Since the protests to keep Confederate monuments in Charlottesville Virginia, it’s been kosher for some Christians to jump on the bandwagon to remove Confederate monuments. Now they’re 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 and have become amateur historians and apologists. They have engaged in arguments to support their new cause. 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 Confederate dead?
Bearing false witness is serious. Prohibitions regarding bearing false witness permeate Scripture. 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 engage in accusations of those Confederates 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.
Shouldn’t this principle be applied to our attitudes at work and at home? Christians ought to pursue procedures that protect people against false witness and/or prosecution.
Union contracts are much the same. We ought not be of the opinion that their purpose is to protect the guilty. Although that is an unintentional effect sometimes. The contract, a compact between the employer and the employee, protects the innocent from false prosecution.
The same is true for our justice system. Our system’s primary purpose is to protect the innocent. Even though there are times that the guilty slip through the cracks, the innocent have 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. When the innocent have been spared we ought to rejoice.
Culture of judges
That’s not a popular concept today. Our “now” culture wants immediate satisfaction when injustice occurs. Time is the friend of the innocent but not something most people want to sacrifice. I ruminate that the 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 the complexity of historical events 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 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. We ought to avoid conversations that engage in talking about someone behind their backs or without their knowledge of being accused. 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 inalienable to people as God’s image bearers, even if they were Confederate. God gives his image bearers those rights. 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.
Notice. Calvin included a prohibition to virtue signaling.
Are dead people people?
Lastly, can we bear false witness against dead people? Is that even possible? 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 people, deserve just treatment. Be careful how you judge them.