Next month Reader’s Digest is going to print an article that accuses the mainline churches of Christ of brainwashing, practicing closed communion, and cannibalism. Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s followers have petitioned FCC or Congress to remove all religious programming from television and radio. Pepsi (or Doctor Pepper) is soon to print cans which have the Pledge of Allegiance, but without the phrase “under God.” Somebody is taping infected needles to gas pump handles so unsuspecting people will catch AIDS/hepatitis/some other disease. Ernie from Sesame Street has Leukemia/AIDS. So we need to sign a petition, pass this information on to everyone we know, and worry about some sick person trying to kill us at random. After all, if an inanimate object like a puppet can die of AIDS, so can you.
What do all of these things have in common? They are all: a) false; b) ridiculously unbelievable; c) e-mails being passed around; d) all of the above. (The correct answer is “d.” Yet in spite of their ridiculousness and their falseness, people persist in passing them on to others. Whenever I get such an e-mail I usually go straight to one of the web sites that list e-mail frauds (snopes.com, urbanlegends.com, scambusters.org, etc.) to verify that it is on their lists. It usually is. The next thing I do is delete the e-mail (I almost never pass anything along). The important thing, though, would be to find out what the Bible says we should do.
The word “gossip”, which is what these e-mails are, is not found in the Bible. However, the principle certainly is. The words used in the King James Version include lying, fraud, and idle words.
Some of these e-mails have no basis in fact; they are lies, pure and simple. Of course, the “Ernie has AIDS” one is obviously a lie. Others are so close to what we want to be the truth, or to what we want not to be the truth, that we automatically believe them. In this category would be the O’Hair petition to ban religious programming request for a petition or boycott. We so badly believe that somebody is out to take God out of everything in our lives that we accept these things without question. Because we expect the worst we believe the worst. That is no excuse, though, for passing on a lie. “Lie not to one another; seeing that you have put off the old man with his doings.” (Col 3:9)
Others of these gossipy e-mails have just enough truth in them to put them in a different category. One that has been going around for a few years warns that you should never dial area code 809 because you may be charged up to $100 per minute. There is an area code 809; it is for the Dominican Republic (not the Bahamas as the e-mails claim). It can be dialed directly from the United States without an international prefix. There are no legal limits to per-minute charges. There are also, however, legitimate businesses and residences within that area code. Although this e-mail isn’t an outright lie, perhaps Paul warned about it, saying of young widows, “And withal they learn also to be idle, going about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.” (1 Tim 5:13)
Perhaps one of the big problems with many of these lies is that some ask us to actually do harm to others on the basis of their falsehood. We are supposed to boycott J. C. Penney because they are planning a line of Britney Spear signature midriff revealing girl’s clothes, or Pepsi because of an altered pledge. We are supposed to hurt somebody’s business based on another somebody’s gossip. And yet we claim to act in love?!? When Paul said love “believes all things” (1 Cor 13:7), I don’t think he had this in mind.
There may be valid e-mails passing on valuable, factual information. Before we pass them on, as Christians we have an obligation to check their validity. “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” (Matt 12:36)