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
he’s made an implicit accusation of corruption. That’s about as clear- cut an example of false witness that I can think of that doesn’t involve a direct accusation in a court of law. Instead of public debate, we now have dueling prosecutors.
But of course that’s not something most of us engage in, is it. The lies we deal with on an everyday basis are mostly a whole lot fuzzier than that. And I’ll bet most of us don’t ever think of them in terms of the 9th commandment.
Even though we too most often lie in order to protect ourselves, we rarely do it by attacking others directly. We get into a habit of hiding, in a way; we do it to keep people thinking well of us, or to avoid embarrassment or confrontation. Sometimes we lie just to save time, because the real explanation would just take too blamed long. That’s a kind of lying that I suppose we could call reactive. And some of it is just so silly.
A few years ago my god-children and their mother were visiting me; I came down to the church to take care of some things, and when I got back I discovered that someone had put the chain bolt on the door. Just out of curiosity, I asked who had done it. Well, it turned out that Philip had, but it took an hour to get him to ‘fess up. And it turned out that he lied - with an almost reflexive “not me!” - because he thought I’d be mad. But I wasn’t, or only a little annoyed, but it didn’t
really matter at all until he lied about it. And then he was stuck, and it grew to “Emma did it!” And then of course it mattered.
But sometimes it’s hard to see how this kind of thing can be thought of as false witness against our neighbor; if Philip had stuck to “it wasn’t me” and not graduated to “It was Emma,” would it have been ok? Well... technically of course it’s not as bad, but the “it wasn’t me” really implied the “it was Emma”, didn’t it. Falsehood corrupts relationships.
Slightly up the scale of deception - or down, depending on how you’re counting - is what I suppose you could call proactive lying. That’s when you deliberately set out to lie in order to get something of value. And here’s where we move into real neighbor-damage.
Because in this category comes things like cheating on exams, or falsifying a resume. If you cheat on an exam, and alter the curve, those who have not cheated are put at a disadvantage; if you falsify your resume, not only are you cheating your employer, you are also doing the truly qualified candidate out of a fair chance at the position. One could also classify that one under “thou shalt not steal”. Did you know that cheating is now endemic on college campuses? Not only do more than half of college undergraduates in the last two years admit to having cheated on a test or on a paper, most say they don’t see anything wrong with it. Because what has become important is class standing, getting credit, rather than a fair assessment of the student’s skills. Students push for higher grades in order to keep financial aid, in order to get into grad school, in order to
impress the prospective employer. What things look like has become more important than what things really are, at least in academia.
And I think that this is, to some extent, due to another class of lie, and that is the compassionate lie. That’s when you tell someone a fib to keep from hurting their feelings. And sometimes, I gotta confess, that’s probably the right way to go. I mean, telling Aunt Ethel that the new dress she bought for your graduation makes her look like a Yellow Cab is probably not called for. And getting Dad out on the golf course for that much-needed exercise is certainly a justifiable reason to pretend to love the game yourself.
But all too often the compassionate lie is just an excuse for not doing the hard work of loving confrontation. And when that is the case, this, too, is false witness that harms your neighbor. For instance, when we promote a child from one grade to the next whether or not she has mastered the material, we are hurting her far more than if we faced the fact squarely and fixed the problem before it is too late
or her to acquire the skills and self-discipline she will need later in life. Because it’s more important to feel good, so the theory is, than to teach kids to cope with reality.
Withholding unpleasant truths from people out of a misplaced sense of compassion is disrespectful, because it implies they can’t handle it, and disempowering, because it prevents them from taking steps to change things. My sister the scientist said something once that I’ve tucked into my library of quotes to live by: “Reality is confusing enough already without deliberately falsifying the data.”
So there we have 4 kinds of false testimony: accusation, self-protection, self-promotion, and the compassionate lie. All of them hurt other people. And I believe that all of them fall under the prohibition of the 9th commandment.
Because, first of all, as Jesus shows us in t his sermon, God’s interest isn’t limited to whether or not you are swearing falsely. God’s interest is in whether or not you are speaking falsely.
And the reason God found it necessary to give this commandment is that speaking falsely is endemic to the human condition. As I’ve spent the last ten minutes showing, we can hardly open our mouths without subverting the truth in one way or another.
That’s why oaths were invented, after all. For important events like treaties and trials people needed some kind of assurance that more than the average level of truth would apply. So oaths were invented, which supposedly would bind the oath-taker by the power of the god sworn by. You were, in effect, inviting God to monitor your compliance. To my mind, the very presence of an oath in a non-
formal setting is a clue that there might be something to watch out for.
I have a pastor friend who, if I recall the story correctly, was looking through some old sermons and found a marginal note that said, “Point weak. Talk loudly.” People tend to swear more, I think, the weaker their stories are.
And that is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil.” Be the kind of person who never needs to add anything to their story to be believed.
But that’s harder than you might think.
Because, as I said, lying comes naturally to us all. It began with the serpent’s first lie, in the garden “You shall be as gods”, moved to Adam’s reaction “She made me do it!” and later on Cain’s, “Who, me?”
We must first face the truth about ourselves: we are not God and never will be, and we - not someone else - are responsible for our own actions. With that fundamental truth in place, we can enter into a relationship with God from which we can finally deal truthfully with the rest of reality. And if we are serious about our relationship with God, we must be equally serious about our relationship to truth. Because God is truth. God cannot lie. What proceeds from God’s mouth is
ultimate reality. So telling the truth is not a game, with points awarded for how close you can come to the edge without actually crossing the line. Telling the truth - regardless of the cost - is about allegiance to the reality of God.