So, we’ve made it all the way through to the last of the 10 commandments: Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor (Deuteronomy 5:20).
When we undermine trust… we take away one of the only ways human beings have to run a successful society. Think about it, if we had to assume everyone was always lying… society would be unable to function. We would have no way of knowing what was true and what was false… who was right and who was wrong. Life would be chaos.
As it is… we have some of this. It is terribly hard to figure out who is lying and who is telling the truth. Look at our court systems, law suits, talk shows, and news programs. But still, we rely (like other cultures before us) on a form of ‘legal’ truth-telling. In our culture today we have courts in which people come and promise “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. After they have made this promise… whatever else they say is considered legal ‘truth’. Whatever they say has the power to free someone from prison or send them to the electric chair. It has the power to make or break companies. It has the power to build or destroy reputations and character.
In the culture of the ancient Jews the system wasn’t the same… but people’s truth-telling (aka their ‘witness’) had similar, if not even more, power. When someone bears false witness they undermine one of the only processes we have to tell right from wrong and truth from falsehood. When someone bears false witness… their ‘lie’ gains the power of a legal truth and that false witness can wreak havoc: potentially freeing the guilty from prison or sending the innocent to the electric chair, potentially making a bad company or breaking a good company, potentially building the character and reputation of an evil person or destroying the character and reputation of a good person.
We’ve got enough trouble in the world without undermining truth through bearing false witness.