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By Donald Phillipps in All Sorts

Deception, trust, and communication, are all interwoven; the courage to be honest took Jesus of Nazareth all the way to the cross.

World news is, at the moment, distressing enough. The fatal spread of the coronavirus is not abating, and our hope that somehow, somewhere, a cure will be found and an end will come seems as far away from achievement as ever. Nor is the situation helped when world leaders go into denial. There was a telling moment a couple of weeks ago when a former military leader in the United States said, in this connection, that his President was a liar. Not a qualified statement – just a blunt assertion. Backed up this week by a statistic – the Washington Post has been keeping a tally, and they assert that this same
leader has been guilty of 19,000 lies during his term of office!
It has been said that the overwhelming majority of human beings lie to themselves every day just to keep moving forward. We make progress because, without supporting evidence we believe we can achieve something we’ve never achieved before. We happily (and modestly) accomplish something against the odds. Fooling ourselves isn’t lying, surely. But. We believed in ourselves, so that was sufficient to get by. Is it wrong to lie - when you’re only deceiving yourself?
Since it is so prevalent in human interaction does it make any sense to take the high moral ground. It’s understandable that practical, pragmatic people question the point of it all. That’s surely what was going on in Pilate’s mind when he took it upon himself to question the upstart religious trouble-maker from Galilee. John tells us that when Jesus stated that he had come into the world to bear witness to the truth, Pilate responded, maybe cynically, “Truth? What is that?”
Where is the line to be drawn? Indeed, when what is at stake seems of little consequence what is really wrong in telling what we call “little white lies”. When not much is at stake it is easier to tell the truth - but telling small lies then becomes habitual, and leads to much larger lies.
And lies do inflict terrible harm. Lies by a government or head of state, for instance, can lead to moral bankruptcy and ruin. At the heart of matter lies this concern: whether it’s a little fib told by a friend or a whopper told by a President, a lie undermines trust in one another. Trust is essential for human flourishing. A philosopher once wrote: “Not that you lied to me, but that I can no longer believe you, has shaken me.” Trust is crucial for human interaction.
A lie that a scientist tells in a professional paper is very different from the story told to a four-year-old about Santa Claus. The first interferes with our ability to trust scientists in general - the second lie is an example of what a theologian has called “the living truth” - making up a story to communicate what cannot be as effectively conveyed in plain words.
Deception, trust, and communication, are all interwoven. Truthfulness isn’t quite the same thing – but is it the rule or an exception. We place such a premium on the truth, because it makes exceptional demands on us. Lying is usually the easier way out. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Maybe we prize the truth because it is difficult and rare. It is often hard to know the truth, hard to accept it, hard to tell it.
There’s something degrading about lying, both for the liar and their intended dupe. Our pride, our dignity, is preserved when we tell the truth. If you tell me a truth I don’t want to hear, I might not like you for it, but I’ll often respect the fact that you had the courage to be honest with me.
The courage to be honest took Jesus of Nazareth all the way to the cross. 2020 and its pandemic has illustrated as never before the need for honesty. 2020 and its elections challenge us to set bias aside and look for honesty. The truth is within us, said Browning. It has to be. It is there, surely.
Donald Phillipps