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Thou shalt not bear false witness – even in cyber space

2012/02/17

Gustave Doré, Moses and the Tablets

It should be a grave concern to priests and pastors of all churches that so many of the faithful seem to have forgotten the commandment to not bear false witness against one’s neighbor (the eighth commandment in the Augustinian tradition, the ninth according to the Greek Fathers). In this era of social media, rapid information flow, and endless cyber chatter, the command against false witness has become challenging, for sure, but not for that reason any less relevant. Unfortunately, priests and pastors are  part of the problem. Too many of us appear more than happy to join in the veritable orgies of hateful speech, slander, and scurrilous repetition of unchecked facts that are such a substantial part of our social media. Others simply let grievous offences pass without comment. Too few are those who remind their fellow cyber denizens that speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph 4:15), and that this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 Jn 4:21). We all need to do better.

Below, I have included some the relevant catechetical sections on the eighth commandment from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Luther’s Large Catechism, and the Catechism of St. Philaret of Moscow (where it is recorded as the ninth). Clearly there is close to universal recognition that, what may easily be observed as a daily reality in cyber space is a serious spiritual problem.

The polarized political debate in the United States and the challenge of Islam are perhaps the two primary enablers of venomous vitriol from individuals who confess Christ. We are all too willing, even eager, to accept as fact that which accords with our own personal perspectives and prejudices. Often we hide our prejudices behind facades of righteousness, solidarity and love–for the poor, for the faith, for embattled Christian communities in the Middle East. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). Such sentiments of solidarity are not necessarily pretenses, but they do not right the wrong. Just as it is not my place to forgive a wrongdoer on behalf of the person who has been wronged, neither is it my right to use the wrongdoer’s offense to slander and attack him, nor to do so against those who look, sound or are otherwise related to the wrongdoer; be they Republicans, Democrats, Muslims or anything else. We also need to bear in mind that when we repeat falsehoods about other people, even when they are bona fide enemies of the faith and even though we may do it unwittingly, we are in breach of the eighth commandment.

A small selection of what I have come across on Facebook, posted by Christians in the last week includes the statement that “the Republicans are trying to kill the poor.” That the Democrats are trying to “destroy religion in America.” That “the Muslims are backward” and “savages” who are “at war with Christianity.” That “we have to speak up against the Muslims.” Also, uncritical regurgitation as “facts” gleaned from books and articles that are clearly designed to attack, not enlighten and inform.

Using these examples–is it reasonable to assume that all Republicans want to kill the poor? That all Democrats want to destroy religion in America? That all Muslims are backward savages and consider themselves to be at war with Christianity? The answer is very clearly no, those are not reasonable assumptions. They are blanket statements that condemn entire categories of people without care for (and therefore without love for) persons; not allowing for diversity or nuance, relying on partisan prejudice instead of facts that have been properly checked and verified.

Fact checking seems like an antiquated practice in this day and age, but is nevertheless crucial. Simply seeing a piece of reporting online or some collected factoids in an e-mail, or a statement in a FB thread and assuming them to be correct is not enough. The fast pace of social media and the sheer volume of stuff that gets posted, mailed, tweeted and so forth is problematic, but failing to make sure whether something I intend to pass on as fact is correct is nevertheless an very problematic omission.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with my statement that the assumptions above are unreasonable, the next step is fact checking. What are these claims based on? Who makes these claims, for what purpose? Are there facts that support these claims independent of the person who made the claim? Etc. Fact checking is hard. Well, that’s tough, something being hard does not exempt us from having to do it. Is there a perfect procedure for checking fact? No, there never was and today’s challenges have not made it easier. What is required is intellectual integrity and honesty. Self-policing. Am I truly trying to establish whether something is true or false, or am I simply looking for other factoids to support my claim? This is every individual’s personal moral choice.

Those who are unwilling to engage in honest fact checking are presumably comfortable with keeping their prejudices unchallenged, and that insight should point them to a frivolous relationship with truth that is spiritually problematic. Those who are too busy to check facts have an easy option of respecting the eighth commandment by simply refraining from passing on something that they do not know to be true.

After checking our facts, the last step is to sit back, take a deep breath and ask why it is important to pass something on, and what effect it has, on others and on oneself. Am I posting something out of love and concern, or am I posting it in anger and out of hatred? Will this inform or merely enrage? Our God-given moral compass informs us of the crucial difference between constructive and destructive behavior – and it really does matter. The unbridled need to vent, which is such a defining feature of social media, is tantamount to abandonment of Christian responsibility before God and neighbor. May the Lord have mercy on us all.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. This moral prescription flows from the vocation of the holy people to bear witness to their God who is the truth and wills the truth. Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: they are fundamental infidelities to God and, in this sense, they undermine the foundations of the covenant” (2464). It goes on to state:

2477    Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty: 
- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor; 
- of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
- of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478    To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. and if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved. (Inter mirifica. 5.)

In a section dealing specifically with social media, the CCC states that “The means of social communication (especially the mass media) can give rise to a certain passivity among users, making them less than vigilant consumers of what is said or shown. Users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media. They will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences” (2496).

Luther’s Large Catechism notes that “this commandment forbids all sins of the tongue whereby we may injure or approach too closely to our neighbor. For to bear false witness is nothing else than a work of the tongue… Here belongs particularly the detestable, shameful vice of speaking behind a person’s back and slandering, to which the devil spurs us on… there is a great difference between these two things, judging sin and knowing sin. You may indeed know it, but you are not to judge it… Those, then, are called slanderers who are not content with knowing a thing, but proceed to assume jurisdiction, and when they know a slight offense of another, carry it into every corner, and are delighted and tickled that they can stir up another’s displeasure [baseness], as swine roll themselves in the dirt and root in it with the snout. This is nothing else than meddling with the judgment and office of God, and pronouncing sentence and punishment with the most severe verdict.”

The Catechism of St Philaret of Moscow, which follows the practice of recording this as the ninth commandment, instructs the faithful thus:

597.     What is forbidden by the ninth commandment?
False witness against our neighbor, and all lying.
598.     What is forbidden under the words false witness?
1. False witness in a court of justice; when men bear witness, inform, or complain falsely against any one.
2. False witness out of court, when men slander any one behind his back, or blame him to his face unjustly.
599.     But is it allowable to censure others when they are really to blame?
No; the Gospel does not allow us to judge even of the real vices or faults of our neighbors, unless we are called by any special office to do so, for their punishment or amendment.
Judge not, that ye be not judged. (Matt vii. 1.)
600.     Are not such lies allowable as involve no purpose of hurting our neighbor?
No; for they are inconsistent with love and respect for our neighbor, and unworthy of a man, much more of a Christian, who has been created for truth and love.
Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbor; for we are members one of another. (Eph. Iv. 25.)
601.     If we would avoid sins against the ninth commandment, what rule must we follow?
We must bridle our tongue. He that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak, no guile. (1 Pet. Iii. 10.) If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. (James i. 26.)

James Tissot, The False Witnesses

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