Friday, October 25, 2013

Thou Shalt Not Lie

When I was a child, one day I started throwing rocks into the deep end of our pool for no apparent reason other than it seemed fun at the time.  I knew not to throw rocks into the pool.  When asked about the rocks I said that the boy next door had done it.  Of course, it did come out that I had done it.  My father (I learned this later because I still don't remember my dad talking to me but I remember the huge impact it had on me), sat me down and told me how terrible lying is and that President Nixon had to resign because of the lies he told. That event and the talking to made a huge impression on me.  My wife will tell you that I am too honest.  It is not completely true of course.  I can lie particularly by omission but as a rule I cannot abide by lying.

I have written about this before in terms of youth below the age of 13 lying about their birth date to get on Facebook.  I still feel that if we want to teach our children honesty and to be honest then we have to practice it (even if we think the arbitrary age of 13 is ridiculous, I disagree with having to be 21 to drink alcohol but I wouldn't encourage an 18 year old to drink or to lie about their age to do so).  So I am not a fan of lying - not sure anyone would say they were but I know that being lied to sets me off in a way that few other things do.

So why this long introduction and exactly what is the point today?  Well our society seems to be awash with lies, particularly in the arenas where we most need reliable sources of truth.  Currently there is a nasty battle going on here in Virginia with the Governor race.  We just witnessed the fiasco of the government shut-down and debt ceiling crisis.  Our political ads are filled with lies and designed to mislead.  We have had news sources say it is not their job to correct the lies that are passed off as facts.  It is particularly true when it comes to the Affordable Care Act that the false and misleading information is rampant.  We are raising our children in a culture that says it is okay to lie in order to win.

Even our religious leaders are not immune, particularly when they venture into the region of politics.  The head of the Family Research Council has the audacity to state that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures don't require care for the least of these.  One quote from Isaiah illustrates how wrong he is: Isaiah 1:17

Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

Clearly Israel is being punished not because of their lack of worship or prayer.  They are being punished because they are not caring for the least of these (these 'least' in Isaiah's Israel and still today in our country are children and single parents).

Lying is explicitly in the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:16) and it has to do with bearing false witness.  Our political system however is currently predicated on bearing false witness.  Unfortunately we also have a news culture that is tending toward the same in the name of presenting the most extreme views and calling it balanced reporting.  So we will have a conservative evangelical Christian with a view of Scripture as inerrant and an atheist who thinks all religion is harmful.  That is not balanced reporting! It is shock reporting or looking for great viewer ratings. It is a cultural phenomenon to have a political culture and news culture that promotes bearing false witness.

So what is the average person to do?  In reality we are left on our own to sort through the various myriad speeches, ads, news coverage and try to come to a conclusion.  We hope it is a reasonable one.  Yet this whole system is predicated on fear, fear of the other, fear that someone will take what little you or I have.  If we are kept in a constant state of fear then it makes it more difficult to sort out the lies.  Over and over in history we can see how at the core of our worst atrocities, worst genocides were the lies told to keep people in fear. The German people were lost and broken after World War I and Hitler gave them targets to blame and to fear.  The Bosnian Serbs convinced people that  Bosnian Muslims and Croatians were fundamentally different and inferior and should be destroyed.  In this country Native Americans and African Americans have been similarly treated.

Lies and fear keep people in closets. These lies are not just the ones that come from the outside in (like the lie that being gay is simply a sinful choice); lies are also internalized (internalized racism, sexism or homophobia) and the lies we tell ourselves are some of the most dangerous.  Humans have a remarkable capacity to deny facts even when they are right in front of them.  Like the people in Germany who lived around the concentration camps.  Like those in South African cities that didn't think Apartheid was all that bad.  Like those of us in this country that refuse to believe that innocent people go to jail; that our justice system works equally for people of all races and that poor people are really just lazy and make poor choices.

So what are we to do?  How do we resist this culture of lying?  Well I think it begins by asking critical questions of the news and news stories we receive.  It begins by asking whose voices are not being heard.  Maybe it begins with refusing to believe any political ad, turning them off, and doing the hard work of reading a candidate's platform.  Let's move beyond the tweet and the sound bite when it comes to making decisions about who to vote for.  It begins with being truthful with ourselves. What lies are we telling to ourselves? to our spouses/partners? to our children?  What do we refuse to see?  What do our communities refuse to see?  Do we refuse to see the poverty of our neighbors (or maybe even the members of our faith communities)?  Do we refuse to see how our privilege of skin color, sexual orientation, gender, class, education that insulates us from the suffering and oppression of others?

We must emerge from denial and face ourselves, our communities and our world with honesty.  We must bear witness.  In every act of suffering, genocide, and oppression, the largest number of people are guilty of refusing to see the truth, refusing to bear witness.  Part of the duty of not bearing false witness to actually bear witness. It is the story of the mouse and the elephant as explained by Desmund Tutu.  If an elephant has its foot on the tail of the mouse, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

How can you stop bearing false witness?  To what must you bear witness?