as a sin by the east Syrian Acts of Thomas (56; 58) and in the following sermons of Origen: Homilies on Genesis (3:5), Homilies on Exodus (3:2), Homilies on Leviticus (9:7; 14:2:4), Homilies on Numbers (27:8), Homilies on Joshua (5:2; 8:6; 10:3; 14:1), Homilies on Psalm 36 (3:12; 4:4), Homilies on Psalm 37 (2:23), Homilies on Psalm 38 (1:4), and Homilies on Jeremiah (1:14:3, 4; 5:11:1), as well as his Dialogue with Heraclides (9:8–10:13), Commentary on Romans (6:4:2; 9:17) and Commentary on Ephesians (4:31). In Commentary on Romans 9:1:7, he warned that slanderous speech cancels out virginity and continence. Origen was the most outstanding Christian Bible scholar and preacher of his age and remained influential for centuries afterwards. He may be considered the most representative Christian writer and preacher of his day, for he traveled widely as a consultant to pastor-bishops throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
Other opposition to defamation was expressed before A.D. 250 in Testimonies Against the Jews (3:107) (probably Tunisia) and the interpolations into the Sibylline Oracles (1:24; 2:143, 144; 2:258; 8:187).
Already we are surrounded with a great cloud of witnesses even without examining the restatements in early Christian literature of “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20) or the literature’s strictures against evil-speaking.
Another Pattern: Slander and Envy
In my research for this article, I noticed another pattern: “envy” often appears in lists of sins where “slander” is also condemned. Origen’s Homilies on Joshua discountenances “slanders and envious detractions” (10:3). In the Bible, the two appear near each other in Mark 7:22, Romans 1:19, 20, 1 Timothy 6:4 and 1 Peter 2:1. In Origen’s works, the two words appear near each other in Homilies on Joshua 8:6 and 10:3 (again), Homilies on Psalm 36 4:4, Homilies on Jeremiah 5:11:1 and Sibylline Oracles 2:143, 144. Envy and slander are also close to each other in the exhortations in the mid-second-century 2 Clement (4:3), the oldest surviving Christian sermon outside the New Testament. Written sometime between A.D. 192 and 202, they appear together in the Eclogae Propheticae (chapter 30) of Clement of Alexandria, the greatest Christian intellectual of his day and Origen’s predecessor as dean of the world’s foremost Christian educational institution. Perhaps the ancients linked envy and slander because people often utter derogatory remarks in an attempt to discredit their victims’ achievements, achievements that the slanderers want for themselves but have not attained due to lack of talent, good fortune or self-discipline.
This brings us to the time I had another lawyer threaten libel proceedings against the Law Society. I was sitting on a court that adjudicated disputes over lawyers’ fees. One lawyer questioned whether such court should continue to exist and had himself appointed to a Bar Society committee to look into the matter. (Either he was the most prominent member or it was a committee of one.) I admit that there were deficiencies in the court’s procedures and internal communications as then constituted, but his report did not question these procedures so much as it attacked the characters and competence of its judges, including me. The Society reproduced and circulated his report. I considered that it libelled me in my trade, profession or calling. As is the law, I believed that my remaining silent in the face of such allegations would be deemed an admission to the truth of them and hence lead to my dismissal or being passed over for promotion to a higher court. I contacted the top libel lawyer in the jurisdiction, who then sent letters—similar to those described in the first paragraph of this article—to the committee member and the Law Society. My demands were modest: I did not request money, only a retraction and correction of the report’s negative comments about me and that it circulate this rectification to the same persons who received the original report. The Law Society did so; my objections were satisfied; my reputation was restored. Striving to overcome someone else’s pride is futile in most cases, so I did not ask for an apology.
Points to Ponder
All of the above raises a number of questions. Did the slandering lawyer prove the link many early Christian authors made between envy and defamation? In churches and families, why are people defamed by those who should love them most? Why are Christian congregations such fertile grounds for statements that prompt their victims to seek legal counsel? Could it be that the equality between members of an established group—the fact that people of any given group are one another’s peers and are on the same level—naturally facilitates jealousy? In other words, could the mutually assumed equality between brothers and sisters, between all church members, and between all lawyers create an urge to demean or discredit a fellow sibling’s, member’s, or colleague’s achievements? Achievements that the slanderers themselves would like to have accomplished but lack the talent, divine favour or work ethic to attain?
David W. T. Brattston is a retired lawyer and judge. His articles have been published in Canada, the United States, Great Britain, the Philippines, India, Japan, Australia, Ghana, and South Africa. He writes from his home in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.