William H. Willimon - "To Tell the Truth" (November 15, 1998)
|When President Clinton admitted that he had lied to a
|grand jury, the surprising thing was,
|we were not surprised.
|On news broadcasts, when his lying was mentioned,
|there was always someone present to say, hey, he wasn't
|the first president to lie, what is the big deal?
|True, President Bush lied about his pardon
|of President Nixon who lied about his role in Watergate.
|President Regan lied about his arms for hostage deal
|with Iran, and of course we voters find it difficult
|to be too negative about presidential lies.
|We voted for them in great part because of their lies,
|not despite them.
|They told us they wouldn't raise taxes.
|They told us they were model husbands.
|We knew they were lying and we loved it.
|A recent poll found that 91% of us lie regularly.
|Most of our lies are told to friends and relatives.
|31% of us believe that we've been lied to by our doctors.
|42% of us believe that lawyers have lied to us.
|The University of Virginia psychologist had his subjects
|keep a diary recording the lies that they tell each day
|and says, people tell an average of two lies a day
|or at least that is how many they admit to.
|Maybe by the time we reach adolescence we have been
|bombarded with so many advertisements claiming wealth
|and peace and happiness and instant joy
|that we just stop expecting the truth.
|At the same time, we curiously live in a tell-all culture,
|at least on TV.
|What was once reserved for the priest's confessional
|becomes standard fare on daytime television,
|on Jenny and Sally Jesse, before millions.
|We appear to live, Donald McCullough says, in a kind of
|schizophrenic environment where we are stretched between
|wide-scale pervasive deceit on the one hand
|and tell-all TV confession on the other.
|We're not very adept with the truth.
|Aristotle said that telling the truth
|is a difficult matter
|because truth-telling is often a matter of relationship.
|Aristotle says true honesty is more than simply
|spilling our guts, unloading everything we think
|about somebody on them.
|Rather, true honesty, Aristotle said, is speaking
|the right truth to the right person
|at the right time
|in the right way for the right reasons.
|There may be truths which I know, for instance,
|which are not really mine to tell.
|If you tell me something in confidence, asking me
|to keep a secret, if I tell that secret,
|I have stolen something precious from you.
|Not every person has a right to know all truth that we know.
|One of the reasons that we enable counselors and attorneys
|and others to keep confidence
|is it when you tell a truth
|to a stranger, how do you know that that stranger will not
|use the truth against you to hurt you?
|Truth, truth is power, and so Aristotle stresses
|how the truth is used as an important matter.
|Timing is important with the truth.
|There are some things which are true which don't need
|to be told at this time.
|When my friend's son is just flunked out of college
|is not the time to tell him the truth
|that my daughter's on the Dean's list.
|Truth, even so noble a thing, can be used as a weapon
|to hurt and to wound.
|When I was attempting to help reform my own denomination.
|On a number of occasions I said that we were being poorly
|lead that our current crop of bishops were uncreative inept.
|I still believe those judgments to be true and yet I learned
|that there are lots of different ways to say the truth.
|You can say the truth in such a way that it just silences
|all communication, the other person is so overwhelmed
|by the severity of your judgment,
|it really doesn't help to say, well, my judgments are true.
|So Aristotle stresses, the wrong truth or more specifically,
|the wrong person telling the truth at the wrong time
|or truth told in the wrong way for the wrong reason,
|does damage to truth.
|Honesty and cruelty bid quite well together,
|but I suppose that few of us
|are guilty of great, big, obvious lies.
|More frequently, our downfall is the so-called white lie.
|I hate that term.
|The lie which is allegedly told out of compassion.
|When you thrust your simian newborn in my face
|and say, isn't this the most beautiful baby you've
|ever seen in the world?
|And what's the harm of my indulging in the white lie?
|Why yes, of course, your baby is beautiful.
|Trouble is, it's not so much the lies that we tell others,
|but also the lies we tell ourselves.
|So when I say, I was not completely honest with this person
|because I didn't want to hurt her feelings, be suspicious.
|A good test of our allegedly innocent lies is to ask,
|does this lie protect the other person
|or is it mainly protection of me?
|I'll admit it isn't always easy to tell the difference.
|I've had doctors justify their lack of candor with a patient
|saying, I know that his disease is terminal, I know that he
|is beyond medical cure, but why tell him, what is the point
|of destroying all of his hope with the truth.
|On the surface that lie appears to be protecting a sufferer
|from additional pain, however, on closer examination
|it also serves to protect the doctor from being in the
|discomfort of being in the presence of someone
|who's just heard bad news.
|We all know the tendency of people
|to associate bad messages with the messenger.
|President Clinton said that he lied because he wanted
|to protect his family.
|We do well to be suspicious of such claims.
|Most of the time, when I tell you, look I'm only saying
|this to you for your own good, what I mean is
|I do most things for my good,
|therefore the truth
|becomes important to cling to despite my reasons.
|For instance, in my experience,
|medical lies are terribly insidious.
|To give a patient false hope is to deny that patient
|opportunity to make important decisions, to put affairs
|in order, to do whatever that person needs to do
|with the truth.
|Besides, who am I to assume that a person doesn't have
|the moral resources to handle the truth?
|More typically, it is I who do not have the resources to say
|painful things to other people and risk their reaction.
|There are lies which you tell, so called white lies,
|which do seem to lubricate the friction
|which is inevitable in relationships.
|A person called you and says, we thought it would be
|just great if we could go out to dinner next week.
|Wouldn't you love to go out to dinner with us next week?
|And you think to yourself that you would love to do anything
|but go out to dinner with these people.
|You've been out to dinner with them before.
|All it means is a large check in an expensive restaurant,
|a couple of hours of being exposed
|to their Neanderthal politics,
|but you say,
|of course, I am sure that we would love
|to go out with you to dinner.
|Now admittedly that lie hides some of your true feelings,
|and yet what harm does it do?
|You may through this lie be forced out into a dinner
|that may turn out to be better than you thought,
|and why bring unnecessary hurt to another?
|I chalk that sort of lie up to simple courtesy,
|and yet in the present context, maybe it's time for us
|to admit that even these occasional white lies,
|in which we fail to tell the complete truth to one another,
|that even these are dangerous.
|Aristotle stressed that lying is always a political matter.
|It relates to the whole social fabric.
|We are utterly dependent as a society upon
|people's word being trustworthy.
|If we can't be counted upon in most of our inner actions
|to be truthful, we will end up in fragmented isolation.
|It would be an untrustworthy, extremely frightening world
|if you couldn't count on the trustworthiness
|of people's speech.
|Truth is a bridge that we keep building to other people.
|Telling the truth to another demonstrates not only
|that you are a person of truth, but it's also a gift
|in which you trust the other person
|to be the sort of human being who can be truthful.
|A student asked me to spend a perfectly good Saturday
|working on a Habitat For Humanity house.
|I responded that while nothing would make me happier
|than to spend my Saturday morning on a roof of a house
|loading shingles and nailing them down, I really needed
|my Saturdays to prepare for my work on Sunday.
|She persisted, is there another day of the week
|that you could prepare so that you could join us
|at the Habitat project on Saturday?
|I told her that my week was much too filled, that there
|would be no way that I could rearrange my schedule.
|Wouldn't it be more true to say
|that you simply don't want to give up a Saturday?
|I can understand that, she said, after all you're busy.
|I know that you think Habitat is an important undertaking,
|but you do not think it's important enough to rearrange
|your life for, okay?
|Her words hurt, she took an ax out and slashed through
|all my justifications and alibis, and it was painful.
|Precisely because it was true.
|Duke's Bill Poteet used to paraphrase Jesus.
|The truth will make you free, but before it does,
|it will make you miserable.
|And if there is no one in your life to tell you the truth,
|you are a sad person, you're growth is stunted.
|If someone cares enough about me to tell the truth,
|I am enabled to make an accurate assessment of my life,
|an accurate assessment of who I am in the world.
|I can grow.
|In Ephesians four, it's interesting that Paul says,
|we are to speak the truth to one another in love, yeah,
|so that we can grow up into Christ in every way.
|There's an interesting linkage not only with truth,
|with love, but truth with growth.
|It's sad that most of the lying we do is done to friends
|and family because lies are the death of relationship.
|If you can't know the truth about someone,
|you're only related to their false image.
|Real joy of friendship is being appreciated
|for who you really are, and the great joy of being a friend
|to someone is the courage to be in relationship
|with that person as that person really is.
|In fact you might take that as a definition of friendship.
|A friend is someone to whom you are able to tell the truth.
|Maybe more importantly, a friend is someone from whom you're
|able to receive the truth without hating the person for it.
|Still, speaking the truth in love, maybe there is something
|to be said for not always blurting out the truth.
|I think Donald McCullough gives some good guidelines.
|First, the truth needs to be pertinent to the situation.
|I expect a doctor to tell me the truth about my health,
|not to make a judgment about my personality.
|In preaching, you ought to expect a pastor to tell the truth
|about the gospel, but the pastor doesn't need to tell
|you how she feels about the church board.
|I've known people who pride themselves on being honest,
|totally honest, but many times that meant that this was
|a person always offering to other people their opinions
|and judgments even unsolicited.
|I suspect that they were always telling this truth because
|it was their way of keeping other people at a distance.
|There are times when we ought to refrain
|from telling the truth, but that doesn't mean to lie.
|Rather the time honored, no comment, ought to be recovered.
|It's better to say nothing than to lie.
|Second, the truth oughta be used to build up
|rather than tear down relationship.
|I take this from Saint Paul, who when discussing some
|particular worship activity in the church, always had
|this test, does it edify, does it build up the church?
|As we said, the truth can be used to hurt.
|It can force somebody into silence or submission.
|It can take away a person's dignity.
|Those who truly care about the truth ought to practice
|custody of the tongue.
|Truth is power, that's why Aristotle stresses,
|truth always ought to be spoken in relationship.
|Power must be used responsibly.
|Again, Aristotle said that telling the truth is not just
|a matter of telling it like it is, but rather, telling
|the truth in the right way to the right person
|at the right time for the right reason.
|We are greatly dependent upon God to tell us the truth
|about ourselves, and most of the time,
|God tells us the truth through other people.
|We won't come to see ourselves accurately
|or to see the world as it is unless there's somebody
|to tell us the truth.
|As your preacher, you ought not to expect me to be
|entertaining or innovative, but you ought to expect me
|to tell you the truth as God gives it to me.
|Anything less is a waste of your important time
|and a cruel disregard of the demands of discipleship.
|Here at the university, this is an important topic
|because we have a particular
|responsibility to tell the truth.
|One thing I love about the sciences for instance
|is their exceptionless view of truth telling.
|A biologist is always, in any circumstance, obligated
|to tell what she knows about biology.
|Whether you like it or not.
|I'm concerned about universities.
|We've developed large offices of public relations
|where people write carefully crafted news releases,
|and periodically engage in various forms of spin
|in order not to tell the truth
|about some embarrassing episode at the university.
|All these buildings and all these people are here
|for one major purpose, to tell the truth.
|Truth is our only commodity here
|and so a college is particularly under obligation
|to nurture, honor, and encourage truth telling.
|Alas from what I've seen, we intellectuals are prone
|not toward better truth telling, but toward particularly
|skillful forms of deceit.
|As recent chair of Duke's United Way campaign,
|my most discouraging experience was not only
|how little faculty give to the United Way,
|'cause I've been around here too long to expect faculty
|to be generous, but what got me was the
|silly deceptions given for not giving.
|"I have certain ideological reservations about the"
|"United Way and some of their philosophy of philanthropy."
|Look, spare me, it would be refreshing to hear from you,
|look, I'm at Duke, I'm well paid, I believe that whatever
|I have is mine to keep and you're not gonna get any of it
|for the United Way, that would be refreshing.
|It is a sad perversity of a university education
|when intellectual resources enable us more skillfully
|to evade the truth rather than tell and to live the truth.
|In a discussion with a faculty member of our law school,
|I was moved when he said, "Listening to the president's"
|"performance before the grand jury, as a lawyer,"
|"I felt ashamed, here was someone who'd been"
|"the beneficiary of the very best legal education,"
|"only to utilize those forensic and rhetorical skills"
|"in order to lie about something as trivial as sex."
|all I wanted to say today was, those of us who dispense
|and acquire the very best education, here,
|we ought to ask ourselves, how well has my education enabled
|me to serve and to receive
|or to evade the blessed truth?
|As we sing in the next hymn,
|we tell the truth
|as a way of praising God, this is our way,
|every time we speak the truth of testifying that
|the God of truth makes possible even for us
|to be people who can be trusted with the truth.
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