River Wissey Lovell Fuller

July 2012 Anglican Newsletter

July 2012


When is a lie not a lie?

We have an old friend who has just spent a couple of months in a mental assessment unit, because she is becoming increasingly confused and frightened and consequently behaving irrationally.   She is now being properly fed and getting all her medication on time and is clearly much better than when she was admitted.   However, her family and friends remain convinced that she is not competent any more to live on her own (she is a widow, with no nearby family).    But she is desperate to be allowed to go home and does not understand why she can’t.   The Doctors have now told her that she is going to be allowed to go home, but with three times a day supervision to make sure she gets her medication etc.  Her cooker has been turned off, because she can’t be trusted to operate it safely.  There appear to be no arrangements for shopping, cooking etc!   We all anticipate that she will not cope and the Doctors will then have the evidence to enable them to commit her formally to a proper home where she can be looked after.   No one has told her that her release is probably temporary!

In Church today (I am drafting this on a Sunday), one of the readings set to be used (but not one which we actually used in our service) included an instruction from God to Samuel (one of the more famous of the Old Testament personalities) to deceive the King.   Samuel was afraid to go somewhere where God wanted him to do something, because he was afraid of what Saul would say and God instructed him to come up with a story to explain why he was going and then to get on with what he had to do without arousing Saul’s suspicions!   This is God talking!

You can all think of many, many examples of expedient dishonesty (even if only at the level of telling little children about Father Christmas)!   We tell lies (Yes, lies) in order ease our way through life, even if we are not trying to gain a dishonest advantage.   We also tell lies in order to ease the way for others.   Sometimes we have to make judgements about how much truth a person can take;  how much truth a person needs to take.

So, assuming that the Christian position is that lies are sinful and assuming that God’s instruction to lie cannot be leading us into sin, when is a lie not a lie?

In the beginning and in the middle these matters may be substantially semantic, but in the end they must resolve as fundamental issues.  So let’s look at the semantics!   Accuracy is not truth – inaccuracy is not a lie!  Most accuracy, of course, is simply a statement of statistics.   And, of course, we all remember the famous aphorism attributed (wrongly) by Mark Twain to Disraeli: – “There are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies and statistics”.   Lies are statements or acts with the motive of misleading.   Statistics are nothing of the sort.   To say that the average income of the people in a particular area is £x per annum means that they are poor, is as truthful or false as saying that if a coat is coloured, then it is red.   To say that because the increase in the number of people being killed on zebra crossings in Birmingham is identical to the increase in the number of Japanese bee keepers in a particular period then, if we want more bee keepers in Japan, we must ensure that more people are run over in Birmingham is an extreme example of the way people try to read some truth into mere statistics.

Accuracy is just measurement.   Reading the results of those measurements is simply a process but deliberate falsification of them or deliberate use of them to produce a false conclusion is lying.   When the News at Ten shows a graph, with the important measure falling (or rising) drastically, it lead the viewer to think that there is an important, maybe critical, fluctuation in what’s being reviewed – but that totally depends on the sensitivity of the scales being used.   So, if the (say) Stock Exchange index is at about 5,000 and the graph only shows the index from 4,998 to 5,002, movements in a period may look very erratic, but, if the scale went from 0 to 5,000 on the axis shown on the screen, then the movement would appear as a horizontal line, with NO visible fluctuations!   And so the journalists can whip up interest and even fear.   Lying – real dishonesty – is very real.

When Churchill (in company with all political leaders during wars) suppressed bad news from the front and highlighted good news, his objective was to build confidence and faith and maybe, thereby, to win the war instead of losing it.   And he was successful.   When the German High Command did not keep Hitler fully informed about the reversals they were suffering in the closing months (and years) of the War, they were instrumental in it dragging on for longer than necessary with the loss of many more lives.   Were Churchill’s lies ‘good’ and the German lies ‘bad’?

I don’t know about you, but I have stirred up a real hornet’s nest in my own mind!

We tell innumerable ‘white lies’ in our lives.   You know what I mean and typically they are told to avoid trouble, to take the easy way out and they are not intended to cause harm.   The danger is that we can become habituated to taking the easy way out instead of facing up to truths that need to be exposed – we may finish up being dishonest with ourselves – the worst type of dishonesty.  Or we may so overprotect someone else (however vulnerable) that he or she becomes unable to live a full responsible life.   A little white lie is the thin end of a possible large wedge.

What about the BIG lie, designed totally altruistically to do good?   These include the lies of which politicians (including Disraeli and Churchill and Hitler) can be so easily guilty.   These can really come back and bite you.  They require a discipline of which few of us are really capable.   They have to be disclosed as soon as the ‘good’ has been achieved and others allowed to judge whether, in spite of the ‘good’, the liar needs to be punished or admonished.

Our (including the Doctors’) lie to our friend that she can go home (with the implication that that is permanent or indefinite) is a different sort of big lie.   It is, in a sense, open and public;  it is designed absolutely to make life easier for the person being lied to;  and ultimately, if the lie comes home to roost, as expected, then the person lied to at least had a respite from the conditions which she resented.

Samuel’s lie to Saul (at God’s behest) did achieve the objective – the finding of the shepherd boy David, who became the great King.   God presumably knew that he could only goad Samuel into appropriate action by giving him the advice he did, but the whispering question left behind is that surely there was another way in which Samuel could have got to find him?

Having written this, I am now, unfortunately, going to have real difficulty in telling a white lie, without looking downcast, next month, when yet again I have to explain to the Editor why my copy is late – that would become that other sort of really bad lie – the barefaced lie!

Most significantly, sadly, I still can’t tell you when a lie is not a lie, but I am sure that those times do exist.   Now who am I trying to convince?

Keith MacLeod

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