Bearing False Witness in a Polarized Age
The Eighth Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
What is this? We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
-Luther’s Small Catechism
Dear People of God,
We have a serious eighth commandment problem in our country.
For the past several decades, Americans have increasingly divided themselves into two opposing camps based on political affiliation. This in itself is nothing new, but these identities have grown in recent years to encompass more and more of who we are and what we do. While conservative or progressive were at one time simply political identities, they are now cultural identities, and they influence everything from the stores we shop at to the kind of churches we attend.
This great sorting of Americans by our political parties means that we have very few interactions with people who think differently than us. Increasingly, the people we shop with, watch on TV, or sit next to in worship all agree with us on most of the big issues of the day. While being around others who think like us is comfortable, it makes it very easy to dismiss anyone who is not part of our group as misguided, malicious, or downright evil. To use a recent example, if everyone I interact with on a daily basis agrees that overturning Roe v. Wade was a great victory for justice in America, then it is nearly impossible for me to understand how anyone could reasonably disagree.
This lack of understanding is fertile ground for lies and slander against those outside our group, and our public discourse is thick with this sort of venomous speech. Not only is this damaging to our democracy, it is a direct violation of God’s command against bearing false witness given in Exodus 20:16.
As Martin Luther explains in his Small Catechism, this command is not just about telling the truth; it involves protecting the reputations of those with whom we live. This means that not only are we to avoid spreading lies about them, but we also must “come to their defense” when others tell those lies in our presence. Rather than focusing on what we disapprove of, we are to “speak well of them.” And when they act in ways that perplex us, we are to interpret their actions “in the best possible light.”
This commandment holds for our friends and family, but it also holds for those we regard as enemies. This does not mean, of course, that we should pretend to agree with everyone or paper over our differences. Instead, it means that we treat others with respect even as we express our differences. Rather than simply mocking those who believe things that seem ridiculous to us, we take them seriously enough to try to understand their position, even if it is one we will ultimately disagree with.
Of course, there are limits to this. Sometimes people really do simply have bad motives. Sometimes the “best possible light” reveals evil intent. This is not a command to trust every con artist out there, nor is it a way of saying that everyone’s truth is equally valid. Instead, this is a command to engage seriously and respectfully with those who are different from us while remaining strong and flexible in our own convictions. As Jesus says in Matthew 10:16, “be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”
This is easier said than done, surrounded as we are by these lies designed to rile us up against those who disagree with us. While there is plenty of blame to go around in this regard, it seems to me that the greatest volume of dangerous falsehoods are currently coming from the right, and especially from conservative cable news pundits such as Tucker Carlson. These exaggerated tales of election fraud, CRT in schools, and accusations of pedophilia are downright dangerous; I have heard stories of election workers and school officials resigning due to death threats motivated by this sort of destructive rhetoric. Christians should have no part in these lies.
Make no mistake: progressives are also guilty of violating this commandment. Quick accusations of racism, homophobia, or fascism too often serve as methods of vindicating ourselves and shutting down real conversation and debate. But right now there is a distressing amount of demonization coming from conservatives, and I am seeing too many Christians blown about by these deceitful winds. (Ephesians 4:14)
Sadly, I am not optimistic about our ability to change the state of public discourse in our country. The divides of polarization continue to deepen, and the feeling of righteous indignation stirred up by these slanderous stories is powerful and addictive. However, that is no excuse for us Christians. Regardless of the greater trends in our culture, God’s command to us is clear.
So what should we Christians do in view of this command?
First, take stock of the voices you are paying attention to, whether online, in print, or through the television. Are these voices interested in conveying the truth, or are they interested in making you angry and mobilizing you to their benefit? Are they giving their opponents the benefit of the doubt, or do they revel in insulting them? Beware of what voices you let come into your ear, for they have more power over you than you realize.
Second, whether you are conservative, progressive, or something else entirely, do not join the trend of belittling and demonizing everyone who disagrees with you. It is one thing to faithfully disagree with another person; it is quite another to accuse them of evil motives without reason.
Third, when you encounter unflattering stories about those who are different from you, resist the urge to jump on the bandwagon. Question the things you hear: are they true? Are they well supported? Or do they just feel true because they confirm that you are on the right side? If you know that something is false or exaggerated, express your doubts and stop the story from spreading.
Finally, let me leave you with the words of the apostle Paul:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Your brother in Christ,