Pastoral Perspectives

Two Perspectives on Lying

Imagine getting knocks on your door one evening when you aren’t expecting guests. You open the door to see a wild-eyed and dishevelled figure staring at you through the gate. It’s a friend of yours and from the frantic words sputtering out of him you discover he’s being pursued. He was attacked outside his residence but managed to give his assailant the slip. Now he wants to seek refuge in your apartment while the police are called in. You quickly let him in and get him settled in the guest room. Soon after doing so, you hear ominous raps against your door. This time, you open the door to an angry person brandishing a pistol and demanding to know your friend’s whereabouts. You figure he’s your friend’s assailant. What do you do?

It’s highly probable you would think to mislead the assailant. Perhaps you might tell him your friend didn’t come by at all, or that he left your apartment after using the bathroom. Intuitively, we find this use of deception acceptable, even though we know lying is a sin. That’s because we feel that lying to save a life achieves a greater good than telling the truth but getting someone murdered.

Such a hypothetical moral dilemma was a reality for the Christians who resisted the Nazi Germans during their occupation of Europe. Not a few of them worked to rescue Jews who were being persecuted and rounded up by the German Gestapo. However, such clandestine work required deception and lying, and many Christians experienced a conflict between the morality they’ve been taught in church and the demands of charity for their neighbour.

Christians who decided to participate in resistance activities, often for the most humane reasons, found themselves drifting towards a moral whirlpool where traditional rules and guidelines no longer operated. Resisters were ineluctably drawn into a series of unforeseen actions as a logical consequence of their commitment to oppose Nazism.

A Scottish Presbyterian minister Alexander Miller describes how moral lines were blurred because of the necessity of the resistance efforts:

Not to resist Nazism was to acquiesce in it. There was no living alternative at all. Yet to resist Nazism was to be plunged into the same chaos. For to resist one must stay alive and one could stay alive only by forgery and deceit. Ration books must be forged or stolen. Propaganda and organization must be carried on clandestinely and by trickery.

In order to save Jewish lives, there was no alternative but to engage in lies and deception. Considering how nearly 6 million Jews were killed in the Shoah (the Holocaust), perhaps we could admit on hindsight that such violations of the Christian injunction to truth-telling were acceptable for the sake of Christian charity.

Thus, it might surprise us that St Augustine of Hippo, arguably the most influential theologian of the Western Church, would’ve vehemently disagreed with such a conclusion. St Augustine was the first theologian of the church to write a treatise on lying. The De Mendacio was written in 395 before he became the bishop of Hippo, and in it, he argues rather persuasively that any kind of lying is a sin, and no Christian should ever lie. About 20 years later, he asserts the same in his Enchiridion—his short handbook on the Christian faith. He defines a lie as speaking “contrary to what is in [a person’s] mind with the intention of deceiving,” and is adamant that every act of lying must be considered a sin. That’s because a lie violates the will of God for human language: “Words were surely instituted not so that people could deceive each other with them but so that each person could make his thoughts known to another. So, to use words for deception, and not for what they were instituted, is a sin.” A lie is evil in itself apart from whatever effects it may have.

Therefore, he insists that Christians can’t lie to achieve a greater good even in the case of saving a human life, because we mustn’t “do evil so that good may come” (Rom. 3.8). To lie is to incur divine judgment on oneself, and it makes no sense to lose one’s eternal life by saving another’s temporal life. No matter how beneficent the sinful act, it can’t be justified before God. If so, then we ought to avoid even those seemingly harmless white lies we might’ve resorted out of sheer convenience.

Concerning our hypothetical situation given above, St Augustine would counsel us to say, “I know where he is, but I will never show.” Truth is told but there’s also the refusal to betray your friend by answering the assailant. While you may be killed for your reply, he would think it’s better for you to die than to sin. What if the assailant kills you and then kills your friend in the apartment? He would say it’s the assailant who sinned and not you; it’s still better to not sin and leave the outcome to God than to save someone by sinning.[1]

While St Augustine’s ethics might be a hard pill to swallow, we cannot but sense his deep reverence for God and how seriously he regards sin. It’s no wonder that this has been the default position of the church catholic (both Roman and Reformational) on lying since. Yet, if one was to consistently apply this ethic to the German occupation of Europe, then there would scarcely have been any organised resistance at all, and the many Jews who were otherwise rescued would’ve been consigned to the death camps.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, theologian, and martyr, whose ethics were forged in the crucible of resistance against the Nazis, disagrees with St Augustine. He regards St Augustine’s definition of lying as inadequate because it would “include, for example, even the most harmless April-fool joke” or “the necessary deception of the enemy in war.” Instead, he considers a lie as the deliberate denial of the reality of God revealed in Christ Jesus (1 Jn. 2.22).

This might sound abstract because Bonhoeffer doesn’t view ethics as simply obeying specific divine laws or doing what we think is good. Rather, for ethics to be Christian, it must stem from a faith in Christ and a denial of self. Ethics is the question of how we bring about in our lives the reality of God that’s revealed in Christ; it’s a participation in the reality of God in Christ.

Since, Christ for us is the God who communes with us in his humanity, then our ethics is about community, about being there with and for others. Furthermore, because Christ comes to us in history, our ethics must also be this-worldly as well. What this means is that ethics is relational and contextual. Our ethical responsibility is toward God and neighbour and cannot be divorced from the specific situation we find ourselves in.

Therefore, when it comes to lying, Bonhoeffer wouldn’t insist that it’s an absolute sin. Rather, it’s a sin only if what is expressed brings about something which is contrary to the reality of God in Christ; when what is expressed is not for the sake of others whom we love but for ourselves. In the final chapter of his incomplete work Ethics, he gives three concrete rules to guide truth-telling: a) who is it that I will be speaking to and what entitles me to speak; b) what is the situation I am in; c) how does what I am about to speak relate to this situation. Applying it to our hypothetical situation, it means you won’t tell the assailant the truth because he doesn’t deserve the truth and right now your friend requires you to not tell the truth. Out of love for your friend, the best course of action is to misdirect the assailant.

This quick survey of two different responses to a hypothetical situation shows that the ethics of truth-telling isn’t as simple as it seems. This is because we’re sinful creatures living in an imperfect world thrown into situations where moral obligations sometime seem to be in conflict. But it’s safe to say that in Singapore we’re scarcely put in situations where we have no choice but to lie. Whether you lean toward St Augustine or Bonhoeffer’s ethics concerning lying, lying is never an act we can take lightly, but if there’s ever a situation we are moved to do so, we do so boldly and leave all judgment of our action before a holy and merciful God.

[1] What about the Hebrew midwives in Exodus chapter 1? St Augustine doesn’t think their act of lying is meant to be exemplary or prescriptive for Christians. While they sinned by lying, God rewarded them not because they lied but because they feared God and were merciful.