image courtesy of reverendmom
[This post is the fifth in a series. Others are: “rahab’s exchange: the lie,” “rahab’s exchange: ethical theories,” “rahab’s exchange: moral absolutism,” and “rahab’s exchange: an interview with myself.” Rahab lied in order to save the lives of two Israelite spies. Was she right to do so? Is it ever right to lie?]
In the culture in which you grew up, there were likely many lies which were always allowed — and even preferred and encouraged. Lies like:
How are you?
Fine, thank you.
Are you thirsty? Can I get you a drink?
No, thank you. I’m fine.
[But the drink would be served anyway — or the question would be asked again, at which time it was appropriate to say that, indeed, you would like a drink. In China it is necessary that you refuse the drink three times; the fourth time, though, you are allowed to accept.]
What do you think of my new haircut?
Oh, it looks great. Where did you get it done?
[Note the quick change of subject after the lie.]
Honey, do these jeans make me look fat?
It’s not the jeans, dear. Denim doesn’t create muffin-tops; it just highlights them.
[Just kidding. That’s not our preferred answer.]
I think the general reasoning for our acceptance of such lies is that we’re trying to be polite or spare the feelings of another individual. American culture has determined that, in such cases, being courteous is more important than objective truth. And many a Christian, when forced to think through this, is left only to assume that we are all sinning in doing so.
We lack a methodology for understanding why something we feel to be true (we should spare a friend hurt feelings even though her hair is hideous) might indeed be true. We want the simplicity of a system in which there is no conflict between our various moral dealings. We want right and wrong to be clear and unambiguous. But this approach doesn’t mesh with our conviction that it’s just wrong to tell a spouse he/she looks fat.
So, when pushed, many believers will offer up, “Yeah, it probably is wrong to be dishonest in those situations. I shouldn’t lie no matter the reason.” Then an individuals’ blatant disregard for others’ feelings can be credited to him as honesty righteousness. Bad manners and a lack of compassion become the ideal for followers of Jesus?
- Some will say, “Exactly. We shouldn’t lie no matter what our culture tells us. Culture shouldn’t interpret morality.”
- Others will say, “Well, I just feel like we should look at the intent with which we lie in those situations.”
Here in Tanzania, it’s incredibly rude to answer a friend with, “No.” There is instead always a polite excuse offered.
Let’s say you have a practice of not allowing others to use your vehicle. No matter how logical your reasoning, if I ask to borrow your car, you should offer a polite excuse. It won’t do to say, “I’m sorry. You can’t borrow my car because my wife and I don’t loan it out to anyone.” Instead you should offer, “Oh, but I think I might be using my car on that day.” Even if you have every intention of staying at home with your car parked in the garage.*
Or say you’ve had a really long day of work and just need to read a book or sit in silence, and have some “you time” — but someone wants to visit with you — do you say no and try to explain your reasoning? Of course not; you simply answer, “You know, I’m really busy with some work issues this evening.”**
But here’s the catch: When you offer one of these excuses, your friend knows this is not a real reason, but rather a polite device employed to spare his feelings and safeguard your relationship.
If you were to simply say “no,” he would be left to wonder why you no longer want a relationship with him. Why would you be so incredibly rude to say no, when you easily could have made up any number of small lies to spare his feelings and keep your relationship intact?
Truth and accuracy are not held in nearly as high regard as relationship and civility.
I am becoming more comfortable with this system of choosing relationship over accuracy. I’m not saying it’s right. But that’s much of the reason I’ve lately been studying ethics and the Rahab story.
I mentioned earlier the two most likely responses:
- We should not lie no matter what culture tells us. Culture can’t interpret morality.
- We should take into account the intent of a given lie. Was it to be polite? Then we’ll let it go.
I don’t necessarily buy either of these arguments. Human morality can’t exist outside of culture, and determining morality by intent alone is suspect in my opinion. [Of course I’ve made it clear in past posts that I believe there to be a graded hierarchy of moral laws, which should be utilized in these situations. But…] I wonder if my own argument in these situations might be much simpler. It probably looks something like this:
- A lie which everyone knows to be a lie, is not a lie.
Perhaps it’s not a question of whether or not it’s right to lie in these situations. It might be that these words are indeed not lies. What do you guys think? Farewell, Brett Harrison?
[Next post — rahab’s exchange: a story of true faith]
* Obviously we can use our creativity to think through ways of dealing with these situations without lying. I often try to employ humor in these situations. Though, clearly I am still not telling the truth, which is that I simply will not allow you to borrow my car… whether it be for reasons of insurance, legal issues, or a general lack of safety.
** We won’t get into the many problems with viewing any time as being your own private and personal time — valuing self over community.
P.S. — If you’re interested further in the topics of “dishonesty” in African culture, see of marathons and misinformation: a lesson in tanzanian communication and missionary predicaments: hospitality and rest.