Lying, Warfare, and Peace

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Deception is an act of war, and the same distinctions that we make between murder and killing must be made between lying and lawful deception. The sinful forms of deception are those which introduce a state of civil war and animosity into communities that ought to be at peace. The ninth commandment is primarily about perjury (although other forms of deception outside of court are certainly subsumed under it). When someone bears false witness against his neighbor, he is introducing a state of settled animosity where there ought to be peace. Paul tells the Colossians that they are not to lie to one another, seeing how they have put off the old man with its evil practices. And this is why the lake of fire is reserved for liars. God hates those who sow discord among the brethren. One of the principal tools in their toolbox is the lie.

But in the course of a just war, deception is not a problem at all. When the Israelites pretended to retreat in the second battle of Ai, this was not a violation of the ninth commandment. When Moses told Pharaoh that he wanted him to let the people go, the request was to let them go for a three-day festival. Neither was this a violation of the ninth commandment. When David pretended to be mad in a foreign court, he was deceiving the king but not breaking the ninth commandment. In addition to that, his action brought us one of the great comebacks in the Bible. “What’s this guy doing here? Did you think I needed more madmen in my entourage? Did you think I had a shortage?” Rahab went over to the Israelites, and the Israelites were at war with Jericho. Her deception concerning the spies was not a violation of the ninth commandment, and, as James teaches us, it was the point of her justification. And when the Hebrew midwives misled Pharaoh on why they were not committing infanticide, neither were they breaking the ninth commandment. In fact, God expressly blessed them for what they did.

So, assume a just war, lawfully conducted. Is it a lie for a tank commander to drive around in a camouflaged tank, telling the enemy pilots he is a bush when in fact he is not a bush? Is it a sin for an undercover operative, crossing a border, to say nothing when the security guards look at his false passport? Should he say, “Thanks for the questions, guys. I have been looking for an opportunity to come clean”? Of course not.

But within the realm where God’s law commands and requires peace from us, of strict necessity, that realm must be a realm of strict truth-telling. And this is where the conditions mentioned in the previous post come into play. If a man says something false, knowing it to be false, and he wants his listeners to believe his statement as though it were true, such a man is a liar. And within the bounds of civil comity, I have no business accusing someone of lying in this way unless I can prove all three.

A man can say something false, believing it to be true. He is not a liar; he is simply mistaken. A man can say something false, knowing it to be false, but he has no intention of anyone taking him at the face value of the words. Such a person would be the one who jokes about the weather, or writes stories in fictional settings that are not “actually” true. Jesus told parables, and He is truth incarnate. This shows us that truth has to be more than a matter of simple correspondence to the world outside. Note that I said more than simple correspondence — not less. But for those who have a hermeneutic made out of rough cut fir, this kind of “subtlety” just exasperates them. And was I lying when I intimated that some people actually have a hermeneutic that is made out of wood? No, because the Bible teaches us that one of the best ways to communicate truth is by means of caricature and gross overstatement (camels and needles, blind leading blind, beam and mote, etc.). The fact that some people are so literal-minded that they do not get the jokes (including the jokes of Scripture) does not make those who use such expressions liars. If there is no intent to deceive, there is no lie. One time, years ago, we put in the masthead of Credenda a statement to the effect that all the articles had been screened for heresy by some cool software that we had. When we got a letter asking about the software, no one was more astonished than we were. But the problem here is not the use of jokes, figures of speech, parables, and so forth. The Scriptures point us in this direction. In the beginning was the Word, not the Pristine Formula. Banishing all fiction, poetry, metaphors, etc. as essential carriers of ultimate truth is how modernity went so grievously astray. And so the Word brings with Him all that lawful words do. Truth is far more textured than modernists think.

The irony here (as I mentioned in the first post) is that I do not have to teach anyone how to make these distinctions. We make them ourselves, naturally and readily, provided we are the ones accused of being a liar. We were probably able to make all the distinctions about knowledge and intent at the age of two. Our willfulness, our stubbornness, and all the real problems, come when we (for political reasons) refuse to extend the charity of these same distinctions to others, including our adversaries.

Because lying is at bottom an act of war, this is why God hates it so much. The Bible says that He hates a lying tongue. And, flipping it around, this is why unfounded accusations of lying are so destructive. Such assertions set people at odds, they introduce conflict, they stir up mayhem in the world of relationships. It is a weighty thing to call a man a liar, and involves far more than the simple claim that you believe him to be in error.

Now, stay with me one minute more because this is the tricky bit. A number of people have been industriously trying to build up a cottage industry of accusing me of various kinds of nefarious business, and included in my alleged skullduggery is lying. Now, when these people accuse me of lying, are they lying? Applying the standards I have outlined above, I can’t say so. They might be, but I can’t prove it so I shouldn’t say it. Someone is a liar when they know that I have spoken the truth, and they say, contrary to this, that I have lied, and they do this in order to get other people to believe it. And if all these conditions pertain (making such a person a liar), and I cannot prove that they pertain, then I still should not make the accusation. In other words, when someone accuses me of perjury (as was done), I can and must say, “This charge is false.” But why would someone bring such a false charge? Lying is one possibility, but there are many others. The other motives that might provoke such a false charge against someone are almost never noble, but this is just another way of saying that lying is not the only sin in the world of defamation.

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