Leonard DeLorenzo, in his series on the Ten Commandments, writes on the Seventh Commandment, “Thou…
The Ten Commandments: ‘Truth is beautiful in itself’
This is the ninth installment of a 10-part series looking at the Ten Commandments.
One of the most famous scenes of perjury in court comes in the film — or play — “A Man for All Seasons.” This is the story of St. Thomas More, who was executed for high treason but only after an associate of his perjured himself to bear false witness against Thomas. This man, Richard Rich, was ambitious, and testifying falsely against Thomas was the price of Richard’s worldly ascent. In exchange for his false testimony, Richard received the government post he coveted. When the fateful moment came in court, Thomas looked at Richard and said, “Your soul is worth more than the entire world, and you’ve sold it for Wales!”
Thomas More endured the real-world consequences of lying. Richard Rich, however, seems to have benefited from the same act. In fact, Rich benefited immensely. The very last line of the film is this: “Richard Rich became chancellor of England and died in his bed.”
In other words, Richard got what he wanted, and more. But what did it really cost him? Thomas, quoting Christ, said it cost him his soul. And in Psalm 14, it says, “The fool (or the benighted man) says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'”
“A Man for All Seasons” is the story of Thomas More, who would not say with his lips what he did not believe in his heart. His words were true, and he paid the cost for being true to his word.
But “A Man for All Seasons” is also the story of Richard Rich, who was eventually willing to say anything to serve his own purposes. It was not easy for him at first. The first time he lied, he was pretty bad at it. He quivered and he cowered, but he did it. By the time he testified falsely against Thomas in court, he had become quite good at it. There was only a minor twitch in the corner of his mouth that betrayed just the slightest bit of discomfort. You get the sense that Richard Rich got past that little discomfort, eventually. Lying did not hurt after a while.
That is what unrepentant perjury cost Richard Rich. He became comfortable with lying. He benefited from his lies, and he never amended his ways. Richard Rich developed a casual relationship with the truth and eventually lost contact with it altogether. Truth did not matter to him unless it served his purposes. He said in his heart, “God does not care.”
In the preface to the play, the playwright, Robert Bolt, said about Richard Rich that
“There is a special kind of shrug to a perjurer, we feel that the man has no self to commit, no guarantee to offer. … We feel — we know — the self to be an equivocal commodity.”
In other words, Richard Rich’s word was worthless. There was nothing to back up that word, because he didn’t stand behind it. His words were themselves a play.
Thomas More was executed, but it was Richard Rich who really died.
When the Lord says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” that is not just about what lies do to others, though what lies do to those others does matter. The divine command is also about what happens to the person who lies. The liar takes a step on the path to losing himself.
Liberation in truth
The Eighth Commandment is an opportunity to reflect on what the real cost of deceit is. What does guile do to us in the end? What is the final product of all those loathsome little ways we manipulate each other?
All of the schemes and falsehoods we perpetuate on each other tear apart our union. They corrode our trust. They make us weary of each other so that we become defensive, we hide and we fear to entrust ourselves to each other.
In our day and age, we know only too well what it is like to live under the constant threat of “false witness.” We are far too familiar with “fake news” and media-generated realities. We find ourselves virtually incapable of trusting any news. We are chronically suspicious, and we fear being taken advantage of. We often fabricate our own preferred version of events, or we spin stories in our own favor. We are trapped in the lies we tell each other, imprisoned by a lack of trust, and we do it over and over again — individually and societally — without repentance.
But the truth will set us free.
Truth sets us free from ourselves, from the small worlds that we create for ourselves, where we run our agendas and try to manage our private enterprises. Truth sets us free into the large world of God’s creation, which is given to us as a home to share together.
Reunion by repentance
Think again about Richard Rich, whose false testimony sealed the fate of Thomas More. He and Thomas were ripped apart by the force of Richard’s lie. Richard cast an image of reality that served his private agenda.
But what would it be like if afterward, rather than reaping the benefits of his misdeed, Richard repented? What would it be like, if he confessed his sin and told the truth? In some unimaginable way, he would be reunited with Thomas.
I suppose I would say that is “unimaginable,” but really, it is not. We can imagine it because we have seen it before. Richard Rich gave false witness before Thomas, and Thomas suffered the consequences, alone. That is also what St. Peter did.
Peter bore false witness in Jesus’s time of need. He disclaimed Jesus. While with Thomas, Richard’s words directly led to condemnation, with Jesus, Peter’s words led to isolation. He abandoned the Lord when he said he did not know him.
Peter is the Richard Rich who did repent and told the truth when he professed his love for the Lord. Peter was freed from the consequences of his lie by the truth. The truth set him free.
The bond of truth
In its section on the Eighth Commandment, the Catechism claims that “[t]ruth is beautiful in itself” (No. 2500). Why? Because it is reliable. Because we share it in common. Because we cannot claim it for our own purposes. Because we have to sacrifice our selfish desires for it. Because we find each other in truth and we are held together in truth. It is not “my truth” or “your truth” but “the truth.”
How do we prepare ourselves better for truthfulness? How do we avoid both bearing false witness ourselves and falling victim to false witness from others?
I have just one suggestion: talk less and be silent more. Separate yourself from the noise of media and all the chatter in our hyperconnected society. Cultivate a disposition for deep listening.
Just like the Sabbath redeems time from the threat of the out-of-control work week, silence redeems speech from the threat of deceit and suspicion.
Staying constantly in the noise of the world is to leave ourselves susceptible to being misled. And the more we learn how to speak in the deceptive and often manipulative terms of worldly speech, the more comfortable we become misleading others.
Those who live in truth go often to the place Jesus went regularly: to the silence of the desert, to the silence of the night, to the silence of prayer. In the silence, they listen to the Word of God, who is the Truth, and who frees us from our ambitions because he tells us who we really are, what the world really is, and that we are responsible for each other.
Those who sacrifice excessive speech to cling to Christ learn to bear true witness.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is A God Who Questions (OSV, 2019).