I Cannot Lie

Earlier this week I had the privilege of participating in a three-day Alternatives to Violence Program basic workshop. It was actually my second time doing so – I attended one in Rwanda last summer – but far from being redundant, the workshop turned out to include a great deal of new content, and, better yet, it provided me with a new opportunity to hear the perspectives, concerns and experiences of Kenyans regarding the 2007-8 violence as well as the violence that might (but hopefully, won’t) mar the 2012 / 2013 elections.

One of the participants, an older woman and an elder in her church, related a rather depressing story: On a Sunday, after she had lectured some members of her congregation on the importance of forgiveness following the ’07-‘08 violence, one of her listeners came to her house to see her many hours later, in the dead of night, and wordlessly beckoned her out of outside and down the road. After a lengthy and totally silent walk together, they were outside of the house of the village chief (the Kenyan equivalent of a mayor). The congregant then motioned for the elder to peer inside through a window. “Do you see that mattress?” She did. “The chief took it from my home during the violence, and now he isn’t even using it. How can I possibly forgive him, when my children and I spend every night sleeping on the floor?”

Another disturbing tale, this time forward-looking, was recounted by one of the workshop’s facilitators. Apparently he was recently engaged in peacemaking activities on the slopes of Mount Elgon when some adolescents, who recognized that he originated from the same tribe as they, cautioned him to take heed of “the way the wind is blowing,” and offered to sell him an AK-47 and 50 bullets for 10,000 shillings – around $120. Apparently the rifles, which are acquired in Uganda, are disassembled into their constituent parts, hidden inside sacks of potatoes, smuggled piecemeal across the border and then reassembled and sold to customers who are allegedly looking to “defend” themselves in the event of tribal war (there is, of course, nothing defensive about the “defense” they are envisioning). Reassuringly, however, I have since learned that arms trafficking is still relatively uncommon, and that private gun ownership remains a rarity.

So what, then, is the constructive advice that the AVP workshop offers for the amelioration of this violence in Kenya? A complete answer to that question would theoretically require a full three days as the workshop does; however if the reader will bear with another story or two, then the AVP principles can perhaps be unveiled via vivid narrative rather than a tedious description.

One graduate of the AVP program, we were told, was seeking to stop some cattle rustlers who had been habitually targeting his village. Nobody, not even the police, would agree to assist the man. So he went alone, in the middle of the night, and sure enough he discovered several adolescents from a neighboring village, armed with bows and arrows, herding the village’s cattle through a pass. He approached them quietly to get a better look at their faces, but when he accidentally stepped on a dry twig and made noise, the gang of three immediately spotted him, nocked arrows and raised their bows to silence him. The man responded by raising his arms into the air and waving, as though he was signaling to other men stationed elsewhere in the pass. This caused the rustlers to immediately drop their weapons and flee, on the assumption that they had been surrounded. The clever man subsequently collected the cattle and took them back to their rightful owners.

Another story we were told, which similarly demonstrates AVP principles, involves a young child whose parents were about to enter into a (physical) fight. Just as the father had grabbed a cow-whip and the mother a broom, and the two were starting to circle one-another, the child notified his parents that their pastor was approaching the house. Immediately the whip was thrown underneath a bed, and the wife pretended that she had been sweeping and singing. However, the kicker of the story is this: the pastor was not coming, and indeed never had been; the child had lied to prevent his parents from fighting.
There were two themes uniting the two stories. The first and obviously commendable one was the use of a creative, nonviolent solution as opposed to an obvious but violent one. The second, however, is more morally questionable: the use of deception.

“I cannot lie,” one of the participants objected upon hearing the second story, “it is against my faith.” That the man issuing this objection also happened to be a pastor afforded his concern especial credibility, and a debate soon erupted within the circle of AVP participants as to whether or not the ends (nonviolent solutions) justify the means (lying).

I myself found this question rather perplexing, so I have dedicated this week to a search for its answer. What I ended up with was a general (but by no means perfect) framework for the handling of all ethical issues facing the Christian. But, returning our focus to the issue of lying, I found – much to my surprise – that the opinion of early Christians was surprisingly non-committal on the subject. One account explains:
“Abba Alonius said to Abba Agathon: ‘Suppose two men committed murder in your presence and one of them fled to your cell. When the police, coming in search of him, ask you, ‘Is the murderer with you?’ unless you lie, you hand him over to execution’” (quoted in Bondi, To Love As God Loves, 49).

Note that Abba Alonius does not give a definitive answer as to what a monk in such a situation “should” do. He merely points out that a monk who tells the truth in this situation effectively passes the death sentence onto the murderer. By implication, the same monk robs the murderer of any chance at repentance, atonement and justification. And thus, Abba Alonius would seem to suggest, the most loving course of action in this scenario is to break a Christian precept and lie.

But what if the murderer goes on to murder others, or both the monk and the murderer are caught in the lie? In this case lying only leads to a worse result, and a truthful admission of the murderer’s presence would clearly have been the more loving option. We can conclude, therefore, there are ethical situations in which no general ‘rule’ can guide us. As Roberta Bondi explains: “It must have been a great temptation to the early Christian monastic to try to codify the moral law for himself or herself in such a way that there would be no ambiguity left, that one could always know what to do without having to take responsibility for the suffering of others that might result from one’s moral action. Unfortunately, there was no way to avoid having to use one’s own judgment” (50).

Bondi is wrong, however, to call the Christian’s use of his or her judgment “unfortunate.” It is, rather, a gift. Christians, instead of acting as moral robots, beholden to a inflexible set of rules that they had no part in creating and that may or may not account for the particularities of a given situation, have been set free from such a lifeless legalism, and have been entrusted with the same moral creativity that God possesses. It is apparent that God trusts us more now than ever before, insofar as “the law is not for the righteous but for the lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious” (1 Tim. 1:9), and, “[n]ow that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Gal. 3:25). Jesus was correct to declare, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36)!

We should quickly realize, however, that with great power comes great responsibility. Paul is explicit in warning us about the dangers associated with our moral freedom: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one-another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ […] So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other so that you do not do what you want” (Gal. 5:13-4, 16-8).

Everyone can relate with this idea; virtually every day we partake of thoughts or even actions that we didn’t intend and that we immediately regret. But what is the best way to conceptualize this struggle between sinful desires and the Spirit? One model, suggested by Martin Luther, posits that within us there is both an inner and an outer man, and “[i]n the same man these two are opposed to one-another; the flesh lusting against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh” (Concerning Christian Liberty). And what is the prescription for our internal dissention? Luther suggests that we should conquer the outer man with the inner; thus a person “must give heed to exercise his body by fastings, watchings, labor, and other regular discipline, so that it may be subdued to the spirit, and obey and conform itself to the inner man and faith” (ibid). If we fail in this, we might confuse our Christian liberty for license, and adopt the Corinthian heresy exemplified by their misguided motto, “everything is permissible for me” (1 Cor. 6:12).

The Corinthian situation, along with every newsworthy instance of pastoral corruption that we hear about, serves as a stark warning regarding the ease with which “the abstract standard of love can justify the worst actions” (Osborn, Ethical Patterns in Early Christian Thought, 211). Therefore, in order to stave off the sinful misbehaviors of the outer man, “[t]he ultimate norm of love should be expressed in rules which will prevent personal interest and self-deception from deciding how to express love in particular cases” (ibid, emphasis added).

But wait! Didn’t we just establish that the Christian is subject to no rules? How is it that we have already come full circle to the creation of new regulations to govern the previously-free Christian? The answer to this objection centers around our own imperfection. Although God has granted us the authority to craft our own moral regulations, he has not granted us the foresight, patience and maturity that are required for the perfect handling of that power. Our conscience is by no means the decisive indicator of our righteousness; even Paul wrote that “[m]y conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:4). Thus, our faulty self-perception motivates us to adopt rules as heuristics. Alexander Boyce Gibson explains: “We are constantly pricked by desire or enraged by opposition; and the best thing we can do is sit on ourselves till we come around. To that end rules are a great stand-by, and they are most serviceable when most inflexible: otherwise we shall make exceptions in our own favor (quoted in Osborn, 210-1).

So what can we conclude? Last week I tried enumerating my findings, and I found it to be a rather productive enterprise. Thus:
1. A Christian is in theory subject to no rules, and can break any commandment if doing so enhances the cause of genuine love, which is the Christian’s ultimate goal.
2. However, human beings are terrible at thinking objectively, and therefore the loving freedom of the inner man will often be hijacked by the sinful impulses of the outer man, who uses crafty rationalizations and selfish deceptions to goad the body into misbehavior that does not advance the cause of love.
3. In order to keep the outer man in check we should subject ourselves to fasts, charitable labors and other good works that help to clean our minds and focus our consciences.
4. Ethical rules, although nonbinding, should nevertheless be clung to firmly, lest we too easily make exceptions for ourselves.
5. We must at all times be willing to accept the moral consequences of our actions. There is no formula, no definitive set of rules and no all-encompassing precedent that we can hide behind in order to claim ignorance and eschew moral culpability.

Thus, and in my interpretation, the pastor’s objection to the AVP anecdotes was unjustified. To lie is not against the Christian faith; but verily, one had better have a good reason for doing so (like, for instance, nonviolently stopping domestic violence or rescuing an entire village’s cattle). And to that end, I hope that the crafty deceptions of the Alternatives to Violence Program find frequent deployment over the next year, because, the world worries, Kenya will need them.