The Ninth Commandment: No false witness
I do a lot of stuff online these days. The internet is reshaping how all of us work and play, including how pastors do ministry. And one of the things I’ve noticed is all the drama on the internet. Flame wars with purple prose abound: there are trading accusations; oh, and it goes on and goes on. Nobody can let anybody else get the last word on a comment thread. I finally made up a little picture of a bridge in a garden and put a caption on it, saying, “Do not feed the trolls,” to use with people I see angling for a squawkfest. Unfortunately, I often fail to see it coming and get caught up in such things myself.
It’s especially strong in a certain way among young people, who so often share their emotions – perhaps I should say, SPRAY their emotions – all over the ‘net. They complain about what other people are saying about them, they gripe about malicious rumors, they spew venom at their enemies that would make the Furies blush. It’d all make a glorious Elizabethan melodrama or even a Restoration farce, if only anybody knew how to spell.
Still, the internet only magnifies what has always gone on. Some years ago, I cautioned some teenagers about spreading rumors about people. One of them asked, “but what if the rumors are true?” I replied that that would make them “trumors,” wouldn’t it? But anyway, you can spread truth with malice aforethought just like you can a lie, and the consequences can be just as ugly.
Now, this seems kind of far afield from the commandment, “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” which on the face of it would seem to be about testimony in court or something like. One could understand people swearing falsely about the location of a boundary stone or about seeing someone in a certain location or accusing someone of a crime in order to throw suspicion off oneself. That is “bearing false witness” in the sense we usually talk about it.
But it’s merely one way in which we all try to shape reality to benefit ourselves or punish someone else. As the great propagandists of the 20th Century all said, a lie told often enough becomes the truth; or at least, it becomes what people REMEMBER as the truth – and if you win that battle, it doesn’t usually matter what really happened. Listen to all the slanging matches going on in the political arena – especially bad in this, an election year. People are saying terrible things about each other. But as the pros point out, everybody says how terrible ugly, negative campaign ads are, but everyone also agrees, they work. And so they continue.
Meanwhile, our politics is just our social relations writ large. People have always wrangled with each other and tried to use their words to establish the “truth” for everyone else. We see this in its ugliest form in some of our domestic situations: an abusive family, where the abuser asks the victim, “why did you make me do that to you?” thereby transferring responsibility from the one to the other. And what do all the other family members do? They restructure the truth in order to preserve the peace. Sometimes they even come to believe it, or at least, they try. You see it in addictive relationships, too, where one person – the user – takes advantage of someone else – the patsy – while everyone else stands around and relabels events.
“Daddy’s sick.” No, he’s hung over.I’ve seen churches and work environments and social clubs and schools like this, where one person or group terrorizes another, and everyone else comforts the victim instead of stopping the craziness. And how do you escape such a hurtful environment? Well, the only way out is to start calling things by their right names – to quit lying about others, to quit lying FOR others – not to get even, or make it right, but just to get away from the twistedness of it all.
“She fell down.” No, she was struck with a wooden spoon.
“He’s taking a semester off to think about his future.” No, he was expelled for misbehavior.
When Jesus said, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” he was immediately set upon by the Jewish leaders. For truth is, in the old saying, nobody’s daughter. Everybody fears the truth. For if you think that we twist the truth and try to make it fit our desires when we talk about other people, oh, that doesn’t even begin to cover our real fear, which is facing the truth about ourselves. Anything but that!
And I’m not just talking about how we try to justify ourselves to other people. I’m talking about how we like awake at night, replaying conversations, arguing with ourselves in our own heads with nobody else around, trying to find a way to make the truth livable for ourselves. There are things we know about ourselves that we choose not to know, that we go to incredible lengths to change, and then to convince ourselves of the new version. After a while, we’re not even sure what the truth was; we’ve offered others so many versions, we’ve told it to ourselves so many ways, we’ve edited all our memories like a corrupted file saved over hundreds of times, that we’re not sure, anymore. It’s like Lucille Ball saying once that she’d decided to dye her hair back to its original color, but then she’d forgotten what it was.
The Renaissance humanists said, “Man is the measure of all things.” One of the reasons to suspect that statement is because Man cannot be trusted to keep honest weights and measures when it comes to oneself. So St. Paul suggests that we should start with God, instead. Ah, but we’ve got multiple truths about him, too, that we can use to keep him at a distance.
There’s God the kindly old grandfather, who only wants everyone to be happy. He’ll hand you a twenty and say, “have a nice time,” and he never gets upset with how you go about doing it. Then there’s the vengeful God who smites and damns . . . those people over there. And, of course, there’s “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” who never gets upset about anything, and listens endlessly to our woes and forgives us and comforts us without ever even a tut-tut. Anything less like the Jesus of the New Testament I cannot imagine. I would suggest that until we allow ourselves to confess the truth about God, we’re not going to be able to confess the truth about ourselves or other people, and we’re going to keep on making everybody pretty miserable.
And what is the truth about God? Well, God is holy. No evil thing can come into his presence. And no souvenir of sin, however, tiny and precious to us can be brought into the kingdom of heaven. And he is truth. The New Testament says that Jesus “knew what was in Man.” Oh, yes. God is not fooled. He knows us to our core, and even every idle word we have spoken has been heard and will be accounted for. And yet, he loves us. Jesus died for us, and then scoured Hell for us. Jesus is our advocate with the Father. He gives us his Spirit to dwell within us. He shares with us his peace.
It is very difficult to hold those warring concepts together. We keep wanting God to be one thing or another. And we keep trying to convince him that we’ve turned a corner. We won’t be doing that again. You can believe my promise this time, Jesus. We storm heaven with our prayers, yet we wonder if our prayers are accepted. Sometimes God seems so far away. Silent. In his retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, CS Lewis has the lead character say, “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word [that has lain at the bottom of our souls] can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
I was walking in my holler this weekend, talking with God, as I often do when I’m out in the woods. I had a lot on my mind. There was a situation where I’d made a fool of myself – again. There were other things that worried me. There were things I was angry about. There were fears of all sorts. And, of course, the usual assortment of sins and failures. And yet, I found that I had no voice to really chew over all these things with him. I felt the air in my lungs, saw the bright colors coming out all over the hillside, felt his peace withinn me, and I was quiet. I just kept saying, over and over, “thank you, Lord. Thank you for THIS; thank you for THAT. I love you. I love you. Thank you for Jesus.”
I didn’t have to tell him what he already knew. But in my acceptance of the whole truth of what he is to me, I knew the truth about myself as well. No excuses. No hiding. No denials. He knows me, and I know he knows. I know him, and he knows I know. I don’t have to try to fool him, or me, anymore. And it’s when we get to that point that I can hear him again. And when I can face the truth about myself and quit trying to “make it better” –- that is to say, to make it assume a different, more comfortable shape in my mind -- then I can see other people more as they are, and less as chess pieces in my own head. And that makes all my relationships with them cleaner. Better. Truer.
From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.The new life we talk about in Church begins when we quit trying to make God fit our image of him and let God restore his image in us – so that we can meet him face to face, with a face that is truly our own. And then comes the joy of seeing, not just others’ faults, but their virtues and their beauties and their achievements. And we begin to want to KNOW them, not merely acquire them as furnishings for the stage we want to monopolize.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” But neither shall you bear false witness either for or against yourself, and you shall not bear false witness about God. Paul talks in his letter to the Ephesians about “speaking the truth in love” and how it makes the whole body work together the right way. We are to know the truth of Christ, who will tell us the truth about ourselves –but not in vengeance, rather in love – and we are thus to quit bearing false witness against ourselves AND against our neighbor, and love ourselves even as we love our neighbor.
And what is the truth of love?
Love’s as warm as tears,
Love is tears:
Pressure within the brain,
Tension at the throat,
Deluge, weeks of rain,
Featureless seas between
Hedges, where once was green.
Love’s as fierce as fire,
Love is fire:
All sorts – infernal heat
Clinkered with greed and pride,
Lyric desire, sharp-sweet,
Laughing, even when denied,
And that empyreal flame
Whence all loves came.
Love’s as fresh as spring,
Love is spring:
Bird-song hung in the air,
Cool smells in a wood,
Whispering, ‘Dare! Dare!’
To sap, to blood,
Telling, ‘Ease, safety, rest,
Are good; not best.’
Love’s as hard as nails,
Love is nails:
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of One
Who, having made us, knew
The thing He had done,
Seeing (with all that is)
Our cross, and His.