23 January 2014

Love, a heavy cross, part two: a grievously neglected commandment

(Part one.)

We Friends are known for shining a spotlight on the commandment not to kill (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). Sexual ethics are a big focus among many Christians. But I hear almost no alarms about the commandment whose routine violation in the church and in the world causes constant destruction and sorrow:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

(Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20.)

One of the original applications of this commandment was in court settings, where witnesses were not to provide false information, or to withhold true information, in trying a defendant. Planting evidence, or deliberately ignoring exculpatory evidence--favorite tactics of corrupt police forces and courts to this very day--are clear violations of this commandment.

The more general principle can be expressed in the query found in many Quaker books of discipline: "Are you careful of the reputation of others?"

For nice people like us, who would never shoot or poison someone, the sabotage of reputations is both convenient and deadly. The methods are not especially difficult, especially when they're implemented behind the target's back.
  • Allude to the target's suspicious friendships, alliances, choice of college or seminary (or lack thereof), affiliations, tastes and affectations, as if these were enough to tell us all we need to know about him or her.
  • Repeat rumors about him or her, repost scandalous or tendentious Facebook posts and the like, without fact-checking.
  • Recount mistakes the target person has made, as if making those mistakes was his or her major occupation in life, or there were no possible alternative explanations, or the target never did any kind of restoration.
  • Constantly emphasize the difference between our side's best ideals and the target side's worst mistakes, cherry-picking as necessary.
  • Do any or all of the above with glee, taking no thought for the harm done to the target or to our own souls. (For the glee-impaired, crocodile tears will do nicely.)
Does this commandment pertain only to "neighbors" we know personally? Are we in fact allowed to bear false witness against whole groups, races, religions, or celebrities and politicians?

No! Even when politicians (to pick an easy example!) do something we don't agree with, we're not entitled to treat them as targets, vilify them with fake outrage, insult them ... even though their operatives may be doing exactly that to "our side." We're entitled to make our case passionately and point out the defects in our adversary's case, but not to cross the line into false witness. And the discipline of discerning that line might itself be a wonderful opportunity to live life more mindfully, more deliberately. We might realize that the Russian saying "living a life is more than crossing a field" applies not only to us, but also to those for whom we once had no sympathy.

This principle has an immediate practical benefit, especially in election season. I receive tons of e-mail every day, but now any e-mail that begins with the formula, "Hey Johan, guess what idiotic thing Senator X did today," gets deleted without further ado, even when I agree that Senator X is usually wrong. In fact, any e-mail that begins "Hey..." can usually be deleted without harm!

This principle of not bearing false witness plays an important role in distinguishing ethical evangelism from proselytism. This reminds me of a post from some years ago in which I quoted Yakov Krotov on bearing courteous witness to Christian faith. (Scroll down to the "kind questions.")

"Bearing false witness robs the victim of the cloak of truth and is closely allied with God’s command not to steal."

"Tony Campolo to shutter the evangelical ministry he started 40 years ago."

"How I [Malcolm Gladwell] Rediscovered Faith."

"The Surprising Discovery About those Colonializing, Proselytizing Missionaries." (Thanks to Darrell Jackson for the link.)
"We don't have to deny that there were and are racist missionaries," says Woodberry. "We don't have to deny there were and are missionaries who do self-centered things. But if that were the average effect, we would expect the places where missionaries had influence to be worse than places where missionaries weren't allowed or were restricted in action. We find exactly the opposite on all kinds of outcomes. Even in places where few people converted, [missionaries] had a profound economic and political impact."
Nancy Thomas: "My day as a Bolivian Quaker baker."

"Before You Accuse Me." Seemed like a natural for the theme of not bearing false witness! Of all the versions of this song I checked online, I liked this funky old video from Chicago the best, with the late Magic Slim:


Marshall Massey said...

I agree, Johan: the commandment not to bear false witness is a central part of our discipline — and of our very identity as Friends. And it’s an easy thing to forget when we become passionate about something!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Johan. I find your reflections helpful, and those of Don Wilton that you linked to. I have lost contact with my eight-year-old daughter because of the false witness that her mother bore against me in court. Of course, I don't just take your remarks as a vindication of my position, but as a challenge to look at the times in my own life when I too may have bad-mouthed others, and at the continuing temptation to do so.

Yours in friendship