“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
What does this mean?
“We should fear and love God, and so we should not tell lies about our neighbor, nor betray, slander, or defame him, but should apologize for him, speak well of him, and interpret charitably all that he does.”
Much has been made about the connection between the 2nd and 8th commandments. God wants His name protected, and God wants to protect our names, too.
I have often used this example with middle school students. Suppose you are a student in a large school where it is almost impossible for everyone to know everyone else’s name. A teacher sees a student misbehaving in the hallway between classes. What a difference it makes if she knows your name. Once your anonymity has disappeared, then, there is power in a teacher knowing your name. The teacher now connects misbehaving with your name. Once that happens your name bears a certain reputation – fairly or not.
The 8th commandment is among the commonest broken, and people do it with impunity right up until the moment it gets so out of hand that the recipient of false witness decides to sue the speaker or writer for slander or libel.
We have often seen how a news story gets major play in the media only later to be proven to be untrue or the facts significantly different than portrayed. If there is a retraction, it is presented almost invisibly – hidden in a small paragraph tucked away almost invisibly.
We have become accustomed to the sleaziest kind of political advertisements that, again, rate a high Pinocchio factor. In Logics 101 you learn that the ad hominem (personal) attack is a logical fallacy. Too many voters, like sheep, are led astray by ads that don’t pass the 8th commandment test.
In church circles, the 8th commandment gets broken so regularly that a lot of Christians don’t get that they have just committed a kind of murder – destroying the neighbor’s good name. Let me be clearer. When we destroy a person’s good name by attributing to the person the worst kinds of motives or attributes or behaviors, we are, in essence, taking that person’s life as it was before we bore false witness.
Pastors, like other leaders, are often sinned against by wagging tongues. We get so used to it that we stop defending against a goodly amount of it right up until someone attacks our families, and then that’s when the gloves come off, as it were.
In childhood and well into adulthood, I used to grieve deeply over false witness borne. In time, I came to remember what Mom or Dad used to say: “Consider the source.” Those that bear false witness don’t realize that, in so doing, they are making a kind of name for themselves that is less than flattering. To be known as a gossip is a terrible thing. To be known for constantly maligning others, now that’s an even worse reputation.
Rabbi Ed Friedman wrote a number of leadership books about family systems in which he compared synagogues and churches to families. Leaders ought not to let others define them (usually unfairly). Rather leaders need to say who they are and what they are about and to stay in touch with those with whom they have conflicts. Good leaders aren’t always liked, but they are usually respected. Good leaders don’t allow others to get away with speaking half-truths and outright lies. They do that not by personal attacks but by, again, saying who they are, what they believe, and what they will and will not do.
It is not bearing false witness to tell the truth when we have all the facts. It is breaking the 8th commandment when we assume the worst and say the worst about our neighbor. Luther makes the point that we ought to err on the side of generosity when speaking of our neighbor. It’s still breaking the 8th commandment if we say something like, “Sally may be adulterer, but she sure dresses nicely.”
All sin and fall short of God’s glory. The very public sins of others can be an occasion for self-examination to see whether we have failed or are close to failing in such a way. These can be cautionary tales especially when teaching our own children about temptation and the dangers of giving in to our old Adam or Eve. The book of Proverbs is filled with warnings about such recurring dangers for the young and not so young.
If we sin, we ought to confess it within a private confession or within a confidential relationship with a sister or brother in Christ. A good confessor will always help us to examine how we moved from temptation to full-blown sin and then encourage us in the amendment of life while offering the assurance of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
A dear friend once failed publicly and received a great punishment from his superior. Of course, even after significant work at amending his life, the superior refused for the issue to be done with once and for all. There was a kind of formal forgiveness without mercy. My friend said, “I’ve come to that place where I know that I have confessed my sin, amended my life, and have received God’s forgiveness. I won’t allow anyone to continue to treat me as if I haven’t confessed, made amendments, and been forgiven.” And so my friend no longer had any expectation of a healed relationship with his former superior, and he got on well with his life. Eventually, the former superior got his own public humiliation for his own failures. What goes round comes round!
There’s a great lesson in that story. When we make a lot over the supposed or actual failures of others, we’re usually turning a blind eye to our own. Pride goeth before a fall!
Luther writes: “This commandment, then, embraces a great multitude of good works which please God most highly and bring abundant blessings if only the blind world and the false saints would recognize them. There is nothing about a man or in a man that can do greater good or greater harm, in spiritual or in temporal matters, than this smallest and weakest of his members, the tongue” (Large Catechism, Tappert 404:290-91).