rahab’s exchange: a cultural argument for lying?

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:

  1. We should not lie no matter what culture tells us.  Culture can’t interpret morality.
  2. 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.



Filed under culture, exchanges, living in africa

20 responses to “rahab’s exchange: a cultural argument for lying?

  1. Jesus addresses these issues in the Sermon on the Mount, during the section dealing with taking oaths (Matthew 5:33-38). Some would say that since he appears to be addressing a specific context like a legal setting where you are required to take an oath, we should not make a general rule. Others would argue he is stating a general rule that obviously applies to the specific situation.

    Here is how the NIV translates the section:

    “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

    It is interesting to note the Message puts it this way:

    “And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.

    While phrases carry different connotations in different cultures, we all need to guard against manipulating words to get our own way. We also need to remember that twisting words is Satan’s stock trade–from the beginning. Our habits of speech should always be on a path toward simplicity, transparency and integrity. Rudeness is always to be over-ruled by kindness.

    Within the “third culture” that develops between those who truly fellowship from cross-cultural settings, our “Yes” should mean yes. and our “No” should mean no. And these answers should be adequate.

    • john, excellent points. i especially like pointing out that twisting words and stretching truth was what satan did in the very beginning — that (helped to) start(ed) all this fallen mess.

      question: you speak about the “third culture” that develops, and that yes should be yes and no no. i understand we should as christians be able to put aside twisted words and the like. are you suggesting, though, that when i am in tanzania (a 2nd culture to me), i should lean towards their way of doing things? and later move with christians towards yes is yes?

      • Brett, I have uneasy feelings about giving myself a pass on being honest. I recognize that cultures impact our consciences, so there are things like greetings that come to mean something different than the literal words might imply. But I know myself well enough to know that I have to take preventive measures against being “less than honest.”

        My third-culture comment was intended to raise the issue of living with such intentionality that those I disciple realize that our dealings with each other will be transparent and truthful, irregardless of what our two cultures of origin dictate because we are living under a kingdom culture where the goal is God’s will being done here, just as it is in heaven. There will be no duplicity between Father, Son and Spirit. That is my calling.

        Paul called Timothy to be an example in his speech (1 Timothy 4:11-16). I see that as my calling, too. I try to find creative greetings that I can speak with all honesty in the culture where I am present. I counsel American business people to schedule important family times so they can honestly tell their boss (or anyone else), “I am already booked then” and mean it.

        Thanks for pushing us to think deeply about these matters. The discussion has obviously challenged many.

  2. randy morgan

    i’ve no wisdom to offer, brett, but i am really enjoying this series. in fact, i’ve made several copies and distributed it to thinking friends.

    i told them it was written by someone i deeply admire (and you may feel free to run that through your filter).

  3. JMF

    Randy: lol

    I agree…this is a cool series. I love being challenged like this.

    JKK wins the “Conviction Of The Day” award for his comments about using manipulative language/twisting of words. Man, am I ever guilty of that.

  4. Interesting article. Difficult situation. I’m not leaving your blog. It’s my favorite and I can’t figure out why I feel so comfortable here and not as much on any other. I look forward to talking with you.

    • thanks, holly. this is definitely one of the highest compliments i’ve ever been paid. and i’m glad you feel welcome here, though i too do not know why. maybe because every first time guest gets to post a comment for free and then receives a gift card to itunes?

      no… that’s probably not it.

  5. it is of course impossible to disconnect us from our culture, which just complicates everything. I agree that relationship should trump truth (well I think), obviously the goal is to always have them aligned, but in these instances I guess you just need to weigh it. When it comes to lying about how someone looks you have to weigh what the benefit will be to the truth as well as the cost of the truth.

    • but weighing the outcome seems to be a tendency of utilitarianism. what you do isn’t as important as who and how many people are made happy. not that this is what you’re saying.

      i like the idea of relationship and accuracy always being aligned. and that’s of course what we aim for. it’s the “until then” times that i wonder about…

  6. Andrew

    Are you on Facebook or Twitter?

    • andrew, i’m not on facebook or twitter. i’ve never been on twitter, but i was once addicted to facebook; it’s been really good for me to be absent from it. [despite the fact that i do know it can — in the right hands — be an excellent tool for keeping up with friends and doing good. but those are not my hands.]

      i feel that out of politeness, i should return your question, “are you on facebook or twitter?” but that wouldn’t do either of us any good. thanks for coming by.

  7. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: a story of true faith | aliens and strangers

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  9. I was reading through John the other day and immediately thought of your series on not telling the truth. I never thought of it before, but Jesus (who did not sin, right) found it okay to lie/bend the truth/deliberately misspeak:

    His brothers try to convince him to go to the festival, but he says, in verse 8, “Go to the Feast yourselves. I am not going up to the Festival, because my time is not ripe. Having said these things to them, He stayed behind in Galilee. But afterward, when his brothers had gone up to the Feast, He went up also…”

    • wow! thanks, shawn. i’ve never noticed that Jesus did this. of course i’d just call it changing his mind — not lying. but if we were to assume Jesus already knew what would happen, then it certainly would be a twisting of words. do we believe Jesus was omniscient while on earth? [i lean towards no… but don’t tell anyone.]

  10. Pingback: the lie of Jesus | aliens and strangers

  11. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: an interview with myself | aliens and strangers

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