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Monday, June 4, 2012

On 'Bearing False Witness'

Not long ago I received a rather angry correspondence from a reader who took me to task for what he believed was my "bearing false witness" in an article I wrote at the Examiner.

The subject of the article was the renewed effort of the Obama reelection campaign to monitor social networking sites for anything they consider to be negative against the President. Any criticism of Obama is to be considered an "attack' which must be corrected by the campaign.

Two teams are now employed by the Obama campaign to accomplish this, one called "AttackWatch" and the other "TruthTeam."

The reader had a big problem with my understanding of the nature of this initiative, and thus accused me of "bearing false witness." I assume he meant that I had lied about the Obama reelection campaign, although he did not show any evidence proving that I had done so.

I got to thinking later on, well, maybe the reader actually believes I lied. And even if if he believes it with all his heart, does that automatically make me a "liar?"

The term "bearing false witness" is a Biblical term indicating the telling of untruths against other persons. Let's say, for example, that I start a rumor about my neighbor that she is a meth addict although there is no truth to it whatsoever. That is the meaning of "bearing false witness." It is an intentional act of lying, telling something that I know to be untrue, and the result is potential great harm to my neighbor's reputation.

There is no doubt whatsoever that such a thing is wrong, terribly wrong. It is immoral, hurtful, and a sin against God.

But what if, on the other hand, I tell something about a political campaign that I believe with all my heart to be true but it turns out to be false? Does that qualify as "bearing false witness?"

Actually, no. It simply means I have my facts wrong. But if I believe my information is true at the time I report it, then I have not told a "lie" because there was no intent to deceive.

The terms "lie" and "bear false witness" assume an intent to deliberately deceive.

Thus, if I find that I have reported something that turns out to be untrue, although I believed at the time it was factual, then I am obligated to go back and correct myself. But if I am still convinced that what I said is true, then I have clearly not lied or engaged in bearing false witness.

Several years ago a lady at church told someone in the congregation that I had done some things that I never did, not "bad" things, mind you, but just "things." Although what she said was not particularly hurtful, it was not true.

Now, did that woman "lie" about me? Did she "bear false witness?"

I have known that woman all my life. And I knew that she would never do anything like that deliberately. I knew that she merely got her facts wrong. And I never said anything to her about it because I did not want to cause her distress. She is elderly now, and if I told her that she stated something about me that was not true, she would be most troubled about it, and the whole thing was not important enough to cause such a ruckus anyway. So, I let it drop.

Despite our best intentions we sometimes get our facts wrong on a number of issues. That does not mean we have lied.

In politics in particular it is very easy for people to believe that we have blatantly told an untruth, deliberately. That is the way it sometimes appears to others who may not share our point of view. But in politics so much is determined by perceptions that are based on fact but not necessarily totally factual.

I may perceive that Joe Biden, for example, is a barefaced liar. It may appear that way to me. Thus, if I state that Biden is a liar, I am not bearing false witness. I am merely reporting an impression, a perception. But the thing is, Biden may not be that at all. He may simply get his facts wrong, which, by the way, he is prone to do on a regular basis, not due to any malevolent intent but due to his tendency to make numerous gaffes when speaking in public off the cuff.

I am not going to sit here and tell you that I have never told a lie. I have. But I would like to think that most of the time my intent is not to deceive. I try to be truthful and honest. There are times that I fail miserably.

But I can tell you that when writing a news article on politics, I try my best to be factual, although I admit that my bias is in favor of conservatives. Thus, my perception of the facts is going to be filtered through the lens of that bias. This does not make me a liar. Neither does it mean that someone with a different point of view is a liar.

The man who wrote me the angry letter may be 100% truthful when he says he does not believe the Obama reelection campaign monitors speech for negative statements about the President. I may think he is terribly misinformed but if he believes that what he is saying is true, then he is not a liar. He merely has his facts wrong.

So you see it all boils down to intent, motive.

In the spiritual life, it is important to consider these matters. In an era in which it appears that lying is a way of life for the majority of the population, it is even more vital that Christians make their word their bond. Honesty really is the best policy, and if honesty is unnecessarily hurtful, then it is best to merely keep quiet.

There is nothing wrong with having nothing to say....

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