Bearing False Witness

Posted: March 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

When I was a child and was exposed to the requisite Christian education, the ten commandments, of course, were included in the mix. And as far as a rule-based approach to religion it made sense. Conduct yourself in these ways, toward God and toward your neighbor. To not is to violate and harm relationships divine and human. And most of the commandments made rather immediate sense. Don’t murder. Don’t worship things other than God. If you borrow your neighbor’s lawn mower, give it back.

But there was one of them with which I never really connected: “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The cliff notes interpretation from parents was almost, “Don’t lie about your neighbor.” I thought, alright, this is about honesty. Well it was about honesty, but it is about much more than that.

Only in adulthood did I discover the importance of the stricture against bearing false witness. I discovered it through experience, by witnessing people bearing false witness. It was after those encounters that I understood that bearing false witness is a form of violence against another. The implicit deceit harms the neighbor in multitudes of ways, including matters of life and death.

I discovered that false witness could send an innocent person to the gallows. I discovered that false witness could ruin a person’s career, and therefore the ability to earn a living. I discovered that false witness could break the bonds of trust where they were needed most – in families, friendships and even in the church. Especially in the church.

One of my favorite film series has been The Tutors, and I just finished the last episode. I’m chasing the film series with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a historical fiction of the same period of time. Bearing false witness was one of the favorite pastimes in Henry VIII’s court. It inevitably sent people to the Tower of London, and from there to beheading, burning, and one of the real favorites of sadists, drawing and quartering. The interesting thing is that most of the time the accusations, sentencing and executions had only the slightest relationship to truth, innocence or guilt. It had to do with who held power and who used it to get what they wanted. Bearing false witness was a way of life. People could literally lose their heads as a result.

At the heart of false witness is a willingness to lie in order to harm someone and benefit yourself. It is the essence of selfcenteredness.

We see it today in the political realm. People lie. They don’t mind it a bit. And lies are often distortions of the truth and the purveying of half-truths. When directed at people or groups it becomes bearing false witness. Human rights violations are justified with false witness. Innocent people are hacked to death with false witness. Countries are invaded as the result of bearing false witness. People are lynched in the town square after false witness. Some innocent people sit on death row on account of false witness. Individuals  lie and institutions lie with intent to protect themselves at the expense of others. They are all bearing false witness.

So now I know what it means. I also know why it made the big ten. It’s a form of murder, of character assassination. I just discovered another example today. Some people who are guilty as sin have painted an innocent person as a villain. They tell lies to do so.

One of the sad parts, pathetic parts, is that though their deceit may not injure their target as they wish it would,  it is nevertheless corroding their own hearts like battery acid poured on tin. It disfigures the soul of the one doing it, regardless of who is hurt or how much.

Jesus was the object of false witness, of course, as his opposition attempted to discredit him. The Easter story reminds us that though someone may be harmed in the short haul it never seems to stick in the long run because the truth has a way of having the last say. And that’s hopeful, really hopeful, considering our track record and the exceedingly weird creatures that we are.

  1. Broken-hearted parent says:

    I hear you, Tim. My son has been in prison for 7 years because of the false witness of a mentally ill relative. Please pray for us.

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