It is a curious fact that the same book of Exodus which informs us of the command, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16) begins with the story of a good solid practical lie:
Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives, and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and are delivered before the midwife comes to them.” (Exodus 1:15-19)
Some rigorist readers of this text are troubled in conscience about this bald faced lie and offer various explanations of why this lie was wrong, but God overlooked it due to the need to get on with the Big Picture, or because he is inscrutable, or whatever. However, the sacred author himself seems to have no such qualms as the modern rigorist. He cheerily continues:
So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God he gave them families. (Exodus 1:20-21)
In other words, God rewarded the midwives, not in spite of their lies, but because of them. That’s the sort of paradox that is all in day’s work for a biblical author and it confronts us, in a backhanded way, with just why the commandment against bearing false witness is needed: telling the truth is hard and sometimes people don’t have a right to full disclosure.
It is a truism to say that truthful speech is the currency of a happy and virtuous human community. A civilization built on lies is doomed. But, as with commands against stealing, murder and adultery, it is also a fact that, sooner or later, we all want to bend the truth, nuance, shade or outright lie about something just like the Hebrew midwives. When the wife asks, “Does this make me look fat?” this is often not the time for a husband to be a Halogen beacon of glaring factuality. When the Nazis come to the door asking if you’ve seen any Jews, you don’t take them to the hideout in the attic out of a slavish commitment to mere factuality.
Nonetheless, the commandment stands, precisely because, as T.S. Eliot remarks, human beings cannot bear too much reality—and generally we are tempted to bear far less than we really can, not to reveal too much.
What I mean is this: There is something about face-to-face contact with another human being that tends to create bonds (in both the good and bad sense of that word). When we get to know somebody at all, we find that we tend to pad our speech in such a way as to cushion the truth and guard their feelings. So, for instance, some time ago a woman I know was confronted with incontrovertible evidence that her dentist of twenty years had performed millions of dollars of unnecessary surgery on her and about a hundred other patients. The evidence was there in his own hand in the charts. But she, being a decent sort, continued trying to find some other explanation for the fraud till it finally sank in: the man she had trusted for twenty years was a crook.
Now that tendency to assume the best of people we have come to know is normal and healthy as far as it goes. It’s the lubricant that makes social relationships possible. But when we let it shade off into sycophantic flattery, denial, and lying in order to protect ourselves or those we care about (or fear) then we start to head into places where it becomes all too easy to bear false witness.
A classic example of this we have just seen in the ongoing disaster of the priest abuse scandal. People seldom get up in the morning saying, “Today I will bear false witness against my neighbor just for the hell of it.” Instead, they start by giving extra weight to what Fr. Beloved Priest says because, well, after all, we know Fr. Beloved Priest. He’s one of us. Meanwhile, the angry mom or the kid with the shocking claim are, you know, them. Indeed, often the bitter words of outrage and denunciation at Fr. Beloved’s betrayal only makes it more easy to shuffle mom and the kid off to the “them” category. “Hey!” we say, “They could be anybody.” Fr. Beloved has a long and distinguished career! He baptized my daughter and tells funny jokes and dried my tears when my mother died. And it would be very convenient if his accuser were just anybody: some riff-raff or gold-digger off the streets. We don’t want to hear it. It’s gotta be tinfoil hat talk.
So we shade the truth, first of all to ourselves, and downplay the complaint. And as the complaints against Fr. Beloved pile up from other sources we have to keep adding to the investment of faith we have in him even as we begin to put extra effort into taking away from the investment of faith others might put into his accusers. Before you know it, you have whole groups of people, both in an organized and in a spontaneous way, laboring to protect the reputation of Fr. Beloved and (mark this) laboring to destroy the reputation of his accusers using more and more tendentious and even false evidence. All this seems to work swimmingly to the bearer of false witness—right up until the DNA samples show conclusively that Fr. Beloved has a daughter or the photos of him with male prostitute hit the front page. At which point everybody starts asking themselves how they could have been so blind. The answer is both simple and hard: “You ignored the commandment against bearing false witness. You gave preference to somebody you know and like over somebody you don’t know who threatened you with the truth.”
Our Lord said, “The truth will set you free.” This is so. But on the way to doing so, the truth will also often make you a weirdo, scare you to death and get you killed. It is because truth is so scary that God reminds us of the gravity of betraying it. Typically for a culture that is dominated by the idea of covenant, the Ten Commandments relates the idea of truthfulness to community. The commandment is not especially against lies in the abstract but specially focuses on bearing false witness against your neighbor. In an ancient semitic culture, the complex ties of tribe and family, as well as the sharply defined class relationships of rich and poor, royal and common, man and woman, kinsman and alien, all provided ample temptations for suckuppery, extortion, false witness and oppression of the weak. This commandment constitutes one of the bedrock defenses of the weak and marginalized from the Lord who, again and again, declares himself the Avenger of the alien, the orphan, and the widow. The one who tells lies in order to oppress and exploit these most disenfranchised people is particularly in view and stands in particular danger of the divine wrath should he ignore the commandment.
That said, we flatter ourselves to the point of absurdity if we think we are any less in danger of grave evil than a bunch of shepherds and Bronze Age types living in the ancient Near East. Our society has mastered the art of Orwellian speech and false witness against neighbor in ways that our ancestors could never dream of. We bear false witness by debasing language every day. Whether it is calling the killing of children “choice” or the torture of prisoners “enhanced interrogation” we are still faced with the temptation to bear false witness against our neighbor. We do so by testifying that our unborn neighbor is “fetal material” and by declaring the neighbor whom we torture to be worthy of torment which the Church says are intrinsically immoral for us to inflict, as well as by presuming his guilt based on the fact that we are torturing him. For, of course, the dirty secret about torture is that you inflict it to find out if the person you are torturing deserves it. When you find out that you were mistaken, you have already committed a sin worthy of hell. And if you do not repent (and bureaucracies that torture dislike having to acknowledge mistakes), you then compound your sin by lying and claiming the innocent person you tortured is guilty.
When we do this sort of thing, then the bad currency of speech begins to drive out the good and, as ever, the sin and the judgment are the same thing. A society which accepts lying language into the core of its way of thinking is a society that is teaching itself to lose touch with reality. The United States discovered this in the 1860s when all the piled up lies about black men and women as “property” finally became insupportable and reality came roaring back with a vengeance. The same principle is now at work as we experience the fruit of our habit of self-delusion with abortion and other crimes of the culture of death. For a lying spirit tends to float. It refuses to stay where we want it to (defending only the lies of the Sexual Revolution and leaving the rest of our wits unclouded). Instead, a lying spirit clouds everything and causes us to pursue folly in every sphere of life. The culture that can delude itself that the newborn baby gasping out its last breath on the table is just a “born alive fetus” or a “botched abortion” is a culture that can convince itself that the way to prosperity and happiness is to go into massive and unpayable debt. The radical folly behind the economic meltdown is the product of a whole culture laboring as one to live in denial of reality.
In short, God is not mocked. As with all sins against natural law, the punishment is simply the natural consequence of our wicked and stupid choices. The way to avoid these consequences is “Don’t make the wicked and stupid choice.” And the way to do that is to ask for the grace of God in Christ to overcome the temptation to bear false witness against your neighbor and, far more, to cultivate a habit of speaking the truth in love. Jesus promise is plain: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Not least among the blessed fruits of that simple yet powerful act of Christian discipleship is simply being able to sleep better at night. As Mark Twain noted, “Tell the truth. Then you won’t have to remember what you said.”