Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Perils of Being Honest

So did you ever vote for Obama?
Have you traveled from West Africa recently?
Have you stopped beating your spouse?
Have you looked at porn in the past month?
Did you cheat on a test or a paper?

We so want to think of ourselves as truthful, honest people.  But even a few simple questions like these are enough to make many of us uncomfortable.  Turns out, our definitions of ‘truth’ can become rather elastic, and our self-requirements for honesty can be selective at best.

We have a complicated relationship with truth.  On the one hand, we are taught from earliest years to always tell the truth.  We are told as students to turn in work that is our own, and not work that has been copied from someone else and presented as our own.  We know that bearing false witness breaks one of the Ten Commandments.  We implicitly trust news sources and ‘authorities’ and even friends and our spouses to be telling the story accurately.  Our society finds not telling the truth so threatening that there are laws against it.


On the other hand, it doesn’t take much to make a liar out of an otherwise upstanding, church-going citizen.  Most people lie constantly, and even about the most inane things.  If there might be negative consequences to telling the truth, then one might find it in one’s interest to mislead the person or institution or application doing the asking.  Sometimes we avoid telling the truth, not with an outright lie but by not saying anything at all.  These things happen in relationships, they happen in business, they happen amongst professionals, they happen with respect to law enforcement, they happen in churches - especially in churches.  We tend to be in favor of the truth, just so long as someone else has to be telling it.  We will happily tell ‘the truth’ if it is to our advantage to do so.  But if doing so will in some way disadvantage us, then we will find a way to keep quiet if we can, and lie if we must.  Full disclosure: been there, done that.

In junior high school (‘Middle School’ for my younger readers), there was a group of boys in the back who habitually passed answers to tests back and forth to each other.  Everybody knew that this was ‘cheating’ and that it should be stopped.  But nobody, myself included, ‘told the truth’ and reported what was going on.  We were afraid of being labeled a snitch or worse, were afraid of being beaten up after school.  We all looked the other way.  And for all the energy put into this nefarious behavior, I don’t think it actually improved their academic trajectory.  Even so, the boys in the back learned a very important lesson, namely that threats can buy impunity.

There’s the story of the boy who was exposed to porn and then sexually abused at a relative’s house.  This boy was afraid of what would happen if he told the truth.  He was afraid that no one would believe him.  He was afraid that it was his fault.  He was afraid that if other people found out what happened that he would be called a ‘fag’ and that he would lose his friends.  He was afraid that he might actually be a ‘fag’, but it was too dangerous ever to talk with anybody about it.  So he kept quiet.  This boy was a Christian, and he grew up to become a respected Christian leader.  But he struggled inside for years as he tried to keep from himself and everyone else what happened to him so long ago.  And decades later, when he finally did summon the courage to get help and confront and tell the truth about his past and its implications for his present, he found that his worst fears actually did happen.  He was rejected by his spouse.  He was labeled ‘gay’ and shunned by many of his friends, most of whom were also Christian leaders.  And despite the rhetoric to the contrary in society and the loud protestations on the part of Christians as to how terrible lying is, the lesson this man has learned from all the people around him is that continuing to lie might actually have been preferable to telling the truth.

I teach courses in history and theology.  There are a number of students at one of the schools where I teach who come out of academic backgrounds that did not enforce any policies against plagiarism.  When they get to my class, however, they find they have to write a term paper.  Invariably, a number of them do what they have always done before, which is go online, copy a paper from a website, reformat it a bit, put their name on it and then turn it in as if it is their work.  They get caught every time.  They don’t realize that their lecturer is pretty good at recognizing that the flawless 19th century English used throughout the paper or the specialized vocabulary found throughout is rather beyond the reach of the student whose name is on it.  Just saying.  Moreover, I can type any phrase from the paper in question into Google and the source comes right up.  It’s that easy.  So the student gets a ‘0’, which is precisely what I said would happen in my course syllabus if a case of plagiarism presented itself to me.  And almost every time I have a parade of anguished students come to my office claiming they had no idea that this was plagiarism (never mind I had gone over in detail what plagiarism is and what the penalty for doing it was going to be).   Some are offended that I gave them a ‘0’ and demand that I give them a higher grade (for the work they did?).  Some say that this is how they have always written papers and they have always gotten good grades before(!).  Almost all of them demand that I allow them to redo the assignment.  Often there is a delegation of offended plagiarizers who troop off to the dean’s office to complain about the way I’ve taught the course and the terrible injustice of my grading and to insist that they be given another chance.  I will then usually be asked by the dean to give these poor students another chance.  I grumble but comply.  And then watch in amazement as some of the students run off and plagiarize again.  Oh, and did I say that this was a Christian school?

I was the pastor of a large Protestant church.  I had struggled for several years with depression, though it was now being controlled with medication.  At a leadership retreat with my elders, I shared with them something of my struggle, thinking that by being vulnerable, I was setting an example for our leaders to follow.  I was trying to create a safe space for them to be vulnerable, too.  I was of the persuasion that we cannot find healing for those things we cannot admit.  Imagine my surprise when a delegation of my elders came to my office the next week and strongly suggested that I step down and go away.  Evidently, depression was too shameful a thing for a pastor to have.  At any rate, these elders didn’t want to have anything to do with a Christian pastor who was less than perfect.  And I learned that if one is in a leadership position in the church, honesty about one’s weaknesses or struggles is not something anybody is interested in.  It took two more years, but eventually these elders succeeded in making it untenable for me to continue.  It was pretty awful.

Turns out that much of the trouble I’ve found myself in at different points in my life came as a consequence of being honest.  And if I were in the slightest way tempted to be cynical, the take-aways from this would seem to be
1. Turn a blind eye to people around you who are doing wrong because they might hurt you.
2. Don’t tell anybody what you are really struggling with because she will turn around and use it against you.
3. Don’t hold others to any standard of truth-telling because they will resent you and make your life very difficult.
4. You should lie about who you are, what you are thinking and how you are feeling; in other words, tell the people around you what they want to hear.  Almost nobody wants their life being messed up by the truth.
I don’t think I will try to resolve this.  It is enough to point out the significant gulf between our rhetoric and our reality.  And I must say that I am not very impressed (any more) about all the faux spiritual language tossed around by those claiming special nearness to the Almighty.  Yes indeed, Jesus did say, ‘I am…the truth’, and, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’  But the most religious, the most hyper-spiritual have tended to be the most judgmental and truth-suppressing people I’ve ever come across (I allow that my experience may not be yours).  Such people make the Church, which Christ has designed and called to be the safest place for sinners on the planet, into a museum of the holy, with themselves on prime display.  A twelve-step meeting full of drunkard, drug or sex addicted ‘sinners’ is closer to the kingdom of God than many self-described ‘churches’ full of the so-called saved.


Jesus suffered for being honest, more than any of us can ever know.  So did the apostles.  And the martyrs.  So has anyone who has ever wrestled with denying oneself, picking up one’s cross, and following in Jesus’ footsteps.  The pressure on us to compromise the truth in all its manifestations is immense.  At every new point we are confronted with a new opportunity to corrupt the truth – the truth about ourselves, about our neighbor, about our past, about our God.  And yet this is where the battle presses home, in my life and in yours, in my present and in yours.  Not just every day, but every moment.  And it comes down to this with every point of awareness – will I be a man who lives the truth?  Or will I be a man who lives a lie?  I’ve lived long enough to know that these are the hardest questions I will ever face.  And I suspect they will be your hardest questions as well.