“Do Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor.”
The most basic reformulation of this principle is “Don’t lie.” Most of us understand this idea as something that was instilled in us as soon as we could talk. We are taught to speak only the truth. But we learn quickly that by telling lies we can get out of trouble, get things we want, and get power over others.
But honesty is an essential principle of the Christian life. Even the “little white lies” must be avoided. Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life…” (John 14:6 ) We must live in truth because Christ is Truth Himself.
It is important to fight against the poison of subjectivism, which is the idea that truth is a relative thing. When a student asked me once if the 9/11 hijackers went to Heaven, I told them I did not know, but that their actions were evil. My student responded: “But that’s what they believed!” as if the belief in the thing made the thing true for them. But that is not who truth works. There is no “your truth” and “my truth.” There is just one truth.
All falsehoods are not of God because God is a God of truth. This, of course, does not count social conventions like acting and jokes. The reason why is that as a social convention, they are not meant to deceive, but are forms of mutual amusement where everyone understands that when Christian Bale says “I’m Batman” that he is not trying to convince you that he is in real life the Caped Crusader. Deception in our words is not compatible with our religion because it is not compatible with Christ’s mission who “Came to bear witness to the truth.” (John 18:37 )
We are also allowed to keep legitimate secrets, which is why it is okay for priests to keep the seal of confession. This is not a sin against truth because while we are forbidden from speaking falsehoods, we do not have the right to everyone’s information. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to have it. Secret keeping is an important part of our intimate relationships and should be honored when applicable.
In addition we cannot skirt the truth with misleading statements. We are very familiar with advertisements that intentionally make simply untrue things to get us to buy certain products. I remember the joke by the late comedian Richard Jeni about the product “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!” He said, “It could be car oil for all we know! If we said to the makers of it, ‘Hey, this isn’t butter!’ they could say, ‘Hey! We never said it was!’” Or in a movie example, Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke his father died. When Luke confronts him Obi-Wan says, “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view.” This is obscuring the reality that Obi-Wan intentionally deceived Luke.The point is that if we say things that are not exactly untrue but are intentionally misleading, we still break the commandment.
When dealing with others, Jesus said that we should “let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no.” (Matt 5:37) We shouldn’t have to swear gigantic oaths on stacks of Bibles for people to believe us. If we are honest, then we are a small witness to the trustworthiness of Christ.
All of our convictions need to be rooted in truth.
This takes us to the problem of gossip.
Gossip is an infection in social relationships. It strains relationships and can destroy people.
I remember when I first started working I would have lunch with my co-workers. But soon I found myself engaging in gossip about other people in our building. It was strange because I found that I was fine in smaller settings, but once I reached the lunch table I was eager to hear the latest dirt and to share my thoughts. After a few months I realized how I had changed and not to this day I do not eat lunch with my colleagues.
I don’t write that as a judgment on them. This is a statement of my own weakness and my own desire to be inside that inner circle. I remember in college I was sitting at lunch with a group of seminarians and they were talking about their classmates behind their backs. And one of my best friends who was a seminarian said, “Hey, how about we don’t talk about our seminary brothers behind their backs.” It did not make him popular with that table, but it was a socially courageous thing to do. It may surprise you to hear that this behavior would be inside such a religious community, but throughout history the saints have told us that this is one of the major problems in monasteries and convents.
Why is gossip so bad?
The best way I can illustrate it is a story I once heard. A woman got angry at her neighbor and so she started a rumor that this neighbor was cheating on her husband. The neighbor became a social pariah and began having severe marital troubles. The woman who started the room felt badly and went to confession to the new priest in town. The priest told her for her penance to take a feather pillow to the top of the hill outside the town, tear open the pillow, spread the feathers out on the air, and then come back to see him. She did and the feathers went flying all over town. When she returned to the priest, he told her to go out into the town and pick up every single feather and put it back into the pillow. She said that this was impossible. The priest responded, “And so it is impossible for you to save this woman’s reputation.”
Once rumors get out there, it is very difficult to erase them from people’s minds. When you hear gossip about someone, even it is untrue, it can color the way you look at that person. And this gossip almost always leads to a less charitable mindset.
We are called to look at everyone with love. And if with our words we make that more difficult, then we have failed to be a true witness to our neighbor.
Copyright 2017, WL Grayson