Thursday, April 08, 2021

Bottom of the Ninth

I’m beginning to think that the ninth commandment is more important than I ever realized.

Traditionally, it reads, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” (KJV), or more colloquially, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

Well … Duh!

“Okay,” I said to myself when I first read it, “that makes sense. In court, telling a lie about someone or something can get an innocent person into serious legal trouble. And to do that would be malicious. Fair enough.”

But lately I’ve started wondering. Is that all the commandment means? Is it just for courts and legal situations? Or is it quite reasonable to think it might apply elsewhere — maybe even far beyond the limited precincts of the courthouse?

I shared my doubts about this with a friend. His reaction was, “Of course.” Not helpful, but pointed.

Am I the last one to pick up on this?

The Parameters of False Witness

The prohibition, I’m now thinking, is much broader than that. Maybe we can no more confine it to the courtroom than we can limit it to the city gateways in which judgments were held in the ancient world from which the commandment originally arose. It’s a prohibition for all circumstances in which judgment is weighed as to matters of fact and personal integrity. It wouldn’t really matter whether the “judge” was a magistrate, a policeman, a referee, or a citizen merely acting as arbitrator in one of the many situations of judgment we all face routinely. Either way, the principle upheld is this: don’t say things that give witness to that which is not true, to that which perverts the judgment or distorts the reputation of others, regardless of the forum in question. It’s “Do not lie” writ large and with the implied consequences written in.

Looking at it like this makes it considerably more important than if we treat it as a mere injunction for courts. Because really, our society is just full of false witnesses, isn’t it?

Obfuscation Abounding

We all know about the lies of advertisers and politicians, who “bear witness” to falsehoods every day. We’ve come to accept that as totally normal. Then there’s the internet, that hub of cacophonic lies, from whence the truth can only ever be extracted with great pain and effort, if at all. We’re told nowadays that our news is all “fake news”. (That might actually be right: but something’s got to be true.) There’s also our starkly polarized political language, with Leftists shouting that conservatives are all neo-Nazis and “deplorables”, and conservatives shouting that the whole Left is composed of pinkos, neo-Marxists and SJW wimps. Do we ever stop to think, “Maybe I’m not being entirely fair to the opposition” or “Hey, maybe some of the people on the Left or Right of us are actually trying to do the right thing?”

In our public schools, we’re told that truth itself is relative, that morality is optional, and that even the word of God itself is a matter of mere private interpretation. All religions are good — as is none at all — and all roads lead to … well, wherever it is all roads lead to, I guess. And no lifestyle is ever bad, so long as a person can want it. Nor is any act of savagery an atrocity, right down to the butchering of children in utero, so long as somebody wants to do it on the road to their own version of “happiness”. Indeed, the only sin left is the sin of impeding someone else from doing what they want.

Fragmentation and Character Assassination

Even within the Christian community we see increasing fragmentation into camps and denominations, each inveighing against the beliefs of others, but not always staying within the bounds of truth to do it — the holders of contrary opinions sometimes simply have their names blackened and dismissed without due inspection of what they actually believe or why they (even misguidedly) are advocating it. Camps are formed. Rallying cries are raised. And part of marshaling the troops is sometimes the characterizing of all opponents as demented or ungodly.

Then there’s the private stuff. I mean the stuff each of us does when we’re agitated about not getting things going our way. Sometimes it’s just the misrepresenting of someone else’s view when we report it to others after the fact. Sometimes it’s more insidious and direct than that: after all, it’s awfully easy these days to set up a false front on someone using posts or blogs or Facebook, to bully and harass online, and thus to assassinate the characters of others in the broad public domain. And when is anybody ever called on that? And there are the little “adjustments” we so routinely make to any story we tell about ourselves — those little add-ons that spice up the story or give it just a little twist so that we don’t come out so bad in the end, or so that those on the other side do. Who can resist making the story just a little bit better?

The Consequences

So while a great many of these situations never make it to the courthouse, it’s got to be clear to anyone who’s not asleep that the penalties visited upon the victims of these kinds of false witnesses are often as nasty, or nearly so, as any legal punishment could be — destroyed relationships, ruined reputations, job loss, loss of children, loss of friends, public humiliation, financial devastation … and on and on and on …

You used to be able to escape a false witness. Nowadays, they can gang up on you by internet, chase you when you want to leave, and spread their poison worldwide, if they want. And all of that while the accuser remains under the pretext of free speech and protected by layers of false personalities. The false witness can now mobilize the world against you before you even have a chance to defend yourself. And let’s face it: people like a scandal more than they like the truth. They’ll tend to believe about you whatever is most interesting, not what is most honest. Today, you can be character-assassinated without even the chance to clear your name in a real court.

The Lord’s View?

The Lord has a lot to say about the false witness and the lying tongue. We can’t cover it all here because it’s a big topic, but I’ll bet you know most of it anyway. Suffice to say that Proverbs calls slander the language of fools and repeatedly tells us that such will be punished and not escape. Psalms promises they will be destroyed. The Lord himself says that false witness proceeds from the black heart of man, and James says the unruly tongue is a thing “set on fire by hell”. The apostles repeatedly enjoin the believers not to participate in any form of false witness.

Indeed, the devil himself is called the “accuser of our brothers” and the “father of lies”. Let us not walk in his company!

Justice Served

Now, it’s interesting what the Old Testament penalty was when someone was caught actually deliberately bearing false witness. The accuser would have everything done to him or her that he or she planned to cause to happen to the accused. Was it loss of money? Loss of a job? Loss of property or family? Loss of freedom in jail? Back atcha, Sunshine — one for one.

That makes the mounting of false allegations kind of an expensive hobby, doesn’t it?

But before anybody gets in an uproar about the possibility this would punish a “victim”, it would not. There is no biblical penalty specified against an accuser whose accusation merely lacks sufficient proof for conviction. Rather, this penalty is for those cases in which the prosecution is verifiably malicious — where there is found to be no truth to the allegation, and is it shown that the alleger lied and knew he or she lied in order to harm another person. And there are enough such cases.

That tells you something important about God’s view of justice in regard to this issue. Justice is that whatever gain the liar thought to obtain through the lie should be taken away, and every harm he intended to visit upon his victim should be visited on him.

Not worth it, is it?

The Bottom Line?

Here’s what I’m thinking. In our day, we all need a redoubled vigilance about our lips. We need to speak the truth, and only the truth — most especially, when we are speaking of our brothers and sisters in Christ, but for everyone else as well. Slander, half-truths, innuendos, false labels and character assassination, even in service of an allegedly “good cause”, have no place in the arsenal of the man or woman of God. At all. Not in writing. Not on the internet. And not in person. Not even when we’re verbally reporting out own story, maybe even in the presence of friends. No rewriting history.

We must take care to speak no more, no less, and no other than what is true, even of those we oppose. If we speak in excess (and who is there who does not occasionally fail in this?), then we need to be quick to restore the truth — even at the cost of personal humiliation or to the detriment of our own cause.

Seems frightfully obvious, doesn’t it? We all know that. Maybe it makes you wonder why I even bothered to write.

Truth in Short Supply

Except maybe the things we ought to know are sometimes the things we also know the least. What we know in our heads, we may not even remember to practice, just because it’s so very familiar. Such things maybe just seem to take care of themselves …

But they don’t. Our age, mad as it is on communication of all forms, multiplies the opportunities for the bearing of false witness. Models of those who do it successfully are around us on every side. Enticements to it abound, since we are so increasingly conscious of our own public images; and the costs of failure to manage our own public profiles have never been higher or more immediate.

Today truth-speakers are in frightfully short supply. But the bottom line on the Ninth has not gone away. Speak truth: bear no false witness. Keep the facts the facts. Do not spin, fold or mutilate, for any reason. To be a Christian is to walk openly, staying in the light, manifesting what one actually is, and what has actually been done, no matter what the cost.

It’s obvious: but sometimes the bottom line just needs some underlining.

Photo courtesy Not That Bob James under CC BY 2.0

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