“Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness”

The Ten Commandments are suffering from neglect these days. Turn on your television and you can find lots of idolatry, taking God’s name in vain, killing, stealing, lying, adultery, coveting … 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Christians lament this state–and the fact that these attitudes are present not just on television, but in churches as well. It’s easy to point fingers at those who don’t keep all the commandments we do. But sometimes we need to look in the mirror and see if there is a place where we are falling short.

I got to thinking about this as a result of a conversation about the issues in the previous post. Some Christians were jumping on the news about the proposal by atheists Hitchens and Dawkins to have the pope arrested. They said, “We might not like what these guys normally say and do, but they’re right here!” They were willing to believe the accusations of the press and a pair of sensationalistic atheists, and dismissed any reference to the facts as my attempt to be an “apologist for the Catholic Church.” When I pointed to Benedict’s response, calling for repentance, and an eye on God’s law, and the coming judgment, that merely gave more fuel to their fire–“It’s the wrong kind of repentance, the wrong view of God’s law, the wrong view of the judgment!” They were unwilling to give the man any credit for anything, or to acknowledge there was anything they might have in common with him.

In their zeal for “all the commandments of God,” I think they were missing one–“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” I don’t mean to single them out. I think they are pretty typical of “apologists” in many Christian churches who build up their own views by tearing down what they represent as the beliefs of others. It’s as if apologetics is a zero-sum game that requires taking away from the other in order to score points for ourselves.

I think the commandment against bearing false witness is applicable in such situations. We might rephrase it thus: “When in dialogue or debate, do not misrepresent the beliefs or actions of the other person.”

When I teach Introduction to World Religions, I begin with a lecture that makes this point in a different way. I say my goal in the class is not to get them to think that all religions are the same (they are not), or to change their own theological beliefs. My goal, I say, is to get them to the point where they can talk about the beliefs of someone else in such a way that the other person can recognize themselves in the description and agree that we have represented their beliefs accurately.

So I’d ask you the same question. If you are a Catholic, can you represent the teachings of Protestants accurately, and not merely repeat old slurs and misrepresentations? If you are a Protestant, can you do the same thing when discussing Catholicism? Can you get your quotes about what the other believes from his own sources, and not from attack sites that give you ready (if questionable) ammunition?

Another way of putting this is to refer to Jesus’ command: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

You will not get someone to think their position is wrong if you cannot describe it accurately–you are aiming at a false target. You have created a “straw man.” You can hack at it all you want, and the person will be able to say, “Well, yeah, you’re right, that’s a wrong idea. I don’t believe it either.” Or, “If you can’t honestly talk about my beliefs and my faith, why should I consider your ideas?”

“Thou shalt not bear false witness.” That means you shall speak the truth about others. And Paul says we must speak that truth in love (Eph. 4:15).

Luther puts these things together to give us this interpretation of the commandment. “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything” (or, in another translation, “interpret charitably all that he does”).

How differently would our discussions proceed if we did that? How more fruitful might our attempts at evangelism or apologetics be if we followed that advice? Then people might say of us, as they said of Christians in a bygone era, “See how these Christians love one another!”