Love Carved in Stone: A Fresh Look at the Ten Commandments
Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20; Matthew 12:36-37
We are daily assaulted by false witnesses. Casual conversations and public statements contain prejudice, fractured truth, accusations of fake news and hatred flung at those we view as opponents. Disparaging generalizations are made about the poor, people of color, other religions and foreigners. Deeply divided along political lines, truth is filtered through the prejudices we have of the opponent. Majorities of both parties see the opposition as immoral and close-minded and about 35% of both parties see their opposite party as unintelligent, according to a Pew Research Center study.
“You shall not bear false witness” is God’s word to us today. It is a commandment that all of us regularly and willfully break. What is “false witness”? Eugenia Anne Gamble examines the meaning of the Hebrew words for false witness used in Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 5:20 and elsewhere in Scripture. Gamble includes the following definitions:
- “Outright lies and speech that deceptive, frivolous or designed to make one look better;”
- “Fraudulent” or “wrongfully injurious words or witness;”
- “To claim as truth something that you do not know firsthand to be true;” and
- Gossip, slander, damaging words and manipulative speech.
The Hebrew scriptures against false witness are meant to protect the poor, those without power and the innocent against false accusation. False witness shatters lives. It destroys someone’s character. Slander is the norm in public speech and I wonder if slander and gossip are rampant in the workplace, clubs and homes. Slander is making false statements about others. Gossip is conversation about people that is unkind, negative or untrue.
Gossip and slander are like a vicious virus, spreading rapidly, infecting and damaging others. Gossip and slander taint our assessment of whom we do not know, causing us to prejudge and condemn others. Gossip and slander can permanently damage others.
How might we stem the spread of gossip and false witness? We can defend the person spoken about or simply say that we don’t participate in gossip. We can only speak about the good we see in others. We can refuse to prejudge others or make generalizations about groups of people. We can refuse to demonize the political party opposite to our own. We can keep an open mind.
In a class I attended, New Testament scholar Robert Mulholland talked about being the keynote speaker at a week-long retreat. Upon his arrival, the leadership of the retreat told Mulholland to avoid one of the participants whom they characterized as a person who sucks the air out of the room. Mulholland did the opposite and befriended her.
Right before I began to work on this article, I saw the compelling movie, “Just Mercy,” which is based on Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of the same title. Stevenson is an American lawyer who is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is dedicated to those who may have been wrongfully convicted and the poor without adequate representation. “Just Mercy” focuses on the true story of the wrongful conviction of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, a black man, for the murder of an 18-year-old white woman in 1987. Coerced and threatened by police, two witnesses put McMillian at the scene of the crime. Despite many witnesses who corroborated McMillian’s testimony that he was at a fish fry, McMillian was sentenced to death.
False witness can kill and maim. Since 1976, 11% of those sentenced to death in the United States have been found to be innocent. False witness is the prejudice and racism that assumes that people are guilty before they can be proven innocent. The majority of people on death row are people of color, as are the inmates in prisons. Per capita, the United States incarcerates more people than any nation in the world and our criminal justice system is systemically and crushingly weighted against the poor, African Americans and Latinos (see the 2018 “Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System”). God does not approve. Godly life protects the poor in court and defends the poor and the foreigner from those who use power for their own gain (see Exodus 23:1-9).
To speak the truth in love is one of the most radical and compassionate acts of faith that we can do. Self-examination and turning away from damaging speech in our families and communities is powerful Kingdom living. It creates new life and builds the loving community God intends for us all.
Rosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.
You can purchase the PW/Horizons Bible study book through the PC(USA) Church Store.