I have noticed a pattern in my classrooms over the last decade or so: As I elicit from my students the heart of the Law of Moses, we almost always trip over the Ninth Commandment. “Thou shalt not lie,” they tell me. Sometimes closer to the text: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” And then they stop. The more I think about my students’ perceptions of the Ten Commandments, the more I believe that a greater issue is at stake than their course grades – an issue of Judeo-Christian morality, of interreligious dialogue, and even of war and peace. Because my students formulate for me the Ninth Commandment the way most of the planet knows it: The Bible tells us not to lie. And they are wrong.
Over two hundred years ago, in 1804, a Kentucky Baptist congregation assembled to engage in a moral debate. A hypothetical situation was posited: If hostiles attack and kill most of your family, but you still have one child hidden somewhere, and they put you against the wall and ask you if you have any more children, will you lie or tell the truth? The ethical dilemma revolved around having to lie if the child’s life were to be saved, and by lying to violate the Ninth Commandment.
Believe it or not, the argument on the topic became so rancorous, positions so irreconcilable that the congregation split into two. Some believed firmly that, as awful as sometimes it might seem, we are not privy to the big picture of God’s plan and cannot understand all of the consequences of our actions, our only truly good option thus being to steer ourselves by the Divine Command, never breaking the guidelines of behavior, knowing that any action in accord with the Commandments is good in itself, no matter the observable result. These members of the church resolved to tell the truth no matter what, to give up the child to the attackers and watch her die a bloody death. Because they were asked where she was, they’d have to tell.
The other half of the congregation could not acquiesce to such an image and declared they would lie to save the child’s life, bringing up their own, unknown to me, considerations, a number of which would be available to them even off the top of my head (the overarching emphasis on life preservation in Sabbath laws; the overriding guideline of the Sixths Commandment against murder, in which they could judge themselves complicit by giving up the child; the general Gospel call to agape love that allows for independent judgment on behalf of neighbor, etc.). As a result of this profoundly exegetical squabble, the latter group packed up and moved to another location, where until this day they are known as “The Lying Baptists.”
The story of the Lying Baptists is but a grain of sand on an endless beach of examples tossed around, used and reused, interpreted and reinterpreted by one side and the other in a long-going, wide-spanning, deep-running, and foundationally crucial debate of moral approaches between deontologists and teleologists: duty ethics and consequence ethics, those who believe our moral decisions must be guided by established rules and those who believe our moral decisions must be guided by considerations of their repercussions. The debate itself is rich and significant, and today’s culture of our civilization is a nuanced, intricate, and slightly insane interweaving of duty, consequence, and virtue ethics. That is not my problem.
Let me tell you where my problem lies.
My problem is that much bitter criticism has been levied against the Divine Command ethic because of stories like that of the Lying Baptists – or rather, like that of the Truthful Baptists, their opponents. The Divine Command ethic is perceived very widely to be rigid, overly strict, inflexible, unable to adjust to circumstances or to grow with the times, compassionless, and even often a rich fodder for ridicule – and no wonder. How is it not funny for us to end up with a church called the Lying Baptists? The Divine Command ethic is probably, today, the most maligned practiced theory, and I believe that a two-fold misunderstanding is at fault.
One is on the part of the outsiders who think a Truthful Baptist’s heart will not be tearing itself apart into slowly soaking bits inside his chest as he lays the last of the world that he loves on the altar of God’s Truth. Divine Command ethic is not compassionless; it’s clear – or clearer than most. It’s a righteous cause the end of which may not be in sight but is certain to be there. It’s an effort to keep to a direction, toward the Good, in this confusing and complicated world. It’s the Good Defined, whether or not we understand it. And it’s worth everything.
The other misunderstanding – the other fault – is on the part of those practitioners of the ethic who give a real reason for nearly every adjective I’ve listed to be used against them, and then some. Because, in their most heartfelt effort to follow God’s command, it seems that many followers don’t know what their Divine Commands really say.
So here is my problem, again: the Kentucky Baptists in 1804 argued and split over a non-issue. The Ninth Commandment does not prohibit lying. The Ninth Commandment, fully and closely translated, states:
“THOU SHALT NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS AGAINST THY NEIGHBOR.”
This commandment refers only to a very specific type of lying: false accusations. Do not accuse the innocent of crimes they did not commit. That’s the Law of Moses. The word for “neighbor” used in this commandment is exactly the same as the one that occurs in the subsequent commandment: he is the person whose house or wife you should not covet, or anything else of his – the Tenth Commandment, against envy. The term has nothing to do with location, of course, but is a synonym of such words as “associate,” “fellow,” and “countryman.” This neighbor is the one whose identity the wandering rabbi Nazarene had attempted to circumscribe in a parable of the Good Samaritan before a violation of this very Commandment sent him to the Roman cross.
The Ninth Commandment has only a bit to do with facts. Much as the rest of the covenantal Law, it has to do with love.
The Law of Moses is long, strange, and complicated, but it is boiled down to the heart and gist of the Covenant – twice in the Torah. The Ten Commandments. The first four speak to the relationship between humans and God, listing four ways for Israel to remember it, to show it, to feel it. God is One in an embrace of faith with you, it says. Never forget it. Never take it for granted. Treasure the gift of your freedom in that knowledge. If you read the Gospels, you will recognize the first four Commandments in the popular discourse of the time of Jesus as the First Greatest Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your might and all your heart and all your mind.
Commandments Five through Ten follow with a vision for the relationship between humans and humans. Your society will be just and harmonious and pleasing to God, the Covenant seems implicitly to state, if you respect your elders’ wisdom and take care of them, guard against murder and theft and run a fair justice system where the innocent do not suffer punishment for the guilty, treasure faithfulness in the family, and keep a community free of self-destructive envy. These six by the end of the Second Temple period coalesced into the Second Greatest Commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Here, in two little sentences, is contained the Law of Moses: Love God, and love your neighbor. This contains the Law. And the Prophets. And the Writings. At least the great teacher Hillel thought so, and he was not alone. For a thousand years Hebrew prophets railed against the two sins of Israel: idolatry and injustice. Forgetting what really matters and using others as means. Violating the first and the second Greatest Commandments. Sin against the love for God and sin against the love for neighbor. And then there were no more prophets on record, and the rabbis picked up the slack.
It doesn’t matter how many commandments you count: two, ten, or six hundred and thirteen. Or one: agape love. If you read closely enough and think deeply enough, the end point is always the same, and the rest is details.
So let us come back for a minute to the Ninth Commandment and the tortured souls of our poor Lying Baptists, separated from their brethren. Would I agree with them? Would I lie to keep a child hidden from danger? Of course! Without a second of hesitation or a moment of remorse. And not for one moment would I think I was violating the Law of God who is Love. Because the Ninth Commandment is not asking a husband to tell his sick wife she looks like a week-old zombie. It is not asking a grandmother to give up telling fairy tales to her grandchildren. And it certainly did not demand that a German citizen show the SS troops where he was hiding the Jews – not because the Nazis showed up at his door and asked the question.