True Witness

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

What does this mean?–Answer.

We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

-Martin Luther, The Small Catechism

I was talking to a friend the other day about the local controversy over the Fall Mountain Foodshelf and how so many people seemed to imagine the worst possible motivations not only of those who seek aid (they’re greedy, they’re entitled, they’re reselling it for drug money, etc.) but also those who give aid (they’re weak spirited and enabling addiction, laziness, they have a need to be needed, they are enabling waste, fraud, and abuse). And having volunteered at the Foodshelf for over a year now (albeit in a very limited capacity), I am really perplexed at this response to what I have experienced as a valuable safety net for the most vulnerable in our community.

I don’t want to argue the accusations here – but rather to draw attention to the persistent need in our society to imagine the worst possible construction on everything.

How does this propensity arise? Why are we so quick to imagine the worst intent?

What happened to Hanlon’s razor? (Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness)

After I shared the harsh words I had heard leveled against the Foodshelf and the volunteers who organize it, my friend shared with me Martin Luther’s definition of false witness that she had learned from the Small Catechism.

Luther takes seriously that this commandment is given in a context of the relationship with one’s neighbor. This is not a deontic command to always say the objectively correct thing and never say the objectively incorrect thing (keep google on hand to know the difference). Rather it is a command about the true way of seeing and hearing one’s neighbor. If Jesus and Paul summarized the law in the twofold command to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, how does this command teach us to love our neighbor?

  • By not representing our neighbor in a dishonest way,
  • by not betraying our neighbor’s trust,
  • by resisting the urge to slander or defame a neighbor (or a community of neighbors).

and he adds that we not only love our neighbor by not doing harm, but by seeking the good for our neighbor and the way they are seen and heard and understood by ourselves and others. We love our neighbor

  • by defending our neighbor
  • by thinking and speaking well of our neighbor
  • and by putting the best construction on everything relating to our neighbor

I don’t join the contrarian chorus decrying social media for lowering the standards of civil discourse. I do recognize that social media enables an amplification of the discourse that already exists in our society. We see most magnified on Facebook the divisions and dysfunction already present within ourselves and our communities. And because of that, it can be an explosively emotional place — because when you add GIFS and memes and videos and pictures and ALL CAPS, you get an arena most suitable for shouting and least suitable for attentive listening. I believe that it doesn’t have to be that way because I have partaken in spaces online where people remain respectful and loving in their engagement with one another. But there is such a pull towards mutual retaliation — a kind of retrenchment of thoughts and beliefs against the other.

And this is, I think, not an exception to, but a reflection of the real divide and broken relationships in our society at large. Communities not hearing one another, not understanding one another, assuming malicious intent, assuming hatred, assuming a competitive struggle where there is no need for one.

This past week Alton Sterling and then Philando Castile were murdered at the hands of state law enforcement.  And then at a peaceful protest where protesters were joined by supportive law enforcement, four police were killed by a man with a sniper rifle. In the standoff that followed the African-American veteran shooter was killed by a bomb robot. In this climate it is understandable that social media is filled with outrage. I watched with pride the way that my African-American friends and their friends courageously called out racial injustice and violence and as my Facebook friends publicly mourned the senseless and monstrous murders of seven beautiful human beings. I watched in dismay as yet again my white friends brought out their antagonizing hashtags, saying #alllivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter to combat (and for no other reason) the hashtag of the movement for Black lives #blacklivesmatter.  This hashtag struggle and its related shouting matches on comment threads laid bear the deep brokenness of our society, the deep dysfunction and division as people fell into roles of mutually assured derision.

There are two things that are too important to lose sight of in light of all of the grief and pain and anger and lament.

  1. Truth is not a scarce commodity
  2. To affirm the value of some lives does not in itself negate the value of other lives.

Those who combated the #blacklivesmatter hashtag did so, it seems, with an added premise in their minds. 1) Black lives matter, 2)all other lives (especially law enforcement) matter less, 3) therefore, Black lives (only) matter

That kind of thinking is so so so toxic to conversation about these critical issues. Leave out the facts and statistics that show the disproportionate amount of state violence towards Black and Brown people. At the very least we can get our thinking straight and frame conversation in a way that is not just another way to retaliate, attack/blame, or defend.

Conversation (a kind of mutual witnessing between neighbors) can and should be an example of true and not false witness.

If Luther can help us, and I think he can, then we can ask certain questions of our reactions to claims of others and ourselves.

At the base, what is this person saying and what am I hearing? Are they two different things? (the answer is invariably yes to this)

If what they are saying is very likely different from what I’m hearing, how might I better understand their viewpoint? What information do I need to gain to better bear witness to this neighbor’s claim? How might I best construct what they are saying in order to understand them in the best light?

Trolling is by definition doing the very opposite of this — assuming the worst, refusing to listen, and engaging in a conversation only to win or hear oneself talk.

This does not need to be the default way of engaging tough political and social issues across lines of difference.

We can choose to bear true witness by taking the more difficult road and seeking to understand rather than putting all our energy into making ourselves heard.

And I speak as a white person to other white people when I say we are the ones most guilty of this kind of engagement.  Our antagonistic hashtags and refusal to hear and bear witness to the depths of the pain of our African American sisters and brothers before offering critique or (at worst) slander and defamation is the epitome of what Luther calls false witness.

To practice true witness is to read African-American writers, to hear their truth and better understand their experience (Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an excellent place to start). We can do this.  We can choose the way of loving our neighbors, of learning from those who are in pain and who are understandably angry.  Valuing their story is not a devaluing of my story — rather, my story becomes richer, and my moral development becomes much deeper the more I am able to attempt to experience the world from a perspective foreign to me. This is what it means when Harper Lee famously wrote: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

We need not treat truth like its a competitive struggle.  All truth can be heard because all of it is real — from any perspective.  That does not mean that whatever I or another say on a matter is truth, but it can be received in a spirit of generosity knowing that if a safe space is created and trust is established, we can walk together towards truth, towards true witnessing of one another and of the world we inhabit together.

The best way forward for the more powerful is to learn how to listen to those with least power. The best way forward for whites is to learn how to listen. To African-Americans, to Native Americans, to seek to become true witnesses to those who have been deeply hurt by the actions of our ancestors (broadly speaking) in the past.

To assume a defensive posture is to not love our neighbor.

To love we must be willing to put away all malice and be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry — seeking to put the best construction on who our neighbor is, what our neighbor says, and what our neighbor’s intentions are.

If the officer who stopped Philando Castile had put this in practice, what a different story might have circulated in Falcon Heights that day.

Ultimately much more than good listening will be needed to ensure greater justice and peace, but it starts with learning and listening and paying attention with compassion. And any societal false-witness-dysfunction is a malady residing in our hearts as well as systemically in our interactions and technologies and medias.  We can at least become aware of Luther’s insight, and practice this very tangible way of loving our neighbor by bearing true witness.


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