“Be careful, little lips, what you say. Be careful, little lips, what you say. For the Father up above is looking down in love. Oh, be careful, little lips what you say”
–Children’s song; author unknown
It seems that “fake news” and accusations of fake news are ubiquitous these days, especially on social media. People see items on their news feeds and pass them on without thinking about whether they are true, whether they are helpful, whether they are kind. Sometimes these are silly, entertaining, and innocent fun (cute pet videos anyone?) but other times they are a form of character assassination that can have very harmful consequences.
“Bearing false witness” is not really synonymous with “lying”, as I was taught as a child. In some translations, it reads “give false testimony”. Essentially, the commandment is prohibiting perjury. It is accusing someone of a crime they did not commit, and it was treated very seriously in Mosaic law. “If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
Both bearing false witness and lying in general are listed as abominations, right up there with murder, in this proverb: “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.”
Jesus often broadened the meaning of the commandments rather than applying them in a strict legalistic sense. For example, the commandment against adultery didn’t just mean having sexual intercourse with someone else’s spouse: it meant thinking about it. The commandment against murder didn’t just mean lying in wait and killing someone; it meant harboring hatred against someone. Jesus looked beyond overt behaviors to the attitudes that led to them. As another proverb goes, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Jesus wasn’t too impressed when people used legalistic interpretations of the commandments to get away with doing something that was counter to the intent of the commandment. For example, he condemned the practice of declaring something “corban” so as to avoid responsibility for caring for parents. He condemned the practice of using verbal technicalities to get out of keeping one’s promises. Rather than specific rules that could be cleverly twisted to one’s advantage, Jesus taught principles. For Jesus, the principle underlying all the commandments was what we know as the “Golden Rule:” In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the prophets.”
Paul echoed the same principle when he wrote to the Romans, “The commandments “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and any other commandments, are summed up in this one decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law. If you apply the principle “love does no wrong to its neighbor” to the rule “thou shalt not bear false witnesss”, you will realize that its meaning goes far beyond refraining from perjury. Propaganda, gossip and spreading rumors also violate the spirit of “thou shalt not bear false witness”. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.”
James had some strong words to say about the power of the words we say about others: Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
I can’t help but think of how well James’ words describe the harm caused when social media is used to spread lies, rumors, and gossip. It is a forest fire indeed. In India, there have been several incidents of mob killings of people who were falsely accused of crimes against children. In the United States, there have also been incidents of people being misidentified as perpetrators of terrorist attacks or other horrible crimes. Young people who have been targeted by bullying peers on social media have committed suicide.
Bearing false witness extends to stereotyping entire groups of people in harmful ways too, such as saying that all Muslims are terrorists, all homosexuals are pedophiles, all undocumented immigrants are violent criminals, all gun owners are irresponsible, all Christians are anti-science. All Republicans do not despise the poor. All Democrats are not atheists. Such blanket statements are very harmful and sometimes deadly. In Arizona, shortly after 9/11, a Sikh man was killed by a stranger who saw his turban and beard, assumed he was a terrorist, and shot him.
If this principle of causing no harm is applied to the commandment against false witness, it’s not enough to avoid committing perjury. Don’t deliberately spread misinformation with the intent of harming someone. Be very, very careful when sharing derogatory “information” about someone on social media, especially when you do not personally know the person and did not witness the purported act. Pictures can be photoshopped. Videos can be selectively edited. Memes are almost always simplistic. Prefacing something with “if this is true” does not get you off the hook. I’m aware that many people who share such items believe they are being helpful, warning others of danger like a modern-day Paul Revere. But the actual results too often turn out to be more like the instigator of a figurative or (heaven forbid, actual) lynch mob.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness.” It’s still good advice today.