Where I come from, lying was always a sin, and rules were absolute. You told the truth no matter how inconvenient. When Mom asked, “How do I look?”, you didn’t admit how badly she looked; instead you quipped (smiling), “You’ll be the talk of the town.”
Of course, these clever rejoinders were just another kind of lying, engineered to mislead. But given our good intentions, we figured they were okay. We lie often enough―we leave lights to burn when we’re out, communicating to would-be intruders that we’re not. And why not—we are utilitarian at heart.
We’re in good company, too. When Christians hid frightened Jews inside attics and barns during WWII, they had ample occasion to cover up their good misdeeds. Out and about they signaled that all was quite ordinary back home―just us two, and the kids. In so doing, they saved those for whom they cared. To have been rigidly truthful or “care-less” would have invited unspeakable evil.
Rigidity is the essence of absolutism, the belief that there are norms of behavior codified as rules, and that rules are rules. To the German Stazi at my door, I submit that there are Jews in the house as not to lie (up the stairs, third door on the left), leaving their fate in God’s hands. We wash our hands of all consequence to our actions, smug in our judgment that we did no wrong.
It is with comparisons like this, often involving more than the question of truth-telling, that we suspect there is a better approach to ethical decision-making than to submit every moral dilemma to a battery of rules. While absolutism is supposed to evidence love for a God we cannot see, it can only convey “care-lessness” toward those we see. The Bible does not let us choose―to love others is to love God (Matt 25:40).
This principle gives moral force to biblical, divinely-sanctioned deception. When Pharaoh decides to kill every newborn Israelite male, he enlists Hebrew midwives as executioners. Naturally they defy him, making up a line about how quick to deliver are Hebrew women. Indeed, they lie, this prevents them from arriving in time to do the killing. So God blesses them (Ex 1:20-21), since what they did was good.
The manner in which the absolutist prevaricates on this passage is instructive. One popular commentary has it that “the midwives may have simply responded slowly to house calls” (BKC, in loc). What is remarkable in this uninspired retelling of the story is the way that the writer is most willing to explain the text away. An absolutist ethic is incapable of admitting deception as a means to a good end.
Jehu feigns allegiance to Baal, calling his ministers to assemble for worship. Once the temple has filled, he has every minister cut down. God: “Because you have done well in accomplishing what is right in my eyes . . . your descendants will sit on the throne of Israel” (2 Kgs 10:30). Jehu lies, God blesses. That “the end never justifies the means” is no more absolute than that the customer is always right. Ask any retailer.
(To be continued…)
Charles J. Colton lectures in Systematic Theology at Davis College in Johnson City, New York, where he also chairs the Organizational Leadership Program. He is a member of the Main Street Baptist Church in Binghamton, New York, and is the author of Core Christianity: The Tie That Binds.