Last Tuesday night, during Donald Trump’s press conference after his primary victories in Michigan, Mississippi and Hawaii, he said these words, “Politicians are serious liars. More importantly, they will never take you to the Promised Land.”
There are numerous political fact-checking organizations in the U.S. whose purpose is to verify the truth of statements made by politicians. For example, Politifact’s Truth-O-Meter categorizes statements made by our 2016 presidential candidates into six categories: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False and Pants on Fire. Of course, fact-check organizations are often biased themselves, which causes us to throw our hands up in the air and say, along with Pilate, “What is truth?
Politicians are not the only liars among us. According to a March 2015 Harvard Negotiation Briefing, adults lie in roughly 20% of their everyday interactions (“In Negotiation, Is ‘Benevolent Deception’ Acceptable?”). Have you ever told an untruth? Have you ever deliberately lied about something? Have you ever intentionally withheld a piece of information that, if known, would adversely affect you? When was the last time you told a white lie, a harmless fib meant to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or make you look better?
As I struggled last week with the temptation to “soften the truth” in an interaction with another person, I was reminded that lying is part of the human condition. Yes, we are called to speak the truth at all times, but our lesser nature seeks to explain away our tendency to fudge, tell half-truths and leave out important facts. Our tendency as humans beings to take liberties with the facts and/or admit when we are wrong has been called “being economical with the truth.”
This phrase entered contemporary language in 1986 during the Australian “Spycatcher” trial when it was used by United Kingdom Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong. Armstrong was giving evidence against a former intelligence officer Peter Wright. Wright had written a book, Spycatcher, which revealed some things that the British security services alleged were breaking the intelligence officer’s oath under the Official Secrets Act.
In 1986, Armstrong was the key witness for the British government as it sought to suppress the publication of Spycatcher in Australia. The misleading evidence given by Armstrong under oath was widely panned by the British press for its ambiguity and even deceptive nature. The following exchange took place under cross-examination.
Lawyer: What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie?
Armstrong: A lie is a straight untruth.
Lawyer: What is a misleading impression – a sort of bent untruth?
Armstrong: As one person said, it is perhaps being “economical with the truth”.
That “one person” was Edmund Burke, who wrote in 1796, “Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever. But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth.”
Jesus had something to say about our predilection for being economical with the truth.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37)
Swearing oaths has played an important role in societies throughout history, especially in the ancient world, including Israel. An oath is made up of two elements. The first part is a promise to perform some act or to tell the truth. The oath is made by touching or holding a sacred object. The second part of the oath is a divine sanction or consequence for lying. The rationale is that the promise is made in the presence of a god who will punish intentional falsehood. An oath could thus be called a “conditional curse”.
Oaths were taken on all sorts of objects and for all occasions in order to establish truth and thus preserve stability in a given society. Today we experience oaths when a president is inaugurated or a public figure is sworn into office. Oaths are also taken when someone is required to be a witness in a trial or gives sworn testimony in a deposition. The left hand touches a Bible, the right hand is raised, and we are asked to repeat, “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” And what is the punishment when a witness lies on the stand? He or she may be convicted of perjury and could be fined, imprisoned or even impeached.
The perennial problem with oaths throughout history is that we end up with two levels of truth. A person who tells the truth under oath feels free to be economical with the truth the rest of the time. That’s why Jesus states clearly in Matthew that we should not swear oaths. Christ-followers are called to transparency and honesty at all times, not just when swearing oaths. May our “yes” always mean “yes,” and our “no” always mean “no.”
For the first three centuries, the early Christians followed Jesus’ example by refusing to swear oaths. As a consequence, Christians by the thousands were tortured and killed for speaking the truth about their faith. Once Christianity became the state church of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, empire and Christianity became one and the same. By the sixth century, everyone was required to belong to the church, pagans suddenly became Christians, and the habit of swearing oaths became commonplace.
It was the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century that returned a small part of Christianity to the practices of Jesus and the early church. The Mennonites and Amish refused to swear oaths and insisted on never being economical with the truth because Jesus said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’.” Since the Anabaptists believed that oaths were not Christian and did not lead to a truthful society, they were persecuted and even martyred for their faith.
As we move toward a presidential election in November, many of us become more confused by the day. Candidates spin the truth to suit the desires of their constituencies, statistics are spewed out as facts without proof and lies/exaggerations are spread about other candidates at will. Misleading impressions, bent untruths, and being economical with the truth abound.
At the same time as we decry the state of politics, ordinary citizens continue to cheat on their income taxes, insurance fraud drains $50 billion from insurers every year, and Internet scams net billions of dollars a year. We are economical with the truth to suit our own purposes and perpetuate divisions among people, organizations and even religions by insisting that we have the only truth. Liar, liar, pants on fire.
As we move through the season of Lent toward Holy Week, what is the truth of the gospel? As we witness Jesus being true to himself and his call from God, how is God calling us to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ? What is the truth of The United Methodist Church? Can we repent of our desire to be economical with the truth when we seek to mold Christ’s church into our own image? Can we celebrate the grace of difference and the wind of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wills?
What is the truth of our lives as Christ-followers? Will we embody courage, self-emptying and humility as we seek to embrace the complexity of our world? Will we model the insistence of Jesus that we be united in love for all or will we, like Pilate, wash our hands? Who will take us to the Promised Land? There is only One. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.