The Fugitive, The Truth, And Social Media

David Janssen The FugativeOne of the television shows I remember watching as a boy, briefly when it was first run (1963–67) and then again in re-runs, was The Fugitive. It was the story of a man who was falsely convicted of murder and who sets out to prove his innocence by finding the man who actually committed the murder. All the authorities were convinced that Richard Kimble was a guilty man. Nothing he said created doubt in their mind. As they were transporting him to prison the train on which he was being carried derailed. Kimball escaped and the chase was on: the authorities pursued Kimball as he sought the one-armed man who murdered Kimball’s wife.

It is a frightening thought that one might know the truth but not to be able to convince others of it. Kimble struggled not only to find his wife’s killer and the truth but to find or not to lose himself to cynicism and hopelessness. As he travels he meets, makes friends with, and helps others as they help him but the authorities were never far behind and the one-armed man seems always to slip away. With the development and growth of social media we too can become Richard Kimbles, fugitives hounded by others. Today, informal trials are regularly conducted in social media. Someone writes a thoughtless comment on Facebook or Twitter, that comment gets re-tweeted or forwarded to others, and things can spiral out of control quickly. Not long ago, as she boarded her plane, a woman tweeted thoughtlessly about her trip to Africa. By the time she arrived, quite unbeknownst to her, a storm of protest and controversy had developed and she had been fired from her job. A careless comment that once would have been uttered in private and probably forgotten resulted in a significant change in her life and unwanted notoriety. She was charged, tried, and convicted largely in absentia by a virtual mob who probably spent all of 10 seconds considering her case—summary judgment and execution.

It is not unheard of for rumors to spread virally on the internet. An entire site, does nothing but investigate rumors to try to ascertain whether they are true. Some rumors seem to have obtained a sort of eternal life on Facebook and other social media platforms where, for a time, they fade from view and then re-appear with a new date and some slightly different details and the same essential falsehood. Credulity + idle hands = mischief.

If you have never been the subject of internet gossip or on the wrong end of the internet mob, you are fortunate but it could happen to anyone. I recently read a story purporting to be that of the “Obamacare Girl.” Without her permission her image was used and it cost her dearly. She was apparently minding her own business when suddenly she found herself at the center of a great controversy, attacked by strangers, and the butt of jokes by late-night comedians. How often have you read, “I heard that she….”? It does not matter what follows the subject of the verb. It is gossip and that is forbidden by the ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

As the confessional (i.e., those that actually believe what the historic confessions of the church and do not regard them as mere historical relics) Reformed and Presbyterian churches understand the ninth commandment there are positive duties (things we must do) and prohibitions (things we may not do). The positive command is to love our neighbor by telling the truth about him. The prohibition is that we must love our neighbor by not lying about him. That seems straightforward enough but judging by what one sees on the internet it is honored more often in the breach than by obedience. We confess:

112. What does the ninth Commandment require.

That I bear false witness against no one, wrest no one’s words, be no backbiter or slanderer, join in condemning no one unheard or rashly; but that on pain of God’s heavy wrath, I avoid all lying and deceit as the very works of the devil; and that in matters of judgment and justice and in all other affairs I love, speak honestly and confess the truth; also in so far as I can defend and promote my neighbor’s good name.

As we seek to understand and apply God’s holy moral law to our (Christian) lives in light of all that God has said in Scripture there are a number of “good and necessary consequences,” to use the language of Westminster Confession 1.6.

Because of the fall and its consequences we all, by nature, are liars. Paul says that, by nature, we have exchanged the truth for a lie (Rom 1:25). The Evil One is a liar and he spoke lies to our first parents. He offered what he could not give: deity. We believed that lie and made a false covenant with the him in place of God, who, being the Truth, kept his promise “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” We did. All our faculties were corrupted but the Truth persisted. He did not leave us in lies and darkness. He told the truth about a coming Redeemer and he kept his Word. Jesus, the Truth, not only told the truth but he lived and kept his promise that he would rise on the third day. By his free favor, through faith alone, believers have been given new life, which includes a new relationship to and commitment to the truth.

When we think of bearing false witness, of course, we think of a courtroom where the witness is sworn before God to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The Christian, however, is always under oath, as it were. Our Savior is the truth (John 14:6). He came speaking truth (e.g.,. John 8:44), which, of course, got him in trouble almost immediately in his ministry. The Jewish leaders sought opportunities to murder him repeatedly and finally he was arrested. Lies were told. He was brutalized, crucified, and put to death. In Christ, however, we know the truth and we have been set free (John 8:32). Paul says that, in Christ, we are to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). We are to speak to the truth our neighbor (Eph 4:25). Indeed, we are to “fasten on the belt of truth” (Eph 6:14). The church as organism (considering our actions as individuals) and as visible corporation (organization) is to be the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Contra Rome, something is not true because the church says it but rather the church is a servant of or a minister of the truth.

The other aspects of lying that the catechism describes are often connected to the desire to gain some advantage. James recognizes this when he writes “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth” (3:14). It is often in an attempt to gain some advantage for ourselves (rather than dying to self) that we twist or shade the truth a bit to make the other fellow look a little worse and ourselves a little better. The same goes for backbiting, i.e., saying behind someone’s back what you won’t say to their face or condemning someone unheard. The internet is great place for that isn’t it? If Christians stopped doing these things one suspects that internet traffic might ease considerably.

We have not even got to the positive aspects of the commandment. It is not sufficient to refrain from damaging our neighbor. Our positive duty is to build up our neighbor’s reputation, not by falsehood (that would be contradictory) or flattery but by telling the truth. Our commitment must always be to the truth, to what is, to what happened, to what is real as distinct from what is false. We must say, as appropriate, what we know, not what we do not know. James tells us that the tongue is a powerful and dangerous thing. How much more a keyboard or a keypad on a mobile device?

Remarkably, wonderfully, graciously Jesus obeyed and died as the substitute for liars, backbiters, slanderers, and gossips but we, who name Christ’s name, who’ve been baptized into that name and into his church, who have been taught the truth, must now be committed to the truth and not to lies in our face-to-face communications and in our internet communications. You may never have been a fugitive from justice gone wrong, desperately seeking someone, anyone to listen to the truth, but in our time anyone of us might become a digital Richard Kimball hounded across the web. If there must be internet mobs and liars let it be so among the pagans but not among us who know and confess the Truth.

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