“You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor” (Exodus 20:16)
The ninth commandment honors the right to one’s own reputation. It finds pointed application in legal proceedings where what people say depicts reality and determines the course of lives. Judicial decisions and other legal processes wield great power. Manipulating them undercuts the ethical fabric of society and thus constitutes a very serious offense. Walter Brueggemann says this commandment recognizes “that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.”
Although stated in courtroom language, the ninth commandment also applies to a broad range of situations that touch practically every aspect of life. We should never say or do anything that misrepresents someone else. Brueggemann again provides insight:
Politicians seek to destroy one another in negative campaigning; gossip columnists feed off calumny; and in Christian living rooms, reputations are tarnished or destroyed over cups of coffee served in fine china with dessert. These de facto courtrooms are conducted without due process of law. Accusations are made; hearsay allowed; slander, perjury, and libelous comments uttered without objection. No evidence, no defense. As Christians, we must refuse to participate in or to tolerate any conversation in which a person is being defamed or accused without the person being there to defend himself. It is wrong to pass along hearsay in any form, even as prayer requests or pastoral concerns. More than merely not participating, it is up to Christians to stop rumors and those who spread them in their tracks.
This further suggests that workplace gossip is a serious offense. Some of it pertains to personal, off-site matters, which is evil enough. But what about cases when an employee tarnishes the reputation of a co-worker? Can truth ever truly be spoken when those being talked about are not there to speak for themselves? And what about assessments of performance? What safeguards ought to be in place to ensure that reports are fair and accurate? On a large scale, the business of marketing and advertisement operates in the public space among organizations and individuals. In the interest of presenting one’s own products and services in the best possible light, to what extent may one point out the flaws and weaknesses of the competition, without incorporating their perspective? Is it possible that the rights of “your neighbor” could include the rights of other companies? The scope of our global economy suggests this command may have very wide application indeed. In a world where perception often counts for reality, the rhetoric of effective persuasion may or may not have much, if anything, to do with genuine truth. The divine origin of this command reminds us that people may not be able to detect when our representation of others is accurate or not, but God cannot be fooled. It’s good to do the right thing when nobody is watching. With this command, we understand that we must say the right thing when anybody is listening. (See Truth & Deception at www.theologyofwork.org for a much fuller discussion of this topic, including whether the prohibition of “false witness against your neighbor” includes all forms of lying and deception.)
Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” in vol. 1, in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis to Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 431.
Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” in vol. 1, in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis to Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 848.
Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” in vol. 1, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis to Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 432.