Tell Him His Fault Between You and Him Alone

There was a video floating around on the internet the other day, a video purportedly sent to everyone in a workplace of a woman who was using the video to explain her decision to quit her job. The video ridiculed her supervisor, who had belittled her. I had mixed feelings watching it. On the one hand, I’m not a big fan of public humiliation. On the other, assuming the truth of the content of the video, the supervisor’s behavior was abominable, and it was hard not to feel like he got what he deserved. (There were some later posts suggesting the video may have been a hoax, but that is neither here nor there in terms of my reaction.)

Two days before I saw the video, I noticed a blog post written by a friend of mine who lives in a city many miles away from me, the tone of which I thought was very condescending. There is no question why he adopted the tone he did; the person to whom he was reacting had written an abominable public post on a particular issue that itself was quite condescending. Nonetheless, I thought the behavior was beneath him. I wrote him an e-mail, that opened with a reminder of my love for him and that then explained why I thought he should have adopted a different tone in his post and that ended with another reminder that I offered my comments in a spirit of love. He replied in the same vein, setting out where he agreed with me and where he would give further thought to what I said, and acknowledging the spirit with which I had shared my thoughts.

There is a passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus talks to his disciples about fraternal correction. (It was the Gospel passage for Mass earlier this week.) He tells them that the first course of action where one’s brother sins is to “tell him his fault between you and him alone.” Only if he does not listen should one then take it beyond that and involve others.

The two incidents I relate help explain why this is the best course of action. When I go to my brother in private and tell him his fault (or at least where I think he was at fault), he and I stand together looking out at the fault. We can discuss it in unity and in love. Public berating, however, almost always has an element of retaliation and anger and, either by aim or result, involves humiliation. It invariably separates the one criticizing from the person being criticized. It puts the fault between them, if you will, rather than off to the side where they can view it from the same vantage point. Private fraternal correction says, let me stand with you and help you be more than you were in this instance; public criticism says, here is why you (who are separated from me) are bad.

There is good reason for Jesus’ advice to his disciples. He doesn’t say never correct someone publicly. But he does remind us that that should not be something we do lightly.