Guilt by Association

The NSA describes its data gathering methods as looking for connections between people, guessing relationships based on frequency and type of communication. Prospective employers may check out your Facebook page and be as interested in what your friends are up to as they are in your posts. If you thought you’d escaped being judged by the company you keep when you moved to the (big) city, you’ll find that large-scale data gathering has done an end-run around anonymity.

Perhaps we should think of current social graph programs as just an infinitely more patient nosy neighbor peeking from behind drawn curtains and noticing the crunch on the gravel driveway. Or the proverbial Mabel the telephone operator who knows who calls whom and only listens if it’s an emergency.

In a small town, a church, or on the corner of the internet, it can be pretty easy to get a bad reputation. Whether deserved or not, the reputation can acquire a life of its own, spreading to whole families.

Psalm 109 describes in minute detail the experience of total social annihilation. Through the language of curse, the Psalmist describes every aspect of being severed from social life, beyond the reach of human justice or reconciliation. We might call it the ultimate bad reputation, spreading across multiple generations. Though we might find the language harsh, we should also admit that it is often accurate. In Bible Study on Sunday morning, many people were able to point to examples of lives being torn apart by false accusations or just plain bad reputations.

Reputations aren’t private affairs. They affect everyone who keeps company together. The Psalmist reminds us that troth requires nothing less. To know someone, to know their truth, is to be in relationship with them. But what about when far-flung automated programs gather data? Will they understand what relationships mean? Or just lump people together by algorithms?

Many Psalms center on the making and breaking of reputations. But we also have the model of Jesus, who ate with outcasts and sinners. Does radical hospitality lead to guilt by association? Is the Church willing to ruin its reputation in order to welcome everyone? What does our practice of confession and absolution mean in a climate of faceless data gathering (and retention), the disenfranchisement of felons in the name of public safety, the extra scrutiny given to some based on faith or national origin, not to mention the usual array of small-town gossips? And what happens when the Church does get a bad reputation?

The Psalms make it clear that these are not issues to take lightly. Reputations are sticky. But then, so is the God of Psalm 109: “But you, O Lord my Lord, act on my behalf for your name’s sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me… With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord; I will praise him in the midst of the throng. For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save them from those who would condemn them to death.”