“The father of lies”: That’s what Jesus calls Satan [Gospel of John, 8:44]. Today’s readings reflect that. In the story of the Garden of Eden, sin starts when the serpent and Eve lie to each other about what God has commanded. In the Gospel the devil uses even the words of Scripture to try to deceive Jesus. The Church has us hear these passages as we begin Lent. Why?
Because sin starts in deception and self-deception. God is Truth, and so deception is always and everywhere opposed to God’s way. Words are, if you will, sacred – Saint John calls Jesus “the Word.” When we abuse words to deceive ourselves or others, we distort God’s image and also distort God’s will for us and for the world. So inspecting our relationship to the words we use and to the words we pay attention to is a good place to start our Lenten discipline.
We can start with calling things by their right names. Our culture is full of euphemisms: “Enhanced interrogation” for torture; “Mistakes were made” for “I got caught”; “Collateral damage” for killing civilians; “misspoke” for lied; you can keep multiplying examples. We need to ensure that this doesn’t affect us in the way we describe our own behavior. Drunk is drunk, not tipsy; spousal abuse is criminal violence, not “an argument that got out of hand”; “friends with benefits” are sinning sexually; a “five finger discount” is theft. If we get the words wrong, we twist our lives (and others’) into false shapes that cause damage down the road.
The writer Kurt Vonnegut had a character in his fiction who was a thoroughly despicable person (he was a CIA spy, if I remember correctly), who, Vonnegut says, had only one redeeming characteristic: “He always knew when he was lying.” This is the next step in our self-examination. Do we even notice our lies? In some areas of life lying is seemingly so widespread (and I’m not even going to address advertising) that people may not notice it. Some examples: about half of job-seekers admit to lying on their resumés; one in three high-school students admit to using the internet to plagarize material for an assignment; if one includes cheating on tests and copying homework, the rate of lying (that is, presenting work that’s not one’s own as if it is) rises to 95%. Almost a quarter of Americans think lying to the IRS on one’s taxes is ok; about a third think using someone else’s paid subscription (to Netflix, Amazon Prime, or the like) is ok. At least the people responding to the survey were willing to call what they were doing lying or cheating. But as it becomes more prevalent I wonder whether it will just become “normal” and people will stop thinking it’s wrong. This is like being in a fog at sea and tossing the compass overboard.
And then there’s the fog itself: the endless stream of messages we’re exposed to that take little account of the truth. The late NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan is famous for (among other things) setting a simple baseline for public conversation: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts. If we can’t agree on facts conversation becomes a shouting match in which the loudest voice “wins.” The loss of respect for facts in public discourse is stunning (even in science: one analysis showed that about 14% of scientists knew of colleagues’ fabricating data, and almost 2% admitted to it themselves). Stephen Colbert didn’t coin “truthiness” (Merriam-Webster’s “word of the year” in 2006) for nothing.
People wouldn’t lie if they didn’t think it was useful. To reduce the prevalance of public lying we have to do what we can to make people who lie pay a price – from ignoring and shunning to calling people who do such things to account. But we can’t be hypocrites about it, and condemn others while tolerating lying in ourselves. We can’t afford to offer an opening to the Father of Lies – in our society or in our souls. Thinking about that would get our Lent off to a good start. Until next week, peace.