Much like the related vices of pride and gossip, slander is a subtle sin. It is often committed without much forethought, and it is easier than more blatant iniquities to justify afterwards in our minds.
Slander is seldom the topic of sermons, and many Christians—who could very readily explain to you what is meant by murder, adultery, or covetousness—might actually have a hard time defining the term precisely. Quite simply, slander is defaming the character of another person, stating untruths about other people. Scripture actually has a great deal to say on the topic. “Do not go about spreading slander,” God tells his people (Lev. 19:16). David describes the upright as those, among other attributes, “whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbor, and casts no slur on others” (Ps. 15:3). Proverbs 10:18 says that “whoever conceals hatred with lying lips and spreads slander is a fool.” Jesus describes slander, along with “murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, [and] false testimony” as evil thoughts that come from an evil heart (Mark 15:19).
As I engage the issue of immigration from a Christian perspective, I find that there is a great deal of slander directed toward immigrants—particularly undocumented immigrants—and I fear that this is too common even amongst those who seek to follow Christ. Forwarded emails are particularly harsh in their libelous judgment of immigrants. Chuck Colson, in an article calling for a more civil discussion about immigration policy, notes that one particularly popular email cites The Los Angeles Times as the source of various statistics about “illegal immigrants” being criminals and a drain on taxpayer resources—but that the statistics are not from the cited source, nor are they actually true. Many forward that email without verifying the purported facts and, in doing so, unjustly malign the character of millions of immigrants (who, actually, are less likely to be criminals than US citizens, and who—almost all economists agree—result in a net benefit to the US economy). Before we share information—especially information received through a medium as unreliable as an email—we should verify the facts, lest we be guilty of slander, even unintentionally. (Snopes.com is a helpful, non-partisan site for fact-checking).
Slander also occurs when we form stereotypes and malign an entire group of people (such as undocumented immigrants) based on an isolated and unrepresentative case. When an immigrant commits a crime—which does happen occasionally, of course—his or her legal status or country of origin often forms part of the headline; when a US citizen commits a crime—which happens even more often—we are much less likely to associate their crime with their country of origin. We cross the line and commit slander when we associate an entire group with the offenses of a few individuals, such as when one politician stated not long ago that “the majority of the people that are coming to Arizona and trespassing are now becoming drug mules”—a dramatically false statement.
The problem of slander is not limited to those who speak disparagingly and inaccurately about undocumented immigrants, though: I’m guilty, too. I have repeatedly found myself responding to comments by particular pundits or politicians with whom I disagree on immigration policy issues by presuming that I know their motives. It is easy to accuse people of supporting particular policies because I presume—and then have said aloud to others in my frustration—that they are racist, xenophobic, or stupid. While racism or fear may be a factor in some individuals’ views toward immigrants, of course, and clearly not everyone with an opinion is fully-informed, there are many people who arrive at different policy conclusions than I do but whose views are not at all influenced by racial prejudice, fear, or ignorance. I do not know the motives of any particular individual’s heart, but that has not stopped me from insulting people’s character or competence, and so I need God’s grace as much as those who forward a libelous email.
Immigration is amongst the most emotionally-charged issues that our country—and the Church—faces today, with passions and rhetoric on all sides of the debate. If we are to be faithful to Christ’s call, though, we need to be sure that our conversations are marked by civility, not by slander. We need to take care that we use our tongues (and our keyboards) so as not to “curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9). While Christians may disagree about policies, we all need to exercise self-control as we discuss the divine image-bearers at the center of the immigration controversy as well as those with whom we disagree.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs regularly appear here on Mondays.
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