12 September 2008

To Tell a Lie

Friends, is it okay to lie? Can you, as a Quaker, tell a lie? To save your life, or someone else’s?

Do you ever wonder about this question? It’s a significant one, I believe. Many of the old Quaker testimonies are considered out-of-date these days, not appropriate to our more sophisticated and complex times. Most of us don’t wear the funny clothes, or do the funny Quaker-talk much anymore. When’s the last time you kept your hat on in court when the bailiff told you to take it off? But truth-telling is fundamental to integrity, which is arguably the most important Quaker testimony of them all. For me, this question is important because I try to integrate my religious profession into every aspect of my life, and telling a lie would often make my life a whole lot easier. And while I can’t predict the daily difficulties that I might face, I try to consider the ultimate consequences of following through on what I believe.

Probably most of us would agree that it’s wrong to tell a lie for personal gain—to lie on our income tax, for instance. Or to lie about who dropped the cookie jar, or about where you went last night, and who you stayed out late with. You might even say that you wouldn’t tell a lie to save your own life, if it came to that.

So let’s cut to the chase.

You hear a knock on the door. You open it, and it’s your Jewish neighbor. She says, “They’re after me. Will you hide me?” You drag her in, stuff her in the closet, and close the door. Then comes another knock. You open it, and there, resplendent in his uniform, is the local Nazi Party chief, with the police. He says to you, “Good afternoon, Quaker. Do you know where the Jew is?”

Well, what do you do?

This is a very serious question, one that I don’t in any way want to diminish by trotting out the well-worn parable above. The implications are deadly serious. Lying is held to be fundamentally wrong in most cultures, so wrong that it is seldom even addressed as a question. This is true even though those same cultures often routinely excuse or recommend lying as a means of solving difficult social problems (like the one above). Read the Jewish Tanach, in Yisro 20:13:

“You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness against your fellow.”

There have been cultures that interpret this to mean only that you shall tell the truth in certain legal proceedings—both Jewish and Christian. But the Christian interpretation of this Jewish precept has most often been that God informs us that a lie is wrong, anywhere, and if it is wrong to lie in a courtroom, it is just as wrong to lie in the hallway outside, or anywhere else. And of course, there are many Proverbs that condemn a lie.

As for Quakers, in my 1863 copy of The Discipline of the Society of Friends of Ohio Yearly Meeting, it reads under “Conduct and Conversation:

“Such are to be treated with, as are guilty of lying, drunkenness, swearing, cursing; together with other immoral and scandalous practice: and when persons are guilty in these respects, or any of them . . . the said meetings ought speedily to testify against them.”

And in 2001, it reads:

“Carefully maintain truthfulness and sincerity in your conduct, and encourage the same in your families.”

That’s all pretty clear, I think. There’s no fine distinction being made about white lies, or lies for compassionate purposes. Lying, without qualification, is judged to be simply wrong, lumped with immorality and scandal.

Quakers have always interpreted truth in speech as one of our foremost testimonies. In fact, speaking briefly, clearly, and with scrupulous honesty was one of the original meanings of the term “plain speech.” We used to make sure that we didn’t participate in truth rituals in a court of law—it implied a double standard of truth, as if we weren’t enjoined to be carefully honest at all times. And Quakers were historically noted for their honesty, for telling the truth to all people, always. If you’ve been associated with Friends for very long, you know most all of the stories. Honesty and telling the truth are so fundamental to Quakerism that interestingly, Nickall’s Journal of George Fox has no index entries at all for “truth,” “lying,” “honesty,” “integrity,” or anything associated with telling the truth as a testimony, although there are 15 references to “swearing.” Even Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity which mentions lying four times, does so only in other contexts, where it uses the practice to demonstrate that something else is wrong, because it forces the Quaker to lie.

And yet, Quakers hiding escaped slaves from the legal authorities routinely lied to save the fugitives. There were weasel words used to good effect, such as the famous “There are only free people in this house,” meaning that the concealed slave was, of course, actually a free person. I’m afraid that was a lie, but telling it saved lives and meant freedom for the escaping slave. So there is Quaker precedent for personal dishonesty in a more important cause. Or is that what is going on?

But to get back to our question, what do you tell the waiting Nazi? If you say, “The Jew is in the closet,” she dies, and although you have been faithful to one witness, you have betrayed another: that of protecting a fugitive who trusted you. If you say, “She’s not here,” you save her life, at the cost of betraying a command from an omnipotent God. If you refuse to answer, or act stupid, the police will likely search your house and find her anyway. So what do you do?

Let me spell out the question:

Is it, or is it not, appropriate to disobey a commandment of God with the intent of being faithful to another of his commandments? Do we decide which ones he meant us to take seriously, and which ones he meant for us to let slide, if necessary? Or do we follow them all to the letter and let him decide what will transpire?

Are we authorized to disobey one of God’s commandments on the basis of an anticipated tragedy that we think might result from that obedience?

Does God require you to betray his commands in order to be faithful to him, in a larger sense?

It’s worth pointing out here that Jesus himself is never recorded to have told a lie, but didn’t hesitate to overrule Mosaic law when he thought it appropriate.

So, Friends, what do you think?

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