Not-Quite-Sunday Catechism: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

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Q: What does the ninth commandment require?

A: The ninth commandment requires us to tell the truth and to maintain and promote it and our own and others’ reputations, especially when testifying.

Lies

The Ten Commandments are not only a foundation for Christian ethics, but also a revelation about the nature of our created humanity. We have seen that we need rest and reflection, order and protocol, commitments and covenants, provision and security. We have seen that we are material beings, with bodies and stuff, but we also have a need to transcend that materiality so that we are not mere objects, something more than things that flicker and pass in a scarce, limited, temporal world.

The ninth commandment suggests to us that are we also social beings. And the foundation of that society is communication, language.

The Hebrew heritage is that they are people of the Word. John calls Jesus the Word made flesh. In the beginning, God speaks and it is so. James says the tongue is the tiny rudder that steers the big ship. There is a power in words we tend to overlook or undervalue; they can make, shape, even redeem reality.

Or distort it. We are told the instigation of original sin begins with a lie: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5) It is a besmirching of God’s reputation, demeaning His character in the flattery of our own. It is a corrosion of wholesome trust and social harmony.

The book of Proverbs repeatedly warns that the enemy of justice is false testimony, whether it is in the form of the finger on the balance, the bribery of power, the false statement in court, or the seductions of shortcuts.

This all suggests to me that the opposite of the truth is not so much an un-truth but cynicism. It is the attitude that people are just statistics and that statistics can be manipulated to serve any purpose. It takes as faith that there is no final perfect justice, that all we have is a brief window of opportunity so every loophole must be exploited, every advantage for one’s solipsistic agenda must be taken, others be damned. Relationships serve only to secure and magnify one’s personal power.

This diminishes not just others, but ourselves as well. When we hype our lives, our skills, our influence, we undergo a stagflation of our actual worth. When we brag and primp and curse and gossip, our words deflate into a toxic currency. I wonder if the curse of Babel is really that everyone adopted different vocabularies and grammars, but actually that no one could really understand what another person was really saying through all the serpentine linguistic maneuvers.

I think we may err when we take children to task for just lying. When we catch them in an un-truth, we pounce on them and then feel the matter is resolved, the lesson is taught.

Our campaign against lies must first be one for the truth. We must teach them that one’s own reputation is to be cherished and preserved. And we must teach them to guard and uphold the reputation of others, even those we dislike or don’t understand. We should constantly guide them to look for the best in others, even and especially while cognizant of our common sinfulness. We should seek opportunities for them to work with others, to deepen their understanding of teamwork, collaboration, and interdependence. We should show them how to prize loyalty while reaching beyond tribalism.

For we have a God that elects us, but died for the whole world, a God who goes to the furthest length because of our value to Him, but that price goes far beyond what we can contribute. We have a God that connects us by blood, but not ours, His. We have a God who preached that the least shall be first and to turn the other cheek. We have a God that promises that the truth will out, that justice will prevail, and that the peacemakers will welcomed as family. We have a God who will turn the goats away, hawing and bleating into the darkness.

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