At present, there are two political campaigns happening in North America. The posturing for popularity mixed with defaming propaganda wears on my soul. As people and parties vie for power, so little of it feels genuine or honest. Despite their designation as public servants, government officials seem to have lost their way when it comes to knowing what it means to truly serve others.
In light of the times we live in, it seemed particularly fitting that we talked about the prohibition against "bearing false witness against your neighbour" this Sunday. People tend to associate the ninth matter in the Decalogue with lying, but it is a bit more nuanced than that. First, what is a witness? In its most basic form, witnessing is a passive role; we see and hear and observe a lot of things throughout the day, most of which we have no control over. However, being a witness is brought into an active, intentional role when we say something about what we have observed, or when we give a report of something that happened.
A further intensifying of this active role as a witness has to do with calling. The Greek word for witness is martus, and though we commonly associate it with the idea of being a martyr (dying for what you believe), it really means to bear witness to something with your whole existence, with your whole life, even up to the point of death. In Acts 1, Jesus calls his disciples to be his witnesses (martyres) beginning with their local setting and radiating out to different parts of the world. The idea of being a witness here is different from a single act of witnessing; this calling is to live as a witness, to have it be your identity. The disciples were not only to speak about what they had seen and experienced with Jesus, but their very lives were to be witnesses to the transforming power of God. It was essentially saying: "If you want to see what the love of God looks like, look at my life. It is a witness to this great love."
That's the positive side of being a witness, so what does it mean when we read the following in Exodus 20:16: "Do not bear false witness against your neighbour?" Is it really always harmful to tell a lie about something? Take, for example, these lies children and parents tell each other.
1. We woke up one morning to a clogged toilet. When my husband asked if anyone knew what happened, my 5-year-old hugged my legs and said, "Mommy, a bad, bad man came into our house last night and stole an apple and took some bites, then flushed it down the toilet!"
2. My dad told me people only get 10,000 words per month. If you reach the limit, you can't physically speak until the new month begins. Anytime I was especially talkative, dad would say, "Careful, you're over 9,000 by now."
3. I told my kids that when they lie, a blue dot appears on their forehead that only Mom and Dad can see. Every time they lied, for almost a year, they covered their foreheads.
Perhaps a stronger example is the story of Ahab and Naboth in 1 Kings 21. King Ahab admired Naboth's vineyard and wanted to buy it for his own personal use because it was nice and close to the palace. However, Naboth respectfully declined the purchase offer, stating that the vineyard had been in his family for generations. The king went home and sulked. Jezebel, his wife, took notice, and told him to cheer up; she would get him that vineyard. Jezebel wrote letters in Ahab's name proclaiming a public day of fasting, and on that day, when Naboth was in a prominent, public place, two men of bad reputation (under orders of Jezebel) accused Naboth of cursing both God and the king. Because two witnesses brought testimony against him (the requisite number), he was found guilty and dragged outside the city and stoned to death. Ahab then claimed Naboth's vineyard.
So why do people give a false witness against someone? The 5-year-old wanted to get out of trouble. The parents wanted to control the behaviour of their children. In the story of Ahab, it was for personal gain and perhaps to exact revenge on Naboth for not giving in to the king's demand. Other reasons for telling an untruth about someone could be to elevate our own standing, or to remove an opponent, or to make a tricky situation go away by creating a scapegoat. (see Mark 14 which tells about the false witnesses who were called to testify against Jesus).
What happens when we bear false witness against someone? Note that I am using Jesus' all-encompassing interpretation of 'neighbour' here (see Luke 10:25-37). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that false statements contribute to condemnation of the innocent and exoneration of the guilty. When we partake in calumny (a misrepresentation intended to harm another's reputation) we violate both the commandment against false witness as well as the command to love one's neighbour as oneself. The Catechism goes so far as to indicate that gossip, slander, flattery, boasting, bragging, irony aimed at disparaging someone, mocking, and maliciously caricaturing someone are all contained under the prohibition against "bearing false witness" (again reminded of political campaigns here, God have mercy).
Some theologians make a connection between the 8th matter (do not steal) and the prohibition against bearing false witness. Matthew Henry states that acting as a false witness is "endeavoring to raise our own reputation upon the ruin of our neighbor's." Martin Luther wrote: "God wishes the reputation, good name, and upright character of our neighbor to be taken away or diminished as little as his money and possessions." In other words, by denigrating someone, we are stealing their good name and their reputation from them. This is a dangerous position to be in, because lying and stealing are the main activities associated with Satan (called the father of lies and the thief who comes to steal, slaughter, and destroy). In contrast, Jesus says that he comes to give life characterised by joy and abundance (John 10). The Hebrew name for God, El Emet (God of truth), reveals that truth is central to God's character. When we malign someone with our words, in essence stealing their reputation, we have joined the ranks of Satan, the one who desires to pull people down into ruin. Instead, we want to be followers of Jesus, the one who desires to lift people up and help them to flourish.
So why should we tell the truth about everyone? Because we want to align ourselves with God who is truth instead of Satan who is a liar. Because as recipients of God's justice and mercy, we now want to extend justice and mercy. Because we want to love our neighbour, not be in competition with them. Because we want to care more about God's gain and God's reputation than our own.
"By truth spoken in love, we are to grow in every way into Him - the Anointed One. ... Don't let even one rotten word seep out of your mouths. Instead, offer only fresh words that build others up when they need it most. That way your good words will communicate grace to those who hear them. It's time to stop bringing grief to God's Holy Spirit; ... Banish bitterness, rage and anger, shouting and slander, and any and all malicious thoughts - these are poison. Instead, be kind and compassionate. Graciously forgive one another just as God has forgiven you through the Anointed, our Liberating King." (Ephesians 4, The Voice)
Anne Lamott recounts this story: "I think often of the weeks after the end of WWII, in the refugee camps for orphans and dislocated kids. Of course the children couldn't sleep! But the grown-ups discovered that after you fed them, if you gave them each a piece of bread just to hold, they would drift off, it was holding bread. There was more to eat if they were still hungry. This was bread to hold, to remind them and connect them to the great truth - that morning would come, that there were grown-ups who cared and were watching over them, that there would be more food when they awoke. ... We are each other's holding bread."
Let our words and our witness be bread for a hungry world.