False Witness

The one about lying. Because ultimately, that is what it means to bear false witness…

IX. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Today we are on to the ninth commandment. The one about lying. Because ultimately, that is what it means to bear false witness.

There were actually two different Hebrew words used in this commandment – one in Exodus and one in Deuteronomy. The word for “false” in Exodus means lying or untrue. The one in Deuteronomy means empty, frivolous, insincere. Quite similar. Nevertheless, the distinctive definitions offer us greater understanding of what precisely God is getting at here. Because sometimes, it’s not all in good fun.

So, some history. There are three main things you need to know about the Jewish legal system when it comes to this commandment. The first is something quite remarkable about how the system sought to protect those accused: no one could even be accused or found guilty without two, count them, two witnesses against them. Hearsay, also didn’t count. Quite a bit different from our current system. This has both its blessings and curses to it.

Next: if you were found guilty of bearing false witness against another, you would be held liable for the same sentence that they were facing – and then some. So, for example, if the person on trial was facing forty stripes (being whipped forty times), then the person found to be lying about their guilt would be whipped eighty times instead. In other words, false witness was taken quite seriously.

Last, if someone has evidence to give, but does not speak up, they are guilty of a sin against God. Their silence is not neutrality. It is sin. Not doing anything when one is able to is sin. Period.

So, let’s think about some situations where lies and false witness play into our stories…

A child is sitting with her grandmother at the dinner table. And when her grandmother uses the phrase “colored” to refer to someone of African descent, the child begins to correct her before being kicked under the table by her mother. Even though her mother has often taught her the importance of overcoming prejudice. And when her grandmother asks what she was saying, she responds, “I said, ‘I love you.’”

A young man, finally ready to fully accept who he is, tells his parents. But his father responds, “Um, yeah, can you just wait to do this until next year when you’re away at college?”

A grown woman sits at the conference table in the executive suite of an office building and is about to share her opinion about the new account when her male colleague cuts her off and asks her to go get some coffee.

A teacher who loves working with kids and is excellent at his job is falsely accused of hurting one of those children. He is fired from his job, lives with the aftermath of the accusation for years, and is never hired in his field ever again.

A young woman is assaulted by a pledge from a fraternity. When she speaks to her friends who are older members of that fraternity, they convince her not to go to the authorities in order to protect the brotherhood from any fallout. Though the pledge was terminated from the fraternity, he goes on to become a Resident Advisor and uses his position of authority to take advantage of other young women.

You see, there are countless ways that lies, insincerity, seemingly frivolous moments can cause irreparable harm. Sometimes when someone intentionally accuses falsely. But also, far more times, when we are too uncomfortable with the truth and we use falsehoods and lies to make ourselves more content. We choose ignorance while ignoring what makes us uneasy. We choose perfect pretense when our integrity is crumbling beneath us. Oh, the messes we make.

After my father died when I was little, one of my favorite movies became A Few Good Men. I think it was because my father was a JAG attorney for just about his entire adult life and somehow that movie helped me feel close to him (even if it was the wrong branch). 

For those who don’t remember or who have never seen the film, the movie is a murder-mystery about the death of Marine William Santiago at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Two men, Lance Corporal Harold Dawson and Private Louden Downey, are on trial for his murder. And a young Tom Cruise ends up being their attorney. It’s honestly an all-star cast, even Kevin Bacon is in it (so yes, you can play that game). And the question the attorneys face is two-fold: did the accused intentionally kill the young marine? And did someone higher up order them to do what they did?

By the end of the movie, we find that they two young men are in fact not guilty of Santiago’s murder, because, indeed there had been quite a coverup and a whole lot of lies happening down at Gitmo. However, there was a third charge on the roster that was never addressed by their attorneys. And as a child, it was the part of the movie that I never fully understood. They were charged with “conduct unbecoming.” And one of the young men does not understand why he is guilty, feeling he has done nothing wrong because he was just following orders. But his compatriot explains it to him: “We were supposed to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willy [the deceased].” 

You know, I get it. Sometimes it is really difficult to figure out which way is up these days. A whole lot of lies are headed our way and sometimes it is very hard to decipher fact from fiction. All of us are facing that same challenge right now.

But a wise sage once suggested that “we must all choose between what is right and what is easy.” So here are my suggestions, my friends. First, always be sure that you are not just taking your own easy way out. Protect your integrity. Protect your relationship with God. Do your best not to sin. Do not remain silent when it really matters.

And second, remember that the question we should always ask ourselves is are we putting love first. Does whatever we are choosing to do, to think, to say, does it choose love over hate, over ignorance, over lying, over false witness, over perfect pretense? At the end of the day, if love is our first choice, the rest will fall into the place. If we learn to let love rule, let it open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, and to finally pull our heads out of the sand, then, well, we might finally find our way forward together. Using our voices to support and empower one another as we grow in God’s kingdom of new life.

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