Friday, October 07, 2005

From the Cliff-edge of Mt. Nebo 2

From where Moses stood:

On the edge of the promised land, Moses stood here and saw far more than physical geography. He saw a political map of the twelve tribes and a redemptive history stretching away to the coming of the Messiah.

Over on his PyroManiac site, Phil Johnstone has been acting out his rĂ´le as the great tribulator with his vigorous separation of chaff from grain in the matter of Christian pacifism, which is, I think, for Phil, something of an oxymoron. His tormentors, some of whom surely mean well, have forced him to explain that he hadn’t really been envisioning encountering Bin Laden among the bin liners in the local Costco. This is a bit like Billy Connolly’s reaction to hearing that a shark has bitten someone: ‘Oh no! where did that happen? Oh! in the sea! That’s different, I thought you meant in the supermarket or somewhere where sharks aren’t meant to be.’ But I digress.

A discussion of just how much collateral damage is permissible in hunting down this much of a murderer-boss could get tedious and if the discussion wasn’t so American-centred might just have foundered around the very real tragedy in the summer at Stockwell Station. If it had, though, Phil’s principle would still stand, that sometimes the taking of a life is, far from it being murder, the righteous thing to do.

Here, marking out the theological cliff-edge, we want to make a comparison between
Murder and Mendacity
concluding that, as with the righteous taking of a life, sometimes deceiving the enemy is the righteous thing to do.

The categorisation of righteous deception is a bit of a minefield. The Latin tag for such deception is mendacium officiosum but there are problems with calling it that, obscurity not being the least of them. An opinion article in The Slate by Cullen Murphy titled ‘The Lie of the Land’ speaks of mendacium officiosum and various other mendacia and explains,
'Say what one will about Catholic theology, it offers a cosmological taxonomy in
which all things have an appointed place and a well-thought-out definition,
rendered with lapidary minimalism.'
Quite! Translated into cliff-edge terms, I think that that means a jigsaw pattern edge and crumbly places. I want another term that can mean: ‘Here the standing is perfectly safe but one step more and you are over the edge.’ Moreover, within its scope, mendacium officiosum contains the ideas of officialdom’s ‘being economical with the truth’ and medicine's practice of ‘benevolent deception’ to ease pain / put off the inevitable / enable positive thinking. It is obvious that benevolent deception is a wholly different ethical minefield and can and should be discussed separately from the deceiving of enemies.

My main reason for wanting to talk about righteous deception rather than mendacium officiosum is that 'mendacium' means ‘mendacity’ which means 'lie' and the common perception that ‘a lie is a lie is a lie’ is held with tenacity even by many of those who embrace the lapidary minimalistically cosmological taxonomy of the Catholic categorisations of mendacia. In other words (thankfully), theological nuance is one thing but a gut reaction is quite another so I want to avoid calling an act of righteous deception a lie because, if a lie is a lie is a lie, then an act of righteous deception can’t be.

Here is where the comparison of how we define murder and how we define mendacity becomes relevant. We tend to have more difficulties about deception than we do about killing. The ‘Christian Quoter’, Graham Weeks, needs to ask, ‘May we admire Rahab?’ because in the story of the battle of Jericho, where we have the killing of the whole population (apart from Rahab’s household), the unlawful looting of Aachan’s ‘Babylonish garment’ and the taking of a wife from the conquered people [Mat 1:5 ‘… Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab …’], it is the story of Rahab hiding the spies that provokes all the agonizing. Within the story of Rahab hiding the spies, it isn’t her actions that cause us a problem but her words as though her words do not accord with her actions or indeed with the righteousness of killing in battle and taking the spoils of war.

John Gagliardi, in Breakthrough Word draws heavily on Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues for an analysis of handling the truth in in business. He says:

Ethicists such as Geisler have developed six major ways to analyze and make
sense of the problem. Two of these ways — antinomianism and generalism — deny
all objectively absolute moral laws, while the other four — situationism,
unqualified absolutism, conflicting absolutism, and graded absolutism — are all
based on absolutes.

Both he and Geisler opt for graded absolutism as the best way to think about deception:

Graded absolutism holds that there are many moral absolutes, and they sometimes
conflict, but they can be "graded" into higher and lower laws. When there is a
conflict, it is our duty to follow the higher moral law, and God exempts us from
responsibility for breaking the lower law in favour of the conflicting higher
law. He does not blame us for what we cannot avoid. In this system, love is a
higher absolute than truth, and it is therefore sometimes right to lie to save a
I tend to think that the endemic unqualified absolutism of 'a lie is a lie is a lie' makes it necessary for us to go beyond graded absolutism and any possible misunderstanding of the ‘lesser of two evils’. Rahab’s story to the spy-hunters was of a piece with her hiding the spies and equally righteous. It is right for us to see that Scripture does not put us into a moral quandary by spelling out just how Rehab ‘received the messengers’ [Heb 11:31 ‘By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.’] but it is not right either for us to conclude that what she said to deceive the enemy was not as righteously done as the rest.

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