From nucleus - autumn 1994 - Dionysius Dialogues - Lying, Slander and Gossip [pp29-34]
Nitpickerus: So what is the ninth commandment?
Dionysius: 'You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour'
Nitpickerus: And who is my neighbour?
Dionysius: You're not the first to ask that. According to Jesus it includes even those with whom we have nothing in common. Even our enemies are to be treated as neighbours.
Nitpickerus: Whatever for?
Dionysius: Simply because he loved us when we were his enemies, and expects us to do the same for others.
Nitpickerus: So what actually is giving false testimony against someone?
Dionysius: Lying in some shape or form such that the other person suffers unjustly. It runs counter to the very nature of God. He hates it. In fact under the Old Testament Law if you accused someone falsely and were found out, you suffered the same penalty they would have suffered had they been guilty.
Nitpickerus: So if you accused someone falsely of adultery you got put to death yourself'? Maybe that's why they didn't have tabloid newspapers in those days.
Slander and gossip
Dionysius: The unavailability of paper probably also had something to do with it, but yes. In both Old and New Testaments slander is regarded very seriously indeed.
Nitpickerus: Isn't part of the problem that we may have our facts wrong?
Dionysius: Exactly. The fact that we may be lying about something unknowingly does not exonerate us from all guilt.
Nitpickerus: How then does the Bible get around the problem of one man's word against another's?
Dionysius: There had to be two or three witnesses before a person could be judged guilty. Furthermore everything had to be thoroughly investigated before any accusation was upheld. This is one reason why we mustn't participate in gossip. We can injure people terribly. Of course this doesn't mean that we should make the opposite error of defending and excusing those who are guilty. God hates that too.
Nitpickerus: So the minute we see someone doing something wrong we should blow the whistle on them public?
Dionysius: There's certainly a time for whistle-blowing Nitpickerus, but it's far more in keeping with God's character to quietly give people an opportunity to make amends thernselves, before drawing the matter to wider attention. God is both just and merciful and in turn expects us also to display both these qualities. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Nitpickerus: So we should just let people get away with things?
Dionysius: Not at all. The very opposite is true. If people are suffering unjustly we must be prepared to speak out rather than siding with the crowd. It's just that we should also give the perpetrators of the injustice a reasonable chance to repent before announcing their sins to the world.
Socially acceptable lies
Nitpickerus: It all sounds too difficult Dionysius. It's too easy to make mistakes. Isn't it better just to keep our mouths permanently shut?
Dionysius: It's true that all of us at times make mistakes in what we say. Only Jesus was ever perfect in this regard. Our tongues are the hardest things of all to control, but this doesn't mean that we should keep quiet. We can sin just as much by keeping quiet when we should be speaking, as in speaking out of turn. It's just as bad to fail to defend an innocent person as it is to side with the crowd in heaping false accusation on him. Silence can merely signal complicity.
Nitpickerus: How does this work out in practice? It can be extremely difficult to tell whether people are lying, especially when they themselves are convinced they're telling the truth.
Dionysius: That's the whole point. We are so adept at deceiving people about our true thoughts and motives that sometimes we fool even ourselves. We can't fool God of course. He knows our thoughts and motives better than we ourselves do. Exaggerations, half-truths and misleading silences or ambiguous non-verbal signals can all in effect be lies. Satan deceived Eve with subtle distortions of the truth, rather than blatant fallacies. Shortly afterward she and Adam were doing the same thing to God and blaming one another and the devil for their own sin.
Nitpickerus: I think you're making too much of this Dionysius. Lying, or at least subtle untruths, are endemic in our culture. Can they really be that serious?
Dionysius: Lying is very serious indeed Nitpickerus. Ananias and Sapphira lost their lives for lying, and we are told that those who love and practise falsehood will be excluded from God's kingdom. Jesus was crucified because some people gave false testimony and because others didn't speak in his defence or use their power to release him.
Doctors who lie
Nitpickerus: How do doctors lie?
Dionysius: In many ways: by gossipping partial truths, by giving tacit approval to the same through remaining silent, by misleadingly reporting what they have and haven't done, by 'massaging' research data, by selective presentation of the facts in order to wrongly influence the decision-making of others, by disguising their real motives for adopting a particular course of action.
Nitpickerus: For what reasons?
Dionysius: Why does anyone lie Nitpickerus? There's a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's out of malice: a deliberate attempt to put others down. Sometimes it's out of fear - of damaging their own position or reputation. Often it's out of pride - to cast themselves in a more favourable light in order to gain respect. Sometimes it's out of greed - they think that by distorting the truth they have a better chance of securing something they really want. The problem is that lies have a strange way of catching us out. If we start off by deceiving, we have to tell more and more intricate lies to maintain the deception. Then the whole thing collapses. It's far better to be honest about our mistakes and shortcomings than to get a reputation for being dishonest. We destroy all trust - and trust is essential in medicine.
Nitpickerus: What do you mean?
Dionysius: If patients lie to doctors, how can doctors reach proper diagnoses and plan appropriate treatment? If doctors lie to patients, how can patients make informed decisions? If we are not truthful all trust breaks down and medicine becomes simply another consumer resource where 'client' and 'vendor' are trying to outwit each other for their own advantage.
Nitpickerus. Thus far I agree, but aren't there situations in medicine where the motive for lying is not malice, fear, pride or greed but rather care and concern? Aren't there situations where not telling the whole truth can be done out of a desire to cushion a cruel blow - or where facts may be safeguarded to protect the innocent? I'm reticent to ask this question Dionysius, but isn 't it sometimes necessary to lie in love?
Dionysius: That Nitpickerus, is a question which I think should wait for the next edition of Nucleus.