My church small group has been going through the Ten Commandments, based on our church’s sermon series. This week we discussed the ninth Commandment, “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” which is most commonly translated into “don’t tell lies, you lying liar.”
This led into a quite energetic discussion about what to say when someone asks you to agree that their (ugly) baby is cute. I was actually shocked that some people blew this off as a trivial issue, because to me this is one of those rubber meets the road things. If you’re going to condemn white lies, then the ugly baby issue is smack dab in the middle of that. And if you’re going to insist that whatever you speak is not only truthful but INSPIRING and KIND, then the ugly baby issue presents a serious conundrum.
Maybe this is more of an issue to someone like myself, with a strong need for ideological congruence, than for someone who is more of a feelings person. A feelings person would probably not think it important or necessary to delineate what is and is not appropriate to say when presented with an ugly baby issue. If the receiver of the reply is content, then all is well, no harm, no foul. I think a feelings person would feel that the overall INTENT of the words was what was important, not the actual words. So if a feelings person said, “Oh, she’s adorable,” then that would not be a lie because the person wasn’t intending to deceive, per se, but to speak to the subtext of the actual question, which is that the asker is seeking approval. On the other hand, an analytical person in the same situation suddenly gets thrust into the horrible pressure cooker of trying to be truthful yet not commit the sin of saying something that will upset the other person. The thought process goes something like: “This baby is UGLY, it looks like a giant prune, maybe its face will sort itself out when it becomes a toddler, OH CRAP WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO SAY? I can’t say, ‘No, I don’t think your baby is cute,’ but I can’t say, ‘Yes, your baby is cute’ because that is a LIE and as a Christian I can’t tell LIES but what compliment can I actually give this potato-shaped poop machine without sounding like an ogre?” Then you make a rapid judgment call, weighing possible positive outcomes versus possible negative outcomes, and you either mumble, “Yes, very,” or you try to deflect, saying, “You must be very proud,” (this was one of the proffered suggestions in small group) and hope that Mommy doesn’t dig into your subtext. But then if you’re subtexting to a subtextual question, aren’t you BOTH being deceptive, therefore liars, and horribly in need of forgiveness?
I have a hard time when Christians issue hard-line edicts about stuff like this, because an analytical person will feel that the edict goes right up to the most absurd scenario. (Well, unless that person also has an extremely strong practical mind, as well.) I mean, if you’re going to tell other Christians that anything with even a whiff of not 100% genuine, heartfelt, objective truthfulness delivered in absolute love and kindness, is SIN SIN SIN SIN SIN, then you need to be prepared for some awkward pauses and hurt feelings. If you’re implying that people are sinning if they answer “fine” to a coworker’s perfunctory “How are you doing?” question, then people need to be prepared to hear things they don’t want to hear. (This is why I rarely ever ask people how they are doing, and I often don’t answer the question when it is posed to me. Most of the time, I do not genuinely care how the other person is doing, so I don’t ask. PERSON: “How are you doing?” ME: “Hello.” Of course, a feelings person would probably consider this rude. Actually, a NO LIE EVER person would probably also consider this rude, because it’s not treating the other person with love and kindness, and it is certainly trying to wiggle out of something.)
I think this ties in to why Christians are horrible at comedy. A lot of comedy (and basically all great drama, for that matter) LIVES in subtext. But when you have Christians being instructed to say ONLY EXACTLY what they mean, and only do it in the nicest of ways, then most comedy and most drama will fail. But ironically, most Christians fall into using subtext precisely because of this enjoinder. They KNOW they can’t say certain things, so they just find ways to talk around it, and because everyone knows that certain words and phrases and voiced thoughts are off-limits, everyone knows what everyone else means. My devoutly Christian grandmother is an expert at this. I remember one time when I was at breakfast with her and my mom, and my grandma wanted to trash my cousin’s wife’s outfit that she had worn to a family gathering. My grandma, as a Christian, obviously could not say, “I thought J looked like whorish white trash.” So instead, she asked, “What did you think of J’s outfit?” Which, to any practiced Christian listener, meant “TRASH WHORE!” But by bringing the subject up the way she did, she had plausible deniability of trashing, PLUS she had the added advantage of letting someone else do the trashing first.
I’m not saying that we should all go super-spergy and forgo any semblance of tact in our pursuit of truth in speech. I think the best tactic is to try to choose our battles wisely and try to recuse ourselves from conversations where we have nothing to add.
P.S. During this same small group meeting, we got on the subject of Abraham lying to Pharoah about Sarah being his wife, not just his sister. Group leader asked, “What did Abraham learn from this experience?” I said, “That his wife was a liar!” WOW, did that get a shriek of denial from some of the other women in the group. Their reasoning was that Sarah was under Abraham’s command. My comment was, “So are you saying that Sarah had no moral agency? If your husband asks you to lie and you do it, are you also excused because your husband told you to?” That line of discussion got scuppered VERY quickly.