The Legislature has sent a bill to Gov. Asa Hutchinson that would install a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds using private funds. Already preoccupied with the controversy over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he has not said if he will sign it as of this writing. It’s unknown if the monument would survive the inevitable lawsuit that would follow. If it ever gets built, let’s hope all passersby pay close attention to Commandment #9.
That would be the one that says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
I’ve always thought that commandment referred to an untrue accusation or testimony, in and out of court. Some people simplify the commandment as, “Thou shalt not lie.”
Kevin Thompson, pastor of Fort Smith’s Community Bible Church, had a different take recently on his excellent blog, www.kevinathompson.com. He wrote that the Ninth Commandment doesn’t simply prohibit lying. It means, say only what you know to be true.
“Truth telling” is a higher standard than “not lying.” Lying is purposely distorting the truth. Bearing false witness, on the other hand, can be the result of inattentiveness – saying something that might be true but hasn’t been verified. Repeating a rumor isn’t necessarily lying, but it’s bearing false witness.
The times call for a reexamination of this concept. Modern communication tools enable us to share any fleeting idea that enters our minds from the safety (and often anonymity) of our computer screens. Twitter says that more than 500 million Tweets are sent each day. Facebook says it has 1.4 billion users. You know the saying about a lie being repeated often enough that it becomes the truth? Twitter and Facebook add fiber optic cables to the equation.
Social media is one of many realties of modern life that can help us insulate ourselves in our own, self-selected worlds. Most of us are more likely to “friend” and “follow” people who are similar to us than those who are different than us. We live in red and blue states. Most congressional districts are safely Republican or Democrat, the result of the way the lines have been drawn but also the choices Americans have made. The news media we consume simplify complicated political issues into comic book tales, assuring us that we’re on the heroes’ side. Chances are our neighbors and co-workers have mostly the same beliefs and lifestyles as ours. Until a few decades ago, the rich man and the poor man lived in close proximity, and not that differently. Today, we’re separated by miles, gates and walls.
This reality of modern life makes it easier for false witnesses to be repeated. In our self-assuring cliques, we know we won’t be challenged by different perspectives, so we feel safe in making extreme, provocative, unproven statements. Because there are so few filters, our fellow clique members can safely repeat and amplify these false witnesses.
Feeling superior feels so good, but it doesn’t do much to create a more perfect union. So what is an involved citizen supposed to do?
Ancient Israel was not a democracy, but the Ninth Commandment applies to our society. If you don’t know that President Obama is secretly a Kenyan-born jihadist, don’t say it. Instead, rely on demonstrable facts, such as that the national debt has increased from $11.9 trillion since Sept. 30, 2009 – the first fiscal year over which he might be called responsible – to $18.2 trillion today. Meanwhile, if you don’t know that President Bush had something to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, then don’t make that horrible accusation. Instead, cite a 2013 study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, which found the Iraq War could end up costing more than $6 trillion when future expenses are counted. And then, because truth-telling involves fairness, add that Obama inherited problems that contributed to the rising debt; or that there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9-11, so Bush and Obama must have done something right; or that studies can be wrong.
Kinda hard to fit all that into a 140-character Tweet, isn’t it?
The thing about bearing false witness is that you’re less likely to do it if you keep your mouth shut. That not always being possible, the less said, the better.
So I’m shutting up now. Have a good day, and I mean that truthfully.