Since the debacle in Charlottesville Virginia a few weeks ago, it’s been kosher for Christians to jump on the bandwagon to remove Confederate monuments. Holding their noses at the strange bed-fellows that they’ve made with groups like Antifa, several well-meaning believers have piled onto the scrum. Many of them have become amateur historians and apologists and have made arguments to support their new causa diei. I’m going to guess that many of them haven’t considered Exodus 20:16 and how careful they ought to be when accusing people of heinous moral crimes. That passage ought to make them ask themselves, are they bearing false witness against the dead?
Bearing false witness is serious. The Scriptures are permeated with regulations about it. But, at the heart of this biblical law is the idea the we are not to falsely judge people. Why? Because, bearing false witness is a manifestation of not loving our neighbor. If we falsely accuse a person we have treated them unjustly. We have ignored their God-given rights to just treatment through witnesses, evidence, and facing one’s accusers. These are benefits of being God reflectors or imago Dei.
Calvin said that an integral part of true religion includes an interest in righteous treatment of other people. “As religion towards God is an essential branch of universal righteousness, so righteousness towards men is an essential branch of true religion. Godliness and honesty must go together.”
If you, in your zeal for proving that your prejudice about the Confederacy are correct, engage in accusations of those people without doing the work of ensuring their righteous treatment, you aren’t simply doing injustice toward them. You are not practicing true religion. People deserve fair treatment because they are God’s created reflection of himself.
This principle ought to be applied to our attitudes at work and at home. Proper procedures that protect people against false witness and/or prosecution ought to be pursued always. As I told a friend and union brother of mine recently, the union contract ought not be viewed as protecting the guilty, although at times that is an unintentional effect. The contract, a compact between the employer and the employee, protects the innocent from false prosecution.
The same is true for our justice system. There are important protections legislated and constituted to protect the innocent. Even though there are times that the guilty slip through the cracks, the innocent has an umbrella of protection from false accusers and prosecutors. This ought to be our primary concern, even when it seems that justice has failed to punish wrong doers. We ought to always rejoice when the innocent has been spared.
Culture of judges
That’s not a popular concept today. Our “now” culture wants satisfaction often when injustice occurs. Time is the friend of the innocent but not something most people want to sacrifice. I ruminate that interest many people have in justice is only an effort at convenience and self-satisfaction. I am certain that those attitudes exist when it comes to complicated historical examples of injustice. Most people are too busy to consider an issue like the War Between the States deeply enough to avoid an attitude of bearing false witness against the dead of 150 years ago.
How do we bear false witness? (to)
First, we ought not bear false witness to our neighbor. Telling the truth ought to govern our speech always. But, specifically, our neighbors ought to benefit from our reliability as truth tellers. Misleading them with falsehoods is an act of injustice levied against them as God’s image bearers. As Calvin said, it is an act against true religion.
Secondly, we ought not bear false witness against our neighbor. It’s easy to get caught in a conversation that seems to require us to make a quick judgment about a person without just cause. Often, our own reputation as judge precedes our interest in fairness to the accused. That ought to not be so, even in implication. Our neighbors ought to benefit from our honest treatment to their reputation before our own. When we are faced with making a quick judgment without proper evidence, witnesses, or facing the accused, we should default to either keeping quiet or defending the process. God’s process of protecting the innocent is perfect. We are not. But, as God’s ambassadors we ought to defend real justice before our interest turns to applying punitive judgements.
Finally, piling on or adding to the guilt of a person is another form of bearing false witness. We ought not join in a defamation of character. Conversations that engage in talking about someone behind their backs or without their knowledge of being accused should be avoided. This is important to God because his image bearers’ reputations are important. They reflect him in various facets. When we engage in damaging them unjustly and without their proper defense we damage God’s reputation. A person has the right to face his accuser(s) and to a proper defense. This is biblical and inherent to people as God’s image bearers. It is God given. The reputation of people ought to benefit from our discipline to not bear false witness, piling on, adding to, or telling tales especially when they aren’t present to defend themselves.
This forbids, 1. Speaking falsely in any matter, lying, equivocating, and any way devising and designing to deceive our neighbor. 2. Speaking unjustly against our neighbor, to the prejudice of his reputation; and (which involves the guilty of both), 3. Bearing false witness against him, laying to his charge things that he knows not, either judicially, upon oath (by which the third commandment, and the sixth of eighth, as well as this, are broken), or extra-judicially, in common converse, slandering, backbiting, tale-bearing, aggravating what is done amiss and making it worse than it is, and any way endeavouring to raise our own reputation upon the ruin of our neighbor’s.
Are dead people people?
Last, that last point speaks to the question you probably have. It’s the question begged by the title of this article, bearing false witness against dead people. Is that even possible? Can we bear false witness against dead people? Do they share the same right to justice as people who live on physically? Is there a meaningful distinction that can be made between a person who is deceased and a person who continues to live as a physical being? Are physical beings the only persons that can be afforded just treatment? Do dead people remain as God’s image bearers even if they only remain as spiritual beings or souls? Is God’s reflection merely physical? Is God a person worthy of justice? Will God judge dead, non-physical people rightly?
If you’re a Christian, your worldview dictates the answers to each of these questions. If dead people remain imago Dei and are worthy of just treatment, then we ought not bear false witness against dead people. Confederate dead, or any other, deserver just treatment. Be careful how you judge them.