In his commentary on the eighth commandment, 'Thou shalt not bear false witness,' Luther argues that this doesn't just refer to lying in court, but is also about how we speak about our neighbours more generally. He says that a person's reputation is one of their most valuable possessions, so we shouldn't say things which damage other people's reputations. We shouldn't bitch about people behind their back; we shouldn't spread malicious rumours. So far, so obvious.
More interestingly, Luther goes on to argue that, just as we wear clothes which show off the 'honourable' bits of our body and cover up the 'dishonourable' bits (1 Corinthians 12:22-23 - my body's too dishonorabilicious for you, baby. Brings a whole new dimension to the question of what is signified by changing hemlines in fashion, I think: your thighs are so dishonorable this season, guys), we should treat our neighbour's reputations in the same way, always talking up their strengths, and putting the best construction on their actions. If we hear something bad about someone, we should think of the most charitable explanation, and believe that.
I came across this idea in a book by Eugene F. Rogers, called Sexuality and the Christian Body, in which he attempts to resolve the question of what Christians should think about homosexuality. He invokes this principle of Luther's as an important way of engaging in theological discussion: stop with the mudslinging, he says. How can we see what is good and important in the different positions people have taken on this issue? I love this as a principle not just for theology, but for reading and discussing generally. Dismissing someone as an idiot doesn't get us anywhere, however satisfying it might feel at the time. What's the best possible construction we can put on the things that are said and done by people we disagree with, whether they be theologians, politicians, philosophers etc?
Photo credit: Rob Sheridan on Flickr