As the wise men headed back east, did they have any pangs of conscience about not being truthful with King Herod?
They had struck a deal with him: After finding the newborn king and paying him his due, they would trek back to King Herod in Jerusalem and tell the ruler where he could find the royal child.
But rather than keeping their promise, the wise men went back home a different way, claiming that they were instructed to do exactly that in a dream.
By their actions, did they go back on their good word, and in effect, misrepresent themselves? Did they, in the language of the main law of that land, break the ninth commandment not to bear false witness (Exodus 20:16)?
We can speculate that they could have come up with all kinds of justifications for this infraction – for example, that they came from another culture where this ninth commandment wasn’t in effect, that according to their religion they were obliged to abide by instructions that came to them in dreams, or that, according to a strict reading of the ninth commandment in the land of Judah, they were technically off the hook.
(The ninth commandment, strictly applied, has to do with not bearing false witness against someone else in a court of law.)
But you have to wonder, as they lived out the rest of the years of their lives, whether they felt some guilt about not being faithful and truthful to their word and bearing false witness, thereby, against themselves.
And don’t we have to wonder today whether some of the wise people – those who are following what they believe is their own star of destiny – will find themselves bothered by breaking the ninth?
Take front-runner for the Republican nomination for the presidency, Willard “Mitt” Romney, who is being repeatedly accused of that violation by not just people in the Democratic Party, but also by the challengers for the nomination in his own Republican Party.
The stakes are high – higher even than would have been the case for the three sages long ago – since the ninth commandment goes to the core of character of someone who seeks to be the leader both of his own nation and of the nations of the earth.
And it isn’t a matter of identifying a single instance of disobeying (or, to put on the best spin, unintentionally overlooking) the ninth. No, it is clear this is a character trait, a habit, a strategy or some combination of them.
The candidate, by his staff’s own acknowledgement, misrepresented (read: bore false witness against) President Obama by attributing a quote regarding the economy being a political loser to the president, which actually came from a political advisor to then candidate John McCain and applied to McCain’s 2008 campaign.
In his attempt to claim that repealing President Obama’s health care legislation would save $95 billion, Romney exaggerated the figure by a factor of six ($16 billion), based on the calculations of the Congressional Budget Office that his own campaign staff had referred to.
(That same CBO documented that the national deficit would be lowered over a 10-year period if the law were not repealed and that if repealed would add $210 billion to the deficit.) It was, that is, simply a boldface lie.
And then there’s the matter of job creation and job loss.
Romney has been caught bearing false witness against himself by exaggerating his accomplishments on this front when he headed Bain Capital in the private sector and served as governor of Massachusetts, and bearing false witness against the president by radically understating job creation during the current administration and attributing large job losses to the president before his policies were enacted.
In these and many other instances, almost everyone agrees that the lies, the misrepresentations, the bearings of false witness were and are unnecessary – that a strong case for Romney’s candidacy could be made without them. But he persists in the practice.
Why? What could be the justification?
Maybe Romney is appealing to the same rationales that the wise men might have employed: that he came from another culture (from the culture of corporate buy-outs in Romney’s case) in which the ninth commandment isn’t always relevant; that he comes from another religion in which there are justifications for lying (Mormonism has had a provision in its code that permitted lying in order to protect the tradition, especially as related to the practice of polygamy); and an appeal to a higher authority or some special revelation that justifies being an exception to the rule (an inner sense of being called by something or someone extraordinary to a duty that allows a suspension of the ethical).
But none of those justifications can realistically apply. There might have been a recent time when the corporate world could play fast and loose with the rules, but the price paid by millions (maybe even billions) of people worldwide has been enormous, and new regulations have been enacted to lessen the chance of that recurring (despite the objections of Romney and his compatriots).
Mormonism may have allowed for an exception to the ninth commandment as part of its proselytizing efforts, but it never universalized that provision so as to allow Mormons (even Mormon leaders) to lie whenever convenient.
And Americans have had enough bad experiences with leaders claiming to be exempt from the rules to allow that practice to be reintroduced now.
Others besides Romney shade the truth, of course, but not so boldly as he has in these and other incidents. If Romney gets by with it, it opens the floodgates to a new low in American politics.
If that happens, it won’t be just the realm of politics that is denigrated. It will be how we live together – or not – without trust, as breaking the ninth becomes routine.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.