Jesting Pilate

[Joy, with Jack Lewis]

The Hebrews began to feel that there was something a little smelly about all tampering with the truth. And when Christ came, his fiercest wrath was for the hypocrite, the living lie whose every action is a false witness to his own virtue. Let us make note of the hypocrite; we shall meet him again, every last one of us, any time we care to look into the mirror. The road to Calvary was lined with many of us whited sepulchres — with scribes who claimed knowledge they had not, and Pharisees who claimed holiness they had not, and false witnesses to identify Christ as a subversive radical, and Judas with his lying kiss. But not until Jesus stood before Pilate was the ultimate lie spoken. What did Pilate mean by his "What is truth?" He seems to have been implying a doctrine fashionable in his time — the lie of the sceptic bound hand and foot in despair, who rather than face his own sins will even doubt his own reality; the question that hints that there is no such thing as truth. We must understand Pilate to understand ourselves, for he may have represented the very modern view that truth is after all a relative and subjective affair, an agreed-upon convention, a matter of expedience — and that therefore we are justified in doing anything that seems expedient, even as Pilate.

Throughout Christian history, denunciations of lying have been loud and frequent. Who has been so abhorred as Ananias? And yet we all know the meaning of the words "pious fraud." From the beginning, the devil has loved to tempt the devout to lie for the sake of their good cause — and thereby make it a bad one. One of the first tasks of the Early Church was to separate the true Gospels from the multitudinous invented "eyewitness" accounts in which the faithful lied their heads off for the supposed good of the Church… the list is endless. Nor did it end with antiquity. Most modern churches have kept up the good work of forging their own praises and their rivals' dispraise, until that clear-sighted and honest Christian Charles Williams found it necessary to write warningly of "the normal calumnies of piety," and to say of a historian, "In defence of his conclusion he was willing to cheat in the evidence — a habit more usual to religious writers than to historical," Let us clean our own house first.

You can usually tell when a hypocrite has been sinning; he denounces that sin in public — and in somebody else. The mere half-hearted sinner may try to wriggle out of his guilt by some verbal quibble; he hasn't really lied to his wife about how he spent the week-end, he just hasn't told her all the truth. But the real, thoroughgoing, incarnate lie of a Pharisee covers his guilt by trumpeting loudly about his virtue; he comes forward boldly and denounces her for lying to Mrs. Jones about that horrid new hat. And if you want to find a man whose whole life is devoted to hypocritical dishonesty and deception, it might be wise to look for one who habitually beats his child for lying.

As to whether there is such a thing as a white lie — well, no one has yet devised a rule of conduct that can be applied to every imaginable case, and the rule against lying is no exception. Here, as elsewhere, charity and common sense must be our guides. If a man comes to my door waving a gun and announcing that he'll shoot his wife the minute he finds her, I shall certainly tell him I have not seen her for a week, even though I've just finished hiding the poor woman in my cupboard. And it would be an uncharitable sort of truthfulness that, when asked, told a doting mother exactly what it thought of her small son's fiddle-playing. All the same, it is possible that most of our white lies are told, not for charity, but for laziness and for cowardice — to save the work of thinking up a real answer, or to avoid a trivial social discomfort.

Joy Davidman ~ Smoke on the Mountain (1955)
Chapter Nine ‘Jesting Pilate’

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