The 10 Best Ways, IX: Tell the Truth
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” —Exodus 20:16
The Ten Commandments are almost 3,000 years old. The Decalogue has turned out to be perhaps the most enduring and comprehensive legal code in human history; some version of it turns up in almost every nation, every religion, every language, and every corner of the globe. It’s interesting, then, that so little of it has made its way into the legal codes of the world’s national and local jurisdictions. Of The Ten Commandments, only 2½ are illegal under federal or state law in the United States.
Killing and stealing are illegal always and everywhere, but that’s about it. It is not illegal to worship inferior gods. It is not illegal to curse. It is not illegal to dishonor your parents or the Sabbath. It is not even illegal to commit adultery. I don’t know why, but it isn’t.
And the commandment that is half-illegal is the Ninth: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” And by half-illegal, I mean that it is always illegal to lie in court, or to accuse a fellow citizen of a wrong she did not commit, but generally, outside courts and contracts, it is not against the law to lie.
Nor should it be. Sometimes it’s not even right or moral to tell the truth. The seventeenth-century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert once said, “All truths are not to be told.” Right? All truths are not be told. Nothing truer was ever spoken. One Bible scholar put it like this: “Some lies oil the bearings of social relationships…They smooth the wrinkles in our social fabric.”
For instance, when my wife asks me, “Do I look pretty in this outfit?” there is only one right answer to that question: “Stunning.”
Likewise, when I ask her, “How was that sermon?” she knows that there is only one right answer to that question: “Brilliant.” I know she’s lying, but that’s the game.
Have I told you about that New Yorker cartoon? A man is standing in his apartment and handing his wife a thick sheaf of freshly typed pages, and he says, “Here is my novel. I’ll be interested in your compliments.”
If a house guest stays at your place for a week and eats all your food and makes a wreck of your guest room and has nothing positive to say all week, should you tell the truth, when he finally leaves, or should you lie and say, as we all do, “So good to have you; can’t wait for your next visit.”
When a friend asks you over to dinner at the end of a busy week, should you tell the truth? “No, I don’t want to come,” or should you lie and say, “I would love to come but I have a prior obligation,” even if your ‘prior obligation’ is that you wanted to stay home by yourself and watch Game of Thrones?
When a friend asks you, “Why haven’t you replied to my email?” should you tell the truth and say “It wasn’t really that important to me,” or should you lie and say “I’m so sorry. Would you please resend it? I never received it.” All truths are not to be told.
This is true in much larger ways as well. All truths are not to be told. In fact, sometimes, the only way to serve the truth is to tell a lie. A few of us just returned from Jerusalem, by common consensus the holiest city on earth.
So many sacred shrines in Jerusalem: The Muslims have the Dome of the Rock; the Jews have the Western Wall of the Temple Mount; the Christians have the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again. So many holy places in Jerusalem.
But for me, maybe the holiest place in Jerusalem is Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum. Yad Vashem is as holy to the Israelis as The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is to Americans.
Our guide in Israel packed so many sites into every single day that sometimes it seemed as if he was trying to kill us. For instance, he gave us 90 minutes to take in Yad Vashem, which is just cruel; it can’t be done.
Still, I insisted on spending a few minutes on The Avenue of the Righteous. Have you been there? The Righteous Among the Nations. The Avenue of the Righteous is Israel’s serene, moving tribute to all the Gentiles who tried to rescue Jews in Europe from 1933 to 1945; trees planted and monuments raised to the brave Gentiles who stood between the Nazis and the Jews during World War II.
There are 26,120 names in the database. Oskar Schindler is there. Corrie Ten Boom is there.
My Dutch heritage is very important to me, so I love seeing all those familiar Dutch names on The Avenue of the Righteous: DeBoer, DeJong, DeVries, Meijer, Vanderley, Van Dyk, Ver Meulen.
These were the names of my classmates in Grand Rapids. These were the people I went to church with in my Dutch Reformed Congregation in West Michigan. I love to think that my classmates’ distant cousins who stayed behind in the Netherlands acted bravely and honorably when it counted the most.
But of course, the Dutch had no monopoly on righteousness during the Holocaust. There are more Polish names than Dutch on The Avenue of the Righteous, and almost as many French names.
So I had a sacred moment on The Avenue of the Righteous. But when I got home, I started reading about their stories, these Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox and Muslims who hid Jews from the Gestapo, and I thought to myself: “This is not The Avenue of the Righteous; this is The Avenue of the Liars.” These liars practiced one deception after another on the German authorities. They didn’t just tell a lie; they didn’t just act out a lie; they lived a lie, one towering, and monstrous deceit after another.
A Protestant family in Amsterdam would take in a Jewish neighbor child and raise her as their own. “This is our youngest daughter,” they’d say when the Gestapo came calling, over and over and over again. “There are no Jews here.”
Little boys named Levi or Schmuli or Ephraim or Yehuda would be rechristened as Christopher or Christian. A little girl named Golda would become Christina, and Hadassah would become Lucia.
In the French countryside the parish priest would forge baptism certificates for Jewish boys who had been circumcised on the eighth day. How’s that for the ultimate fraud: a fake baptism certificate?
Catholic mothers and fathers would teach their Jewish foster children the ‘Our Father,’ and the ‘Hail, Mary,’ and deck them out with rosaries.
Elderly Jews who had never in their long lives touched a morsel of non-kosher food could be seen eating oysters and bacon, just to mislead the authorities.
Jewish hair is thick, lustrous, and often black as pitch; the righteous Gentiles would take their secret Jewish friends to clandestine beauty parlors to bleach their hair blonde; every six weeks, like clockwork, to keep them looking like good Aryans.
One time the Gestapo came to the French village of Le Chambon sur Lignon with three school buses looking to round up a harvest of Jews to be sent to Buchenwald, but the Huguenots of Le Chambon just smiled at the Nazis and said, “There are no Jews here.” The Gestapo school buses left Le Chambon completely empty. The population of Le Chambon and the surrounding area in the day was about 5,000 souls; during World War II, those 5,000 Christians rescued about 3,500 Jews.
The Avenue of the Righteous indeed; more like the Avenue of Deceit. They colluded in a vast fraudulent conspiracy to save Jewish lives. Sometimes in order to honor the truth, you have to tell a lie. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Cherish the truth; tell a lie.
The Ninth Commandment is not unconditional. There are times when we need to fracture it.
Still, it is God’s command for us, then and now. Tell the truth: it seems like a timely word from the Lord, doesn’t it? The Truth has taken a beating during this dreadful, interminable presidential campaign. We’re not even close to what Stephen Colbert used to call ‘truthiness.’
I wonder if anyone could even count the number of lies told to the American people during this campaign, from both sides.
You remember that old legend we used to hear in first grade about George Washington and the cherry tree? That never happened. That legend was telling a lie about telling the truth.
But it doesn’t really matter that it never happened; the point is that’s how the American people thought about George Washington; it captured his character in one concise, if counterfeit, chronicle. It’s just a little sad that the American people will never invent a story like that about President Trump, nor about Secretary Clinton, either, if she had been elected.
Words have become cheap in the American empire; our words are cheap and our language shabby.
Sometimes it seems to me as if America is becoming an aging, captious empire. Our public discourse is crude, coarse, and discourteous. Thus our scripture reading from Romans this morning.
When Paul wrote his Letter to the Church at Rome around 60 A.D., his situation was a lot like our own. Rome is at the zenith of its powers and its global reach; it has become the most glorious city in history and the world’s only superpower. The Empire stretches all the way from the tip of Spain in the west to the Tigris and Euphrates in the east.
But Rome is already 800 years old when Paul writes his letter to the Christian Church there. The Empire is aging, captious, and fractious. Wise and noble emperors like Augustus, Emperor when Jesus was born, and Tiberius, Emperor when Jesus died, are long gone, and every emperor seems worse than the last. Four short years after Paul writes his Letter to Rome, Nero will burn it to the ground. Then in Rome, as now in America, it seemed, it seems as if Leonard Cohen got it right, may he rest in peace:
I’ve seen the future, brother:
it is murder.
Things are going to slide in all directions,
Won’t be nothing anymore.
The blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul.
And so Paul writes this gentle word to an aging empire. “Let love be genuine,” says Paul. “Hate what is evil,” says Paul, “hold fast to what is good. Bless those who persecute you,” says Paul, “bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice,” says Paul, “weep with those who weep,” says Paul. “Associate with the lowly,” says Paul. “Never exact revenge,” says Paul. “Do not be overcome with evil,” says Paul, “but overcome evil with good.”
This is our mandate no matter who is in the White House or on Capitol Hill or on the Supreme Court. It’s been a tough week. I think that might be true even if your side won, and I know it’s been tough for the losers. All of us are shocked; most of us are scared; some of us are crushed.
President Obama has been my hero since November 4, 2008, when he said, “Yes we can.” Every day these last eight years, I have said a prayer of thanks to God that my son became a man, and my daughter a woman, while there was such a worthy exemplar in the White House.
But I know that for some of you, it’s not been a great eight years; you would have pursued American greatness in different ways these last eight years. So maybe now it’s your turn.
But here’s Good News from our Glad God for me and for you: neither President Obama nor President-Elect Trump is our Savior. Neither of them can give us what we genuinely want and need.
If you think about it a certain way, the American Constitution is trying to be faithful to The First of The Ten Commandments. Remember what that was? “You shall have no other gods before God.” The American Constitution prevents the deification of puny little creatures, right?
You can only be our leader for eight years; then somebody else gets a turn. No one gets to be turned into a god-like Caesar Augustus or Caligula or Kim Jong-un. Nobody gets to be Sovereign for Life like Elizabeth II. This is one way that God stays God. FDR was great, but we never want to have FDR again.
So, I’ve just decided that no matter who’s in charge, I have my own mandate. No matter how shallow and shabby our public discourse gets, I will behave a different way.
I will “let love be genuine.” I will “hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good.” I will “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” I will never “be overcome with evil; instead, I will overcome evil with good.”
Paul writes his gentle missive to a poor, pitiful, paltry, powerless population of slaves and shopkeeps in a tiny church the empire is only now beginning to notice. There is a less-than-minuscule chance that these folk can change the world.
But what Paul hopes is that that tiny community, which practices genuine love and hates evil and loves good and associates with the lowly and eschews revenge, will seep out into the body politic like a drop of purple dye in an otherwise colorless vat of water, like a speck of leaven in the loaf, like that pinch of salt that gives the meal its pleasure, like that flickering candle in a dark cave, like that twinkling star in the night sky.
There is almost nothing this little group can do to revitalize life in a brutal empire, almost nothing, except to act like Jesus, and that is what Paul counsels them to do, come hell or high water, or crosses of wood, or stakes of fire, or jaws of wild beasts, or slashing soldier swords.
Lewis B. Smedes, Mere Morality: What God Expects from Ordinary People (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1983), p. 225.
The New Yorker, October 19, 2009, p. 57.
These details are from the Yad Vashem website http://www.yadvashem.org/righteous/stories, and from Martin Gilbert’s book The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (New York: Henry Holt, 2003), especially pp. 260-293, and 320-355.