There is a well know parable about a man who comes to a rabbi and begs the rabbi for advice about how to undo the effects of his sin of defamatory gossip. The rabbi responds by telling the man to fill a pillowcase with feathers and to open the pillowcase on the top of a mountain. The man dutifully does that and then reports back to the rabbi. The rabbi said, "Now go collect all those feathers."
The clear implication of this story is that when one defames another person it is nearly impossible to undo the damage that was done.
One might not be able to undo the damage but there is a path to repentance for the sin itself.
In the rabbinic tradition the sin of gossip is an extraordinarily severe sin. The Babylonian Talmud (Erchin 15b) says that one who gossips is equivalent to a heretic and thus causes God to remove Himself from the world.
There is a physical affliction described in the Torah that is called tzara'at (Leviticus chapters 13 and 14). The rabbis understand that this affliction arose out of a punishment for a person's sin of gossip.
The ancient rabbis therefore interpret the cure for this biblical punishment to be reflective of the need to purge ourselves of this emotional desire to gossip.
According to the Torah (Leviticus 13:46): "All the days in which the tzara'at is on him he shall be unclean; he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be beyond the encampment."
The great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi (1040-1105) notes: "Our Rabbis said: Why is this person who has tzara'at different from other sinners in that only he must dwell alone? Since by his slanderous tongue, he separated man from his wife, and a man from his neighbor, so he too will be separated."
Once a person has committed the sin of gossip, the only way to atone for this horrible sin is to force oneself to understand just how emotionally painful it is to live alone. For this reason the one who gossiped is forced to live alone.
I thought of this last week when reading about the life and death of Chuck Colson.
Technically speaking Chuck Colson was a convicted felon. He pled guilty to a crime on June 3, 1974.
But what was his crime?
The Washington Post obituary for Colson noted the following:
A self-described "hatchet man" for Nixon, Mr. Colson compiled the notorious "enemies list" of politicians, journalists and activists perceived as threats to the White House. And most fatefully, he helped orchestrate illegal activities to discredit former Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg, who was suspected of leaking a top-secret history of the Vietnam War to the New York Times and The Washington Post.
It was the targeting of Ellsberg -- rather than Mr. Colson's peripheral involvement in the growing Watergate break-in scandal -- that eventually led to his conviction for obstruction of justice. In the midst of this crisis, Mr. Colson said he underwent a profound religious transformation in August 1973.
Acting against the advice of his lawyers, Mr. Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a step that he depicted as "a price I had to pay to complete the shedding of my old life and to be free to live the new."
Released on parole in January 1975, after seven months in a minimum-security prison, Mr. Colson became a leading voice in the evangelical movement and an advocate for prison reform.
In an effort to get to the bottom of this story, I spoke with Ken Adams, one of Colson's defense attorneys at the time, as well as Semour Glanzer who was one of the three original Watergate prosecutors.
Glanzer told me that there was no way that Colson would ever be convicted. There was simply not enough evidence that he did anything wrong.
Adams confirmed that both he and Colson's other defense attorney, David Shapiro, told Colson that he would not be convicted. However, Colson instructed them to find something that he could plead guilty to since he felt he did something morally wrong. According to Adams he and Shapiro had to work hard to convince the skeptical judge that Colson had violated Ellsberg's civil rights by "condoning a break-in in an attempt to find derogatory information about Ellsberg and feed it to the press." Glanzer told me that Colson did not even know about the break-in until after the fact and no one would have ever known what his intent was.
But Colson felt that he was involved in a character assassination of Ellsberg and that he needed to atone for this horrible act. So against the advice of his attorneys, and in the face of a skeptical judge, Colson pled guilty so that he could go to jail and in a figurative sense dwell alone, like the biblical sinner afflicted with tzara'at.
Colson ultimately served seven months in prison for his sins and it is clear that his prison time had a profound impact upon him as he went on to found Prison Fellowship, a prison ministry.
From a religious perspective we can see his prison experience as equivalent to the biblical commandment for a person who gossips to spend time alone. It is only through loneliness that one can appreciate just how hurtful gossip can be.
In the memory of Chuck Colson, the next time we think about gossiping lets hold back.