Rolling Stone magazine printed serious criminal accusations against a campus group, accusations the periodical now admits are completely false. Despite all of this, both the article’s author and the magazine editor will keep their jobs according to the publisher. This matters, and matters to far more people than just those on the campus of the University of Virginia or even to the target demographic of Rolling Stone. Behind this scandal is a larger point. In our society, it’s become acceptable to lie about people and ideas, as long as the crisis created is in line with a perceived social good.
In the Rolling Stone case, as in others, the inaccuracies of the story are mitigated in some people’s minds, it seems, by the fact that stories like this create awareness about real problems. Is there a problem with sexual assault on college campuses? Yes. Stories like this, then, become less about demonstrations of such a problem than as fictional illustrations of the problem. The lie isn’t good, one might say, but, hey, let’s look at the bigger picture: a rape culture that needs confronting.
It seems to me that we saw some of this just this past week in the coverage over the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) in Indiana and Arkansas. I was stunned by how many journalists and activists were either willfully ignorant of the legislation, or just counted on the public to be too ignorant to know they were lying. These bills, then, were pictured as radically different from the federal RFRA (they weren’t; they just said explicitly what the courts have already interpreted the federal RFRA to mandate) or even worse to suggest that a RFRA would provide a blanket right to “discriminate” for businesses (they don’t; they simply provide a balancing tests in the court where the government must show just cause for restricting religious free exercise). Some of the anti-RFRA activists know better, but the spin was worth it for the larger social good (as they see it).
Now, it’s one thing for Christians to see all of this and tell each other, “Ain’t it awful.” It’s another for us to ask how we are tempted by the very same sins. And that requires us to see what the Scripture reveals lying to be about: power.
The ninth commandment forbids God’s people to “bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16). This specifically addresses telling falsehood in a court (typically, the court of the elders of the tribe). The consequences of such lying would be the levying of penalties against the person lied about: the loss of his or her reputation or property or freedom or even life. The false witness is not just an untruthful person (although that would be bad enough). The false witness is using words to destroy—rather than, as God does, to create and build. The liar wants something—some power, some leverage—and uses a false report to create the circumstances to get it.
How often do we see this in our own circles? How many anonymous letters and emails get sent around in church disputes, advancing untruths or thinly-sourced information about leaders with whom a faction might disagree? How often do we disagree within the church not by disagreeing or debating about ideas but by creating imaginary scandals where the person we oppose is not just wrong but fit to be destroyed by a mob of (usually digital) disapproval, with no real accounting of facts?
More than that, how careful are we to make sure that we characterize properly the motives and ideas of those hostile to the faith? How often do conspiracy theories and half-truths bounce around social media, and we ignore them if they line up with our favored political or social or religious views? Such should not be known among us.
As the people of the Book, we ought to know that words matter. Words create realities. The Word of God holds the universe together (Jn. 1:1-14). The Word of God in the Scriptures forms and shapes the church. The preaching of the Word is what calls us to and conforms us to the image of Christ. Advancing untruths, no matter how “noble” the end goal, is the work of the devil, not the work of God.
The Rolling Stone controversy is one more example of how lying can destroy and deceive. It ought to be a warning to all of us that we are not immune from the call to paper over untruth. Lying is, after all, one more power play, and, as sinners, we are people who love the power that comes from our own wisdom. What we’ve been called to, though, is a different wisdom and a different power—all bound up in the One who called himself “the Truth” (Jn. 14:6).