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There are lots of reasons to like the Reformed standard of The Heidelberg Catechism but among the reasons I like it is the positive spin it puts on The Ten Commandments. In particular I like how the Catechism slides from the negative prohibition about not bearing false witness to the positive assertion that what we are really called to do in the ninth commandment is to do everything in our power “to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.” This is a call to charity, a call to give people the benefit of the doubt, a call to keep clear the lines that separate disparte points of view and the image-of-God persons who hold to those disparate views. What’s more, the Catechism applies this about as broadly as possible. Surely the authors were not unaware of the gospel note they were sounding when they referred to the “neighbor.”
One hears echoes of the famous question posed to Jesus by the lawyer: “And who is my neighbor?” As most of us know, Jesus’ answer was that your “neighbor” was basically anyone you meet anytime and anywhere. That, in turns, reminds me of Frederick Buechner’s playful riff on what this legal eagle was perhaps hoping to hear Jesus say. Since it was clear he was hoping to limit the scope of the need to be loving, the man hoped Jesus would say, “Very well then: A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as a person of Jewish descent whose residence is within a radius of three statute miles of one’s own residence (hereinafter referred to as the party of the second part) unless another person of Jewish descent lives between the party of the first part and the party of the second part, in which case the intervening person shall be considered the neighbor to the party of the first part, hence relieving the party of the second part of any responsibility whatsoever.”
Jesus didn’t say that.
The neighbor whose good name we are called to guard and advance is the person you agree with and the person you disagree with. The neighbor with a name worth cherishing is the person who acts and looks a lot like you and the person who could not appear more different from you if he tried. Everybody has a good name worth protecting, which is something we all know to be true of ourselves. If you’ve ever once had your name dragged through the mud, you know how much it hurts and how it will–very, very literally–keep you up nights with each haunting echo of your besmirchment that comes across your mental horizon.
I’ve been thinking about all that these past days in the wake of yet another (it’s not the first, it won’t be the last) bombastic lambasting of someone’s good name by Rush Limbaugh. Of course, the same thing happens now and then from the left side of the poliltical spectrum, too, so let’s none of us pretend this is anything other than a bipartisan issue. Still, people with the vitriol that Limbaugh regularly evinces seem to think that if a given issue is worth getting hyped up about, then it doesn’t matter what happens to the good names of the people with whom you disagree. And what’s really bothersome to me is the number of Christian people–some of whom I know personally–who listen to Limbaugh every day and who seem to think that for all his bluster, he’s somehow speaking what needs to be said.
But he isn’t, nor is anyone who does to real, flesh-and-blood human beings what Limbaugh did to the Georgetown University student in recent days. In response to Limbaugh’s ugly rhetoric, someone came up with a picture–circulated on Facebook and elsewhere–of Jesus with the words “Sluts and Prostitutes were some of my best friends.” I am not sure that particular response advances the level of civil discourse in this country. However, what cannot be denied is that in the gospels, Jesus was far more concerned about those who were villified and whose good names were destroyed than he was with those doing the villifying and the destroying. Jesus tended to have pretty harsh words for the latter group (what with all his “white-washed sepulchers” and “log in the eye” talk).
Humanity has never before lived in a time when it is so easy to air one’s opinions and judgments in very wide circles. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Blogs, YouTube and the like mean that people everywhere have a platform. And it’s all so instant. It takes mere seconds to tweet your thoughts in all of 140 characters (or something like that). In an instant, boom, it’s out there for all to see.
But that just means that never before in history has there been a time to slow down and consider such matters very carefully. And this is all the more true of people with a vested, Christ-like interest in guarding and advancing the good name of every person they meet or hear about. It may take mere seconds to do a status update, shoot out an email, make a Tweet, give an on-air comment but the devastation such things can have on the beating hearts of our neighbors out there can last for a very long time. A very long time.
At the end of the cosmic day, we none of us wish to have to ask the question, “Lord, when did I fail to guard and advance Your good Name?” only to hear the reply, “You failed to do so every time you dragged through the mud the names of these, the least of my sisters and brothers.”