In politics there is a fine line between false witness and vicious caricature.

Chapter 9   ACCUSING others falsely, slander, gossip

As given in the law of Moses, the ninth commandment is very specific. "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Exodus 20:16). The neighbor is not just someone who lives next door, but another person in one's city, or belonging to one's country. The commandment clearly refers to a court of law where one is called as a witness. And what is wrong is telling lies to get the person unjustly condemned.

We have however widened the universal moral category to include false witness against anyone, even foreigners and personal enemies. And it need not necessarily be in a court of law.

9  False witness to harm another person is always despicable

That enables us to include libel, and malicious destruction of another's reputation in the community. Publishing a falsehood in a book or newspaper or in the media that defames another person's character is a crime in any civilized country. Everyone everywhere finds this despicable, especially when it is directed against oneself.

This is why we find malicious gossip so hateful. It soon becomes a whispering campaign to get someone condemned by the community. Character is destroyed behind the scenes without the person having any opportunity for defense or explanation.

The interesting fact is that, having realized how much I hate false witness to condemn me, I have already accepted the ninth category of moral judgment as applying to others. The immoral person is the one who has settled "I feel free to bear false witness against others when I choose, but I will condemn those who do this to me."

In politics there is a fine line between false witness and vicious caricature. And in a political campaign much will be said that is blatant false witness, though it is often overlooked because we assume that the public can recognize the falsehood and its intention. But in the long run we also know that a politician who wins by defaming the character of others is not going to have our respect next time.

It is often assumed that telling a lie is forbidden by the ninth commandment, but it obviously cannot apply to what we call the necessary white lies of civil behavior. We answer "I hope I haven't taken your time when you are busy" by saying "No, I am so glad you came." If someone nosily asks "have you got cancer?" and we don't want it to be public knowledge, we just say "no." We don't have to answer "You are a busybody, and you don't deserve to know my private business." And when we are pressed to attend a tiresome function we say "I am sorry I have too much on my plate just now." That is not bearing false witness against the person. It would be rude and cruel to say "I would be bored to tears" or "I have better things to do with my time."

And in a war we have to defend ourselves by camouflage and false information about the location of our troops. When Corrie ten Boom was hiding Jews in her home during the war, the police came and asked "Have you any Jews in this house?" she answered "no." And because she had never told a lie in her life, the police believed her. That would have harmed the Nazi program of exterminating Jews, but it was in no sense bearing false witness against the policeman.

There is one form of lying that is forbidden in the New Testament. "Putting away falsehood, let us all speak the truth to one another" (Ephesians 4:25). But that is in the context of the local church as a body. Our human body depends on true information being constantly communicated to and from every part. A police force or army would quickly disintegrate if the different parts lied to one another. Similarly in a family the habit of telling lies makes love and cooperation and family spirit impossible.

Lies are even more disastrous in marriage. The first text about marriage in the Bible speaks of the total union of the couple. "A man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed" (Genesis 2:24-25). There is the pleasure of nakedness in sexual intercourse. But for the fullness of joy for a life-time marriage couples need the nakedness of having nothing to hide from one another.

Once lies and deceit become part of a love relationship, it is only a matter of time before one or the other wants a divorce. And once divorce proceedings begin it is horrifying to see one or both parties cruelly breaking the ninth commandment by bearing false witness against one another.

Is there are cure for false witness? As in the other negative commandments, the solution is to turn the desire to harm others to positive love for them. Jesus said we should even learn to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And he added a powerful reason. "That you may be the children of your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:43-45). This does not mean that this is a way to gain merit and earn our place in heaven. But it does mean that this is the way God loves even his enemies.

This is precisely the kind of love that God himself has for us and has in mind for us as his children. As Paul explained "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Romans 5:5). That kind of love soon expels any desire to bear false witness against another, or engage in any kind of malicious gossip.

Chapter 10   COVETING what another is given