“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic”—John F. Kennedy.

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At a recent meeting of my presbytery (district church council), one of the preachers present got up and quizzed a commissioner (representative) to last summer’s General Assembly of the PC(USA) about the opening worship. He complained that he had read that the service made a bald political statement (in favor of gays) because it featured “dancing girls wearing rainbow stoles” and because the Table and the cross were both draped with rainbow cloth. He demanded to hear what the commissioner knew about that and what he thought. The man replied only that “we don’t do it like that” in his home town and church.

The intent of the preacher was to stir up yet again suspicion and distrust. Look at the General Assembly! It tolerates lascivious, provocative movement by “dancing girls.” It’s not a religious body, because it promotes the completely political agenda of granting gays and lesbians the right to marry and/or be ordained as elders and ministers! The use of rainbow cloth proves where their loyalties lie! So don’t give money to those idolaters! Question everything! Be on guard because those liberals will corrupt your children and teach them to follow the ways of the God-hating culture!

But guess what? The reality is not so sensational. I went to YouTube and found the 220th General Assembly’s opening worship. Yes, there were young women dancing as part of the processional. But they were tastefully dressed in pure white albs, and besides, dance is recommended over and over in our “Directory for Worship” as enacted prayer and a way of proclamation of God’s Word. They were indeed wearing rainbow stoles, but of only three colors (yellow, red/orange, deep blue), not the many hues of the typical gay pride flag. Does any display or use of a rainbow now signify support of gay marriage? How about the lady I saw in the post office the other day wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt with many colors splashed on it? May I assume she was a lesbian? And of course, the rainbow stoles or the colorful cloth on the Table could not possibly remind us of the rainbow throne in Revelation 4 or the bow in the clouds after the Flood! (The cloth draping the Table seemed to be kente cloth, by the way. If you would like to watch the service, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E72DcVm55J4; the processional starts at about 9 minutes into the video.)

All these details about a Presbyterian meeting are no doubt of interest only to a few Presbyterians. But the larger issue I want to lift up here is how the incident at Presbytery illuminates the tactics of false witnesses, AKA, liars. All these methods are classic.

First, attribute insincere, subversive, malicious or evil motives and/or intentions to those with whom you disagree, while proclaiming the purity of your own heart. So, the General Assembly worship planners and the ministers, elders, musicians, and others on the chancel were not really interested in worshipping God (whatever they said), but in promoting a “political” message of diversity, tolerance, fairness, and inclusion, since God is not interested in such things and Jesus never taught or modeled them. 

But the Westminster Larger Catechism, a traditional Presbyterian standard, reminds us that the ninth commandment (“you shall not bear false witness”) requires us  to have a “charitable esteem of our neighbors” which leads us to a “ready receiving of good report and unwillingness to admit an evil report concerning them.” We are forbidden from “misconstruing intentions” and are warned against “thinking or speaking too highly…of ourselves” and “aggravating smaller faults ((that is, blowing things out of proportion)…unnecessarily discovering of infirmities” and “raising false rumors.”

Next, liars, false witnesses, state the facts, but spin them in such a way as to arouse doubt, suspicion, malice, and hatred in their hearers, all to the benefit of the false witness and his or her agenda. Yes, the procession was led by choreographed females wearing rainbow stoles, twirling colored streamers. But the term “dancing girls” was supposed to conjure images of scantily-clad, lewd bimbos. The mention of rainbows was intended to play on the fears of traditional, conservative churchgoers that their marriages were being undermined by two women wanting to wed or that a gay man would soon be imposed on them by a hierarchical church system as their pastor.

Liars can state facts, and do, but there is more to honesty than a list of numbers or a report on an event. Honesty is about having a true and pure heart, out of which comes a desire for the building up of our neighbors and for the common good, not for the promoting of our own interests.

The Larger Catechism is again helpful.  Someone may speak “the truth,” it reminds us, but do so “maliciously to a wrong end or perverting it to a wrong meaning or in doubtful and equivocal expression, to the prejudice of truth or justice….” Truth-telling is more than stating facts; it’s making sure the truth serves the purposes of the Truth, who embodies love and justice.

Finally, liars, false witnesses, depend on their hearers not being interested enough to follow up and find out the real story or else not having resources or time or energy to track down what really happened and then give a meaning to it. They want people not to know the truth, but to be made afraid or angry. They count on the parochial vision of their hearers, that the latter’s frame of reference and depth and breadth of experience will not extend beyond the way people believe and act in one town or one church. Liars count on people being small and reliant on “those in the know” to tell them how things really are. They do not want anyone to think or explore or examine for himself or herself.

So, in the case of the church assembly, don’t say to the audience: “The whole opening worship service is on YouTube, and you can see for yourself.” No, just expect everyone to trust you, the speaker. That way the members of the audience can go about their pressing business without having their little world intruded upon.

False witness is bad enough in the media and in the courtroom. But when it happens in the church, where people are supposed to emulate the One who said he was “the Truth,” it’s inexcusable.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

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Renault:  And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick:       My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Renault:  Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick:       I was misinformed.

                                                                   —Casablanca, 1942

Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness speaks deceitfully. Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment. Deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil, but those who counsel peace have joy (Proverbs 12:17-20).

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Earlier this month I came out of the Sanderson Center, the large recreational facility at MSU, and was confronted in the parking lot by a couple of young women in a golf cart who had stopped their vehicle in back on my SUV so that I couldn’t leave. “Do you have a parking pass?” the driver asked. I told her I didn’t know I had to have one, since I never did before, and no one had told me otherwise. And what’s more, the whole requirement that I had to have a pass to come work out twice a week was outrageous. None of that mattered to her; I guess she was of the “ignorance of the law is no excuse” mindset. I had to have a parking permit if I came over at least twice a week or five times a year. I knew where to get one, so the only question was how much it would cost me. “I don’t know,” she said, “but I think they’re about $100 a year.”

You can imagine that I was none too happy to hear that. I fumed most of the way back home, then got on the phone as soon as I could to the Sanderson Center membership office, to which I had already paid over $100 for a semester’s worth of visits. I happened to talk to the young man who sold me my renewal, and he confirmed that indeed I had to have a pass. When I confronted him with his failure to tell me that in the first place, he was apologetic, then let me know that the passes were only $1.00 a month. I subsequently got in touch with Parking Services, found out the guy was right, and bought a pass. Problem solved.

The whole incident and sequence of events got me thinking about how important it is to have and give accurate information. The girl in the parking cart could have and should have been briefed on what had to be a FAQ. I would have been OK with her ignorance if she had simply said “I don’t know, but Parking Services will be happy to help you.” Instead she bluffed and gave me misinformation, which brought me distress at the thought of having to spend more money.

How much customer anger, confusion, and lost business could be avoided if the people answering the phone or responding to email inquiries committed either to having ready-at-hand accurate, up-to-date information or else finding out the facts before answering a question? How much teenage fear and foolishness could be avoided if young women and men only had the facts about everything from acne to drugs to puberty to sexuality? How often could church conflicts be cooled if all sides at least agreed to a common set of facts about some hot button issue? How many reputations could have been saved if someone had refused to repeat gossip?

Of course, sometimes people intentionally spread disinformation and misinformation to promote their agendas. Pundits and bloggers do it all the time these days to fan the flames of distrust and suspicion in our society. The lies spread virally over the Internet and pretty soon, the truth is silenced. That’s not just irresponsible; it’s wrong and unethical. It’s bearing false witness. The sad thing is that it is sometimes those who shout loudly about their faith and make a show of it that are the worst offenders.

Giving a wrong answer to someone unintentionally out of ignorance isn’t sinful. But such action can nevertheless have consequences, even hurtful ones, made all the worse when the error is compounded as it is repeated over and over in conversations far removed from the original. So all of us need to make sure we commit to best practices like checking our facts with reliable sources, being cautious when we speak about subjects with which we are unfamiliar, and being willing to admit we don’t know.

As the old saying goes, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham