And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” Yet even about this their testimony did not agree.
Which is of course because it reminds one of John 2:19, where we do indeed find Jesus saying something very much like this:
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
And yet these witnesses are still called “false.” Even though they’re talking about an event that really did happen, at least in some sense.* Why?
Because one does not need to make up bogus stories out of whole cloth to be a false witness. No, they only need to twist a true story just enough off of it’s foundations that the import of it is perceived differently, more negatively, than it should by rights have been. They only need to change a word or two – or even none, if the backdrop and context of the words can be changed instead – that were spoken so that the substance of the message is altered in order to condemn the innocent. On the whole, a structure composed of the girders of actions and words may be left very much intact by the false witness, who only needs to erect a different facade for people to view it through.
This is what I find so frustrating about trying to communicate in our age: the proliferation of false witnesses. As I listen to talk radio, read facebook exchanges, peruse blog comments, and just generally experience the world, I see a lot of people perfectly willing to twist what has been said and done to allow for the worst of possible interpretations, just to have ammo for their pet cause. Just to rally their base. Just to condemn the innocent, to diminish their neighbor, so that they might increase and justify themselves.
I love Martin Luther’s explanation to the 8th Commandment in his small catechism:
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
“What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, nor defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”
It cuts through all of the excuses of someone who is not speaking rightly about their neighbor, yet claiming to be no false witness. It points out that the need to speak rightly about one’s neighbor does not mean finding the worst, most offensive way possible to interpret their words, much less when this involves putting additional words in their mouth (again as per Jesus’ accusers). But it also points out that slandering him under the pretext of “using his own words” – when those words are placed in an interpretive paradigm wholly foreign to their speaker’s intended use by him who wishes to find fault in them at all costs – is likewise off base.
The best construction is to be placed on everything. We are to show mercy and seek to understand one another. Misrepresenting one’s neighbor in any capacity, even if you feel he is on the wrong side of an issue, amounts to bearing false witness. So let’s call the folks of our age (and ourselves) to a higher standard. Because the smoke from all these straw men is making my eyes water.
*In Jesus’ trial, his accusers made it to sound as though he threatened to break down Herod’s temple himself, and raise another, different one in its place. This was a spin on Jesus’ actual statement, where he bid his questioners among the Jews to be the ones to destroy “this temple” (a covert reference to his body we are told by John), and promised that that which he raised would be the same one as that which was destroyed, not another as his accusers plainly made him out to have said. But the fact remains, the false witnesses were appealing to an event that had actually happened, and words that had actually been said, to make their case. The falseness came in how they fabricated a way to twist the words and add in their own to the mix to make them malicious in nature and to condemn the innocent.