In January of 2009, the Fox television network, showing either the effects of the writers’ strike or the signs of social decay, offered a gem of televised exploitation—the kind that repulses you, but you can’t help watching. It was a game show called The Moment of Truth. Now game shows about telling the truth are nothing new and can be quite amusing. When I grew up in the 1960s, there was a popular show called Truth or Consequences in which, if I recall correctly, you had to answer a question truthfully, and if you didn’t, you would have to perform some silly task. 50 years it was exciting innovative television).
About the same time there was a game show called To Tell the Truth (reformatted and currently on again). The premise was to have three persons introduce themselves as the same person claiming some personal achievement, invention, or unique relationship. The panel of celebrities would take turns asking questions of them and after three rounds would guess which of the three was telling the truth: “Will the real (so-and-so) please stand up!” the host would say . . . and money was given to the guests according to how well they fooled the panel.
However, The Moment of Truth took the whole truth-telling experience to another level. It featured contestants who had previously answered questions while attached to a polygraph machine and then, in front of a TV audience, had to answer some of the same questions with the offscreen polygraph “voice” indicating whether the person was telling the truth. The more questions answered truthfully, the more money (up to a quarter million dollars) could be won.
In Ephesians 4, Paul talks about living “the truth as it is in Jesus”; putting away our old self and being clothed “according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” This is done, according to Paul, by appropriating certain guidelines for living this new life, such things as how to deal with your anger, the importance of hard work and wealth sharing, and using appropriate speech in our interactions with others. But he begins, in verse 25, with “putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Truth telling is the badge of a true disciple.
A man once explained why he couldn’t get along with a friend by saying, “He lies when it ain’t necessary!” Now, even a person who thinks lying is sometimes “necessary” has to draw the line somewhere. This is the tragedy of falsehood: it destroys fellowship; it breaks the body of the church for which Christ gave his life. So, Paul says that the reason for scrupulously telling the truth is that “we are members of one another.”
After 20 centuries of Christian teaching you’d think we’d have just about gotten the idea by now. The counsel to “put away falsehood” is as timely today as it was then. In fact, even today, in many walks of life, lying is part of the way things work. Lying is the way to get ahead, to succeed, to gain control over others, to become what others expect us to become even at the loss of our own integrity. People lie to get ahead all the time. Perhaps that is why the concept behind The Moment of Truth was so appealing. In a day and age when lying and deceit has become the norm, a game to reward truth telling would certainly seem to encourage contestants to “speak truth to our neighbors.”
The comic strip, Wizard of Id (11/7/05), showed how uncommon this is among politicians. Heading out of the chapel, the friar queries a parishioner, “Have you ever considered giving up your life of lies and deceit?” to which he replies, “many times.” Then “what happened?” asks the priest. “I keep getting elected!” Unfortunately, according two separate non-partisan, truth detecting organizations, the immediate past President of our country lied or distorted the truth nearly 35,000 times during his four years in office, and is still doing it (Wash. Post, 1/24/2021). It is not easy to understand how such a thing can happen.
In the by-partisan commission hearing last week about the events that took place on January 6 of this year, I was struck by a statement made by one of the witnesses, Capitol police officer, Harry Dunn. He said that everyone was making such a big deal about the courage of Republican members Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger speaking out against the Capitol insur-rectionists in defiance of their own party. But he said, “Telling the truth shouldn’t take courage. For the police officers, being there on Jan. 6 took courage. Going back to work on Jan. 7 took courage. Going back every day since then takes courage. Dismantling the fence took courage. But telling the truth shouldn’t take courage.” And he’s right. In his memoir, Ben Rhodes, former security advisor for President Obama, writes “People always lie most frentically to themselves and others, when they know they’ve done something wrong” (After the Fall: 2021, p. 329)
The foundation of life in the Christian community is always truth. When persons lose faith in the integrity of the people they have called to serve, God’s work is compromised. When one spouse ceases to trust the other, nothing on earth can keep that relationship from falling apart. When political leaders fail to provide an honest vision of a better world, any form of government is bound to unravel.
In Acts 5, we read the dramatic story of the early church community turned sour because of lies and deception. When Ananias and Sapphira keep back part of the money from the property they had sold while everyone else was turning into the common treasury all the proceeds from the sale of their property—it seemed a very small sin, hardly enough to bring down upon their heads such severe punishment as death. But the story is meant to underscore the serious breach that occurs when members of the community lie to one another.
In a Peanuts’ comic strip, Charlie Brown says to Linus, “We’re supposed to write home to our parents and tell them what a great time we’re having here at camp.” Linus replies, “Even if we’re not? Isn’t that a lie?” Charlie Brown explains that “Well . . . it’s sort of a white lie;” to which Linus replies “Lies come in colors?”
There are times, it would seem, when lying is better than telling the truth, even in church. Out of compassion one may lie when asked about another person’s ability or appearance. To compliment Aunt Margaret on her beautiful solo when she can’t carry a tune in a bucket or to say to a recent acquaintance, “You look much better on Zoom than you do in person”, may cause more harm than good. And who hasn’t had that experience of attending a party for someone you cannot tolerate so you make up some excuse as why you can’t stay? Social life would be impossible if everyone always told the truth of their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. The problem with coloring lies is that you don’t always know which ones are white, in that saying something untrue may come back to haunt you and hurt a relationship. For a child molester to tell his victim to keep secret what happened between them is darkest color of lie imaginable. And even the most innocent lie can break up marriage or start a war.
It is obviously a good thing to tell the truth and to establish relationships based on what is real rather than what is false. But the truth, as St. Augustine noted, can be murderous when it is used as a weapon. We don’t have to destroy each other to share the truth. The truth must be told in love. Honesty in dealing with each other demands a seasoning of the human will, a feeling for each other’s weakness, and an understanding of the context of relationships.
This is where The Moment of Truth failed miserably to deliver. Some of the questions may have been mildly embarrassing but innocent enough, such as: “Have you ever admired yourself in the mirror?” But the higher the stakes, the more personal the questions, like “have you ever waited to have kids because you doubted that your wife is your lifelong partner?” The contestant who answered yes to that question told the truth, according to the polygraph, but shocked his wife who was sitting right in front of him. It was hard to know whether to applaud him for his forthrightness, or to feel sorry for him and his wife, recognizing that they put themselves into a situation in which the so-called truth can expose some of their deepest secrets. (If I recall correctly, he won $125,000 before deciding to walk away, but he probably needed it to hire his divorce attorney).
Some see such truth telling as positive. And if one believes that we should never keep secrets from one another and always tell the truth, then The Moment of Truth was doing God’s work, exposing lies and standing for truth. (I can only imagine some of the questions that might be asked of a pastor: “Have you ever questioned the existence of God?” “Have you ever told a member of your church that you would pray for them and didn’t?” “Have you ever preached a sermon downloaded from the internet?” You might want to remember these questions if ever find yourself on a pastoral search committee!
Watching the show, which was sort of like putting hidden cameras attached to highly sensitive microphones in your neighbor’s house, reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on truth telling written when the German theologian was in prison for conspiring to overthrow Hitler during the final years of the Third Reich. After being interrogated several times, Bonhoeffer would return to his cell and contemplate what was true and what was a lie. These thoughts later emerged in an essay titled, “What Does ‘Telling the Truth’ Mean?” Bonhoeffer considers the case of a young boy who is asked by his teacher, in front of other students, “Is it true that your father often comes home drunk?” In fact, the boy recalled his father coming home drunk many times. But sitting in the class, under the accusation of the teacher and the stares of classmates, he could only deny his father’s drunkenness. Bonhoeffer asserts that “One could call the child’s answer a lie; all the same this lie contains more truth—i.e. it corresponds more closely to the truth—than if the child had revealed his father’s weakness before the class.”
Then he goes on to boldly say, “It is the teacher alone who is guilty of the lie.” For Bonhoeffer, truth is not about objective utterance that can be judged right or wrong. Rather, truth exists in a context. It is something determined by the encounters that people have. He points out that we do not assume that parents are obligated to be truthful in the same way children are. When a preschooler asks, “Where do babies come from?” parents are not obliged to tell them the whole truth. Children’s world is different than that of the parents; it would be untruthful and therefore unfair to use truth to violate the boundary between them.
The teacher of the young boy crossed that boundary. He used the principle of truth- telling in an improper context and it, therefore, became a weapon, forcing the boy to choose between upholding the principle of truthfulness and upholding the reality of the human bond between a father and son. According to Bonhoeffer, the boy answers correctly, for he chooses to honor a concrete relationship by disobeying the principle.
“Put away falsehood, and let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.” Speak the truth in love, so that the body of Christ can be whole. Being faithful to one’s baptismal vows, living with integrity the new life to which we have been called, is not as cut and dried as we might wish or think. The important thing to remember about truth is that it always has a context and speaking the truth has as its primary purpose the deepening of human relationships. Truth telling is not a game to be played for wealth, recognition, or revenge. But “speaking the truth in love” (4:15) is the foundation for creating a genuine community of faith.
In a congregation of Christ-followers differences in appearance, economic status, theological perspectives, and political persuasions will always be present. Affirming those things we all have in common, while understanding and appreciating those things with which we can honestly disagree, is a critical characteristic of a true disciple of Jesus. Speaking the truth in love is one of the noblest assets of authentic religion, honoring God and respecting our fellow humans.