Bearing false witness: the defining sin of our era?
Could a society have its own defining sin? My wife Leila addressed that question on her own blog recently, and as usual I think she’s right.
By a “defining” sin I don’t mean to suggest that a particular society is prone to only one type of moral failing. All Ten Commandments are at risk every day, in every time and place where fallen human beings are gathered. Rather, I mean one persistent problem that points toward a weakness of the entire culture.
There have been murders, for instance, since Cain slew Abel. But in the 20th century the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” was violated on a scale the world had never before seen.
We still see killing at a shocking rate. Theft and adultery and covetousness are all too common, while only a minority of those who call themselves Christians bother to honor the Lord’s Day. But of all the commandments, I suggest, the one most conspicuously disregarded in our society today is: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”
We typically think of this commandment as an injunction against lying—which it certainly is. We are warned against all forms of dishonesty: from “spin control” to outright deceit, from the “little white lie” to the Big Lie. Sadly, we notice those offenses frequently; public figures seem especially likely to commit them.
But more specifically, the Eighth Commandment forbids testifying to a falsehood. To swear that something is a fact, knowing that it is not, is the quintessential violation of this commandment. There always have been, and always will be, liars. But it is rare that society’s leaders proclaim a falsehood, and then ask—or demand—that ordinary people do the same.
Yet in America today, our political leaders—led by judges, sworn to uphold the law—told us that a man can marry a man, and a woman can marry a woman, even though such unions cannot possibly qualify for recognition as what people from time immemorial have recognized as marriage. Then, barely pausing for breath, the same leaders have ordered us to recognize girls as boys, and boys as girls, on demand. As good citizens of the secular society, we are expected to accept a claim that contradicts the evidence before us, and embrace that claim as true.
There is another gross violation of the Eighth Commandment: “bearing false witness” by accusing someone of an offense that he did not commit. Sad to say, we have also seen clear cases of this offense, committed by leaders within our own American Catholic community.
When the sex-abuse scandal came to the forefront 15 years ago, we learned to our horror that many bishops—not a few; many—had deceived the faithful by covering up the misconduct of predatory priests. Worse still, when they were confronted with charges of clerical abuse—charges that they knew to be true—many Church leaders not only denied those charges, but accused the people who lodged them of calumny. In doing so, they bore false witness against honest, faithful Catholics who were asking for justice. Since 2002, dozens of bishops have issued public apologies for tolerating priestly misconduct and for covering up evidence of abuse. But has a single bishop ever apologized to the many good Catholics who were accused of recklessly smearing a priest’s reputation, when in fact they were telling the truth?
“Live Not By Lies.” That is the title of a powerful essay by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, dated February 12, 1974. Solzhenitsyn was arrested that very day, and exiled by the Soviet regime the next. In the essay he argued that if ordinary Russians simply refused to accept the lies of the Communist ideology, the corrupt regime could not survive. We now know that he was right.
Truth is a powerful weapon; light is a strong disinfectant. A culture that bears false witness cannot indefinitely withstand the power of simple honesty.
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