Dissembling, Deception, and Disobedience

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Exodus 20:16, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Painting of Shiphrah and Puah, Unknown Artist

Continuing our series on Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited, today, I would like to take a look at deception, or lying.

Thurman writes that deception is used as a tool by the disinherited in order to “protect themselves against the strong” (58). Not only is this done by humans, but also by different species of animals, most notably through camouflage, the phenomenon through which an animal that has evolved with the ability is able to blend into its surroundings so that it is invisible to predators. This deception is specifically used to preserve one’s life or the life of another (Thurman, 69).

How many instances of deception can you think of, either in the Bible or throughout history? Thurman gives some examples, such as animals that play dead before they can be killed by predators, students who distract their teachers so that they forget to assign a quiz or homework or take another action that would be unfavorable to them, and the African-American minister who, knowing he would be punished for preaching a “social justice” sermon at the funeral of a blind African-American man who was killed by police, prayed instead. The police couldn’t arrest him if he was praying, even if he was saying everything he would have said in a sermon (Thurman, 58-60).

Additional examples I can think of are Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, who, when commanded to kill newborn Hebrew boys in Egypt, instead let them live, and lied to the Egyptian officials by turning what may have been a stereotype against them. In Exodus 1:19, the midwives tell Pharaoh that they did not kill the baby boys because:

…the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.

Exodus 1:19, NRSV

This lie allows the midwives to save lives, just as Thurman argues.

Two other examples are similar: the people who lied to protect escaped slaves hiding in their homes during the antebellum period, and the people who lied to protect Jews–and probably other persecuted groups as well–hiding in their homes during the Holocaust.

How do we determine when a lie is ethical?  The Ten Commandments command us not just against lying, but specifically against lying on other people: “bearing false witness against our neighbors” (Ex. 20:16, NRSV, edited). Does it matter how we interpret this? Does this mean that all lies are bad, or only the ones that we tell about other people in order to harm them? 

In the examples given above, lies were told in order to protect people from the enforcement of wicked laws by corrupt government officials. This reminds me of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approach to civil disobedience. He did not advocate for the disobedience of all laws; only those that were illegitimate. A protest movement grounded in nonviolence would ensure that legitimate laws against murder were not broken. However, sit-ins at restaurants that did not serve African-Americans were acts of disobedience that defied and confronted illegitimate laws based on a false sense of racial superiority and inferiority. 

To “Christianize” this a little more, let’s take a look at what Paul says in Romans 13:

All of you must obey those who rule over you. There are no authorities except the ones God has chosen. Those who now rule have been chosen by God. 2 So whoever opposes the authorities opposes leaders whom God has appointed.

Romans 13:1-2a, New International Reader’s Version (NIRV)

Yet, as the civil disobedience example shows, such obedience is complicated when the rule of law established by the authorities is one that denies the humanity of a particular group of people–the disinherited–or that requires them to break one of God’s commands, i.e. Shiphrah and Puah. In choosing which law to disobey, to lie to the officials or to kill the babies, surely they must have determined that it was better to obey God than the evil command.

Thurman makes a moral argument against deception. According to Thurman,

A man who lies habitually becomes a lie, and it is increasingly impossible for him to know when he is lying and when he is not.

Thurman, 65.

This person has lost the ability to determine right from wrong; they have no moral compass. Instead, Thurman argues for complete honesty and sincerity. Using Psalm 139, which describes God as omnipresent and omniscient, he argues that even as we lie to other people, it is impossible to lie to God. In contrast, being honest with other people equates to being honest with God (Thurman, 71-72). This honesty is then used as a weapon against the oppressor, in the place of deception.  Thurman concludes that when the disinherited operate from an ethic grounded in sincerity, it breaks down any power dynamics that may have existed:

…there is merely a relationship between human beings. A man is a man, no more, no less. The awareness of this fact marks the supreme moment of human dignity,

Thurman, 73.

Here is where I am tempted to disagree with Thurman, though this disagreement depends on how I interpret his argument, for I seem to be interpreting it in two different ways. The first interpretation is that it is solely the responsibility of the disinherited to practice sincerity in engagements with their oppressor/the group that holds power. This action enables them to feel an inherent dignity within their persons. The second interpretation is that, while the disinherited are responsible for being honest and sincere, this act serves as a mirror of sorts, reflecting onto their oppressors the wickedness that they have done. There is no longer any excuse or justification for their behavior, because the disinherited have done nothing to provoke them. Perhaps this turn towards sincerity and away from deception comes from a sense of dignity instead of evoking one.

Clearly, I’m still thinking through this, but I will push back a bit against Thurman with the words of Trinidadian-American activist on behalf of the African-American/Black American civil rights movement, Kwame Ture, born as Stokely Carmichael. Speaking specifically of Dr. King, Ture stated: 

His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience….

Kwame Ture, formerly/also known as Stokely Carmichael

Ture’s words were the first that popped into my head after reading the conclusion to Thurman’s argument. Sincerity is great, but what if your opponent refuses to fight on the same ground as you? I think it’s a beautiful idea to think that consistent nonviolence/sincerity/transparency will change the hearts and behaviors of our enemies/oppressors/opponents. 

If our current climate has taught me anything, it is not necessarily that taking the moral high ground produces results, but exposure of the truth of what’s really going on. Now, if this is part of the sincerity that Thurman is advocating, I can get behind that.

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