This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on 10th August.
This month I’m considering the eighth commandment. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” Is this really a directive that will make you happy? Sometimes we tell lies. We might call them little white lies as we use them to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to avoid a confrontation. Can that be wrong? Why does telling the truth get such a good reputation?
George Washington, the first US President, is reputed have shown a tendency to tell the truth from an early age. The story goes that as a six year old he was given a gift of a hatchet. He reputedly chopped his father’s cherry tree with it, causing some damage. When confronted by his father he apparently replied “I cannot tell a lie, I damaged the tree.” This earned him the reputation of honesty. However the story was invented by Mason Locke Weems, his first biographer. It is, in fact, a lie.
Should we always tell the truth or lie with a good intent? One situation where people sometimes tell lies is in writing references for someone’s job application. The might hope to advance the person’s career, exaggerating their abilities and achievements to give them a leg up. Perhaps they want the person to get the job to move a problem on to someone else to deal with. In either case the candidate will be set up to fail in the new job, causing trouble for them and their new employer. Better to just, truthfully, tell the good things. By reporting that the applicant for the secretary’s job makes a great cup of tea you can tell the truth and say nothing negative, The prospective employer should get the message.
The commandment talks of bearing false witness which makes us think of being a witness, whether in court or in reporting an incident. The ends of justice can be thwarted when lies are told to protect the guilty. Lying can not only protect the guilty but can result in an innocent person being imprisoned unjustly. There have been many cases of people who have been released after many years in jail when their case has been reviewed and found to be based on false evidence. I wonder how many innocent people have been imprisoned unjustly and were never cleared.
The difficulty we have when lies are told is that it can cause a breakdown in trust. The story of the boy who was bored and cried “Wolf” just to see the people run out to defend the flock illustrated the point well. Eventually the people were fed up with his game and when the wolf did appear they ignored his cries. They had lost trust in him. How often does that happen today?
One important area of public life where trust is very important is politics. We elect politicians to form a government and work to bring about good results for the country. We trust that they will do what they promise. Very often they do not achieve what they had set out to do. This may not be because they were telling lies but rather they get the job and find things are not as straight forward as they had assumed while they were campaigning. We have to trust them on that.
Where the trust breaks down is when politician are found to be misleading. Misleading Parliament is a serious offence. Esther McVey was forces to apologise to Parliament when she was found to have made a report to Parliament which was the complete opposite of the truth. She claimed that she had unintentionally misled Parliament rather that lied to hide a very critical report on her department’s work.
These incidents can cause people to lose trust in our politicians and our political system is damaged as a result. Many now are ready to disregard anything politicians say because of the behaviour of a few. The US President has become infamous for his use of ‘Fake News’ both by telling lies openly and by claiming that any criticism of his behaviour is just fake news.
We seem to have become a society for whom the truth is whatever we choose to believe. We long ago decided that unborn children are not really human. Aborting them is not killing. Now we face claims that abortion is a human right. All along I thought the right to life was a human right. In our modern world there is no such thing as an objective truth; truth is what we want it to be. I think that sums up my problem with this issue. As a Christian I live in two worlds, the Christian world and the modern world. These worlds are at odds on the issue of the truth.
In Christianity the truth plays a central part in our existence. In John’s gospel Jesus mentions the Truth twice. When Jesus was preparing the disciples for his leaving them he reassures them that they will be able to follow him later. Thomas asks how they can follow if they don’t know where he is going. How can they follow if they don’t know the way?
I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.
No one can come to the Father except through me.
If you know me you know my Father too.
From this moment you know him and have seen him.
John 14: 6,7
Jesus is saying that the Truth is not something we decide for ourselves. Recognising the truth seems to be essential if we are to reach God the Father and our salvation. Jesus seems to be saying that He is the way to the Father and eternal life and he personifies the truth. Later he goes further.
When he has been arrested and is eventually taken before Pontius Pilate he is questioned by the Roman Governor. Pilate asks Him why his people have handed Him over to be executed. Jesus explains that His kingdom is not of this world.
Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice. ‘Truth?’ said Pilate ‘What is that?’
John 18: 37,38
So that seems to be the position that Christians are in, facing a choice of two worlds. Which world do we want to belong to? The eighth commandment tells us that we belong to the world Jesus is leading us to; where we can find true happiness. That’s the choice I’m facing. Do I subscribe to a world of objective truth where black is black and white is white or am I to be happier in a world where white can be declared the New Black?
Perhaps I would prefer a world where I can be a man today and just declare myself to be a woman tomorrow? I can make up my own truth and you will be declared intolerant if you do not agree. I can’t see that leading to happiness. It seems to me that this is a recipe for social upheaval and prepares the way for the unscrupulous to manipulate people. To use the old expression ‘It will all end in tears.’