Summary: God doesn't simply forbid swearing falsely, he forbids speaking falsely, which grows out of living falsely.
I’ve been racking my brains all week to find a lead-in to this week’s commandment without referring to politics. But I keep coming back to it like a moth to a candle. At least we’re no longer right in the middle of actual accusations of perjury... but the question of truth vs. political advantage keeps popping up. We’re so deluged with spin doctors and media manipulation and deliberate distortion that I’m almost ready to give up politics. But not quite.
Because, after all, we’re responsible for what we are willing to put up with. And it’s impossible it is to live together in justice and in peace without truth, which is a casualty of the current political climate. On any given day, all you have to do to get a giant illustrated classic course on spinning the 9th Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” is tune into CNN. exaggerations, distortions, and accusations are all part of the politician’s arsenal, and they all are enemies of truth.
In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees interpreted the 9th commandment quite narrowly. In fact, the "Jews divided oaths into two classes-those which were absolutely binding and those which were not. Any oath which contained the name of God was absolutely binding; any oath which succeeded in evading the name of God was held not to be binding." [Barclay 157] One rabbi said that if you swear by Jerusalem you are not bound by your vow; but if you swear toward Jerusalem then
you are bound. The rules let you know when you can get away with deception and when you can’t. They weaken the cause of truth. Swearing evasively becomes a creative form of lying. It all depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is, doesn’t it? A lot of people - naming no names - interpret the commandment pretty narrowly nowadays, too.
But even if you don’t indulge in creative swearing, if lying is only forbidden when you are under oath, that gives us a whole lot of leeway the rest of the time, doesn’t it?
And the commandment doesn’t say anything about not lying under oath when it doesn’t hurt anyone else, does it? I mean, if it’s not against your neighbor, it’s not covered, right?
It’s wrong first of all because to swear falsely in God’s name is already a violation of the 3rd commandment - remember, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”? It is wrong to appropriate God’s reputation for truth under false pretenses; stealing God’s name, so to speak, to get ourselves privileges, trust, we don’t deserve. It is a primary sign of corruption in our relationship to God.
But lying under oath also corrupts our relationships with other people. Because our ability to live together in ordered society depends on our trust in the system of justice, its base on truth.
You see, every time someone gets away with wrongdoing by lying, even if he hasn’t accused someone else, he has harmed the whole fabric of society by eroding confidence that justice will be done. And then two things happen. First, people start believing that they can get away with things if only they’re clever or ruthless or rich enough, and second, some start feeling the need to take justice into their own hands.
So lying in a court of law, under oath, is an offense against your neighbor EVEN WHEN it does not involve a direct accusation. So - okay - Don’t lie in a court of law under oath about anything. Perjury is out, even if it’s relatively trivial. Got it.
Does that cover it? Are we clear as long as we haven’t placed our hand on that Bible or sworn on our sainted mother’s grave?
Now it may seem that I’m belaboring the obvious here, but a lot of people think that it’s a whole lot less moral to lie in a court of law than it is to lie in ordinary, everyday circumstances. And of course it’s more dangerous. You might get caught and punished if you lie in a court of law. But moral? Moral isn’t about courtrooms. Moral is about living. What about outside the courtroom?
Lying is endemic. People lie about everything from how old they are to when they got in last night. People lie to their bosses, their spouses, their employees, their accountants. But most of all people lie to themselves. And the biggest lie they tell themselves is that it doesn’t matter, these little white lies, after all everyone does it. But every lie is a stepping stone to a bigger one.
I think that what goes on in Washington nowadays, dealing with policy differences by attacking the character and motivations of the opposition, is a particularly insidious form of dishonesty. Joe Lieberman has just announced that he’s going to launch an investigation into the connection between Bush’s recent environmental decisions and corporate contributions. He hasn’t called for a debate on the merits of the decisions; no, that would be too risky. Instead