EKD-Bulletin 02/2000

2 - 2000


"Jocose lies, vindictive lies, useful lies, white lies"

People in community and their attitude towards truth

During the recent debate on the scandals in our country involving politicians telling lies one has occasionally been asked canny and leading questions like: "Have you ever told a lie?" or "When did you last tell a lie?" These questions suggest what course the answer should take: Cosi fan tutti, everyone, great and small, lives their own big and little lies. And yet, declaring untruthfulness to be charateristic of everyone is to make light of it.

Many aspects of the party donation scandal have not been made public. The complete truth has not as yet been unearthed. Files have disappeared from the Chancellor's Office. Those who were in charge at the time admit that things were destroyed. If these were only drafts or outlines which did not seem worth preserving, this would be admissible. But of all things it is the files dealing with dubious money transfers which cannot be found. The truth is obscured, and those who took the relevant decisions at the time maintain their silence.

"Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another" (Eph. 4:25). This sums up neatly and clearly what the Bible says in many places about what telling the truth or lies means for the way people live in community. Social life in the family, at the workplace and in the society at large can only succeed if people can rely on not being cheated or led astray by the words of their fellow human beings. None of us is omniscient, and nobody can have complete control. We must be able to trust each other. What people say must be true. In real life, however, things are different. Hardly anyone is too particular about unconditional truthfulness or a categorical ban on lying. The few people to whom this does not apply are often contemptuously called "truth fanatics". This is simply making light of lying. Untruthfulness and lying do grave damage to people's souls and poison our social life.

On closer examination, it turns out that the demand for truthfulness raises complicated issues. Popular wisdom has long recommended sticking to the principle: "Let everything you say be true, but don't say everything that is true." This may apply to the doctor who is asked to provide information at someone's sickbed. Superiors evaluating the work of their employees must be just as cautious about telling the whole truth. Such caution is certainly indispensable for the work of journalists, too. Unambiguous and helpful though this wisdom may be in some situations, in others it can be used as a cover for untruthfulness and lies. By not mentioning some important aspect one can provide information about a certain matter in such a way as to lead others completely astray without telling direct lies. The saying quoted above, whilst serving as a helpful guideline in borderline cases, is not an instruction for dealing with truth and lies in everyday life.

On the other hand, the rigorous demand that one should always speak the truth can have disastrous consequences. During the Nazi era when someone reported his neighbour to the authorities for illegally listening to the London-based BBC or even hiding a Jew, he was undoubtedly telling the truth. But this truth was deadly for his neighbour. Telling the truth is not an absolute category. Our way of dealing with the truth must be judged by the harm or good it does for our neighbour and the community.

Martin Luther, totally in line with the tradition of the Ancient Church, distinguished three kinds of lies: Jocose lies are the little playful stories and tales mainly told to children to develop their attention. Here the initial seriousness quickly dissolves into laughter. Damaging lies are told with the intent to deceive, and work by withholding or twisting the truth at the expense of our neighbours, their possessions or their honour. Useful lies, also called white lies, involve not telling the truth out of love and compassion in order to protect our neighbour or the community.

Remaining silent about where persecuted people are hiding or saving one's own life by denying having been involved in acts of resistance when questioned by representatives of a crimininal regime are examples of "white lies" whose moral admissibility is contested by few people. People who have recourse to the term "white lies" too often are, however, in danger of almost always finding "something white" to justify themselves. High standards must therefore be set to justify a lie. Only high values such as the protection of someone else's or one's own life such as in the examples above can overrule the demand for truthfulness and the ban on telling lies.

Two of the Ten Commandments deal with truthfulness and lies. The second commandment says:"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." This means we must not use or call upon the name of God with dishonest intent.

The eighth commandment says: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour". In his explanation of this Luther emphasises the positive side of this commandment: "[We] are to excuse him, say good things about him and make the best out of everything." He points out how fundamental this commandment is for shaping our relations with our neighbour and choosing our words in public. Keeping the command of truthfulness and observing the ban on lies is necessary and salutary.

People who want the truth to be known about dubious events are not making unreasonable demands. No consideration, however subtle it may be, can be allowed to let lies become socially acceptable.



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