The Fear of the Ordinary

“There was a man who lost an ax and thought the boy next door stole it. For the next few days he watched the boys movements and decided that his behavior and looks were like those of a guilty person. Later the man found the ax in a deserted area in the woods. When he got home his neighbors boy no longer looked like a thief. Whether someone is guilty or not depends on your opinion of them in the first place.” (Lieh-Tzu translated by Eva Wong)

Is there a connection between hatred and falsehood? Most definitely. The Ten Commandments tells us ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Parents tell their children this means you must not tell a lie. All too often that is as far as it ever goes. The commandment is concerns a legal problem. If someone believes he has something to gain in a lawsuit or by getting someone else convicted with their property confiscated, that person may be tempted – very tempted to lie about it. The story of how Queen Jezebel legally steals Naboth’s vineyard by having him falsely accused and executed is the most well-known Biblical example. The most well-known American example is the Salem Witch Trials.

The commandment has a further application as well. If we hate another person, we tend to believe anything negative about that person. We will wish to hear dirt. Or we might hope someone gets the goods on that person. Or they may hope that others learn what that person is “really like.” If a rumor is voiced about someone the people who hate him or her will enthusiastically pass it along. It does not matter if the accusation is true. Scoring points against that person is all that matters.

I often cringe when I see some obviously false accusation made against a public figure. When I find myself tempted to believe something and pass it along, I attempt to force myself to remember that I know very few public figures personally. I hope to be fair in my judgements. I really want to know what a person actually said and make the best judgement I can from there.

All of us though have ego problems. The desire to get the goods or know the dirt on someone comes from issues we have about ourselves and our place in the world. The present era allows for much more nonsense and evil to be perpetuated by “bearing false witness.” Both Idiot America and Fantasyland are books that detail some of the worst ideas held by too many people. We can call them “conspiracy theories” or malevolent views about other human beings. Either label fits the definition of ideas that are designed and perpetuated with little factual basis that allow for the construction of evil responses. During the late eighties, I read an article by a religious leader that dealt with “Satanic Conspiracies.” I saw the author in a university café and went to him to ask why he wrote something that has been debunked that is to say proven false. He walked quickly away without providing an answer or acknowledging I spoke to him. He simply knowingly wrote something that passed along false information with the intent of improving his standing among readers in his fundamentalist audience. In other words, he “bore false witness” to make himself more popular as an author and preacher.

What motivated that preacher and other people like him? He was afraid of being ordinary. He wanted to be a star in the world in which he lived. Being once on the talk show Donahue had gone to his head. The fear that so many people have of being ordinary leads them to try to shine without any effort. Reality television and internet video has made this possible. I recently listened to an Audible documentary called It Burns. The documentary is about the quest to breed the hottest pepper. The narrator points out that there are a number of people doing internet videos showing themselves trying to eat “Ghost Peppers” and “Carolina Reapers” causing themselves to suffer the burning sensations, vomiting, and eventually endorphins. In their minds, they are no longer ordinary. They are heroes or at the very least spectacles of a sort.

Ultimately, this is the same motivation of those people who are not great talents in anything to perpetuate untruths on websites, magazines, and books. Ego, either inflated or decimated, causes conspiracy theorists to tell lies about other people. It is the fear of being an ordinary human person that makes them become the most loathsome of liars. And it does not matter if such lies are told in the name of religion, patriotism, or getting your football team’s coach fired.

It takes courage to be ordinary. It takes humility to be a saint no one remembers. One person cannot receive the affirmation of their life from the willingness of other people to believe falsehoods. People may not love you for standing in and for truth. But stirring up their hatred makes one worse than a scoundrel.

WHY THEY BELIEVE THE LIES

It was late.

The knock on the door of my hotel suite interrupted my settling in after the long day. We were with the church youth group at the annual big youth gathering with the big number results hoped for at the end. It was just beginning. I was already tired and a little frustrated. I answered the knock.

It was one of the college age volunteers who was to help with the sixth to eighth grade age boys. The look on his face said he was troubled. I asked if everything was all right with his group of kids. Everything was fine, he told me. Then he asked, “That story the preacher told, do you think it’s true?”

Ah yes! The preacher’s miracle story. It was the key to my frustration that night. Youth gatherings are plagued by the visiting evangelist. They are usually hired because of their track record of bringing in the numbers of conversions or “pledges of faith.” They get them in some manipulative way. One way is by telling stories about young new drivers or young cancer patients or young accident victims who died after claiming Jesus as their Savior. That is the worst manipulation tactic I know. Another is the miracle story.  This one is of the incredible type that includes the following structure.  An armed mob decides to run the evangelists out of a village in some country of the Global South – this time it was somewhere in Africa. Someone with a powerful presence intercedes (this time a little old grandma). The armed toughs dropped their clubs (or whatever) and go away. The hook of the story is where the villagers that do speak to the evangelists have no idea who the intercessor was. It is a tale designed to produce chills and wonderment. Such feelings are evidence that it must be true. I answered the question.

“No. I don’t believe it is true.” I said.  He nodded and went to his room. I was glad he asked. I did not care if he told any one, “Pastor Don says it’s not true.” Simply because it wasn’t true. I am reminded by Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” I think telling lies to manipulate others into any action, even “making a decision for Jesus,” is wrong.  The text quoted above is a warning for those who do that. I do not tolerate lying evangelists.

Lying evangelistic charlatans are the primary reason so many church people fall for the lies of leaders like the President of the United States. Even when people know they are being lied to, they will shrug it off and say, “the other side lies too.” Moral equivalency is based in lying. It is a logically false statement. When a person claims someone is lying the act of claiming another lie has been told (as in “well, what about…”) does not negate the falsehood described by the prior claim. All that is being said here is, “Yes, I know. And I don’t care.” It is similar to the claim a friend made about the Left Behind series. “I know it is radical right wing propaganda. But, if someone is saved because of it, what does it matter eternally?” Why didn’t Jesus think of that? “By lying lips you shall be saved.” Actually I believe he said freedom came with the truth (John 8:32).

The belief in a lie is also wrapped up in the identities people wish to claim for themselves. A person may believe an untruth because they wish to be accepted by others or even rejected by others as a contrarian. A human person may believe a demonstrated untruth because they wish to be faithful, and seen by others as faithful, to a cause whether that cause is religious, culturally traditional, philosophical, or secular is immaterial to the situation. Still a small group of people believe lies in order to maintain the insularity of the group. Often challenged with demonstrable truth as in science or textual analysis or logic such persons resort to tactics like moral equivalency, irrelevancies, ridicule, accusation, and then ultimately violence.

The means of overcoming a lie is to offer unvarnished fact in its’ face. I am reminded of the time two political candidates wrangled over the meaning of the first amendment to the United States Constitution. The debate ended when one candidate read the text of the document out loud in front of an audience to his opponent. The debate ended even though the opponent kept wanting to clarify that the actual text was being read.

Why do they believe lies? It surprises us too often that it isn’t because of ignorance of facts. It is often because of a desired identity on the part of the believer of the lie. It is more often because of a desired goal that can be reached by using a lie. And most commonly it is because the person or group have been conditioned through long habit that the truth or fact does not matter. These are the reasons great evils triumph for a short time.