Monday, September 01, 2008

"You shall not give false testimony . . ."

How about acting on false testimony? Any 'ol person can walk into a voting booth and vote for whomever and whatever they please - based on whatever information they desire to use. However, Christians are called to a bit of a higher standard (one we do not particularly live up to) about our political engagement.

Certainly, we can not say whatever we wish about a candidate or issue - because of one of the Big Ten:

Exodus 20:16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
While the precise reference would be to legal proceedings, the law probably had a broader application to lying about other people in general (see Lev 5:1; Hos 4:2). Jesus cranked this up a notch - making it clear that our enemy was our neighbor; and one that we had a responsibility to love:

Luke 6:27 “But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you . . . 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same . . . 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to ungrateful and evil people. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
There are also specific calls not to gossip, and Paul's injunction:
Ephesians 4:29 You must let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for the building up of the one in need, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 You must put away every kind of bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling, and evil, slanderous talk. 32 Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.
So, I think the guide for Christians engaged in debate need to focus continually on "Why and How to Debate Charitably"

Also, I think we both have a responsibility as followers of Christ to be good citizens (meaning vote at least); and I think all of those injunctions mean we also have to vote responsibly. Now that the political season is deeply upon us, we are all going to be confronted with truths, half-truths, and outright lies that we have to sort through as we figure out who, and what, we are going to vote for. That is hard work.

Already, earlier in this political season, we have seen the lies spread about Barack Obama (he is a secret Muslim, etc.) - as well as any number of "spun" arguments that focus on what the arguer wants you to look at - while ignoring pertinant facts that would alter the "spin" of the object. We are, I think, not only required not to create such false witness -- we also must not to pass such gossip on. Indeed, I would posit that we, as the "jury" of sorts for the political arena, have an obligation to sort through all of that (that we can) before we step into the voting booth.

We have no recourse to "I was lied to" as an excuse for allowing this stuff to impact our views. We have a responsibility to look at both sides of the argument, examine original sources when possible, and in all ways make sure, as a member of the jury, the witnesses are telling us the truth. We have to listen to the attorneys and witnesses for both sides in order to come to a righteous decision.

In the last two days, the newest arrival to the Presidental political arena has been the subject of at least two such attacks - one obviously and incredibly false. The other just half-false. I am sure, as well, that she will be defended by her faithful with equally false, or half-false, defenses.

Sarah Palen had to defend herself against the worst kind of "Occam's Razor" dulling, counter-intuitive, made-up nonsense on the planet: that her son born this year was not her son but her grandson. Now this one struck me as crazy to begin with - and it was really the worst-kind of "tin-foil" hat foolishness. Yet it caught on and began to spread. So much so, that it still hasn't quite died even though Sarah Palin's daughter is actually pregnant - now the same folks are trying to figure out whether the daughter had enough time to have a child, and get pregnant again. Duh.

Now that story is just a little crazier than the "Obama is a closet Muslim" story - but only a little crazier. It doesn't take any time on Google to figure out that Barack Obama was raised in a secular surrounding by a "fallen away" ex-Muslim father; and an agnostic (at least) mother. Admittedly, it was much harder to find any current website continuing or advancing this story.

Those are really the simple kinds of stories: either so extraordinary that they should require extraordinary proof; or so easily debunked there is no excuse to believe it once you first know it is questioned. Of course, even if you started out believing one of those - checking the story and reading the other side should have pointed out the problem. The kind of story that isn't so easy, and can actually be viewed from two reasonable perspectives, is this one:
That "wealth of experience" and "success" in "governing well" includes bringing $20 million in unnecessary debt to a town of 6,715 people.
Let me be clear - this isn't particularly a "false testimony" - it is just an incomplete testimony. It represents one side of a complex issue - and it is stated as if it is just a given. However, the City of Wasilla obviously didn't think this was a cut-and-dried "given"; and to judge their decisions (or try to hang them exclusively on Sarah Palin) is to abdicate the responsibility to truly understand something on which you may be basing an opinion. This, to me, came down to three issues:

  • Was the debt, if accurate, "unnecessary". That is a value judgment only definable by the people of Wasilla, Alaska. Was the Multi-Use Sports Facility unnecessary for their community? This is a value judgement, so I guess folks can make that decision based on their values. Our values do seem irrelevant for Wasilla's decision.

  • Necessary or not: was the $20M number accurate or not.

  • Was their unnecessary expense because the town's taking of the property was poorly handled?
I know something about Alaska, and I think the Wasilla Sport's Facility was important to the community, and they have been committed to the task. Second, the town only has $15M in debt right now, and only $7M of that is the Sport's Facility. Finally, I can see no evidence that the taking was bungled - indeed I think it was handled in an agressive manner that will probably save Wasilla money in the long run. Again though, this last is a subjective opinion - others could freely and perhaps accurately disagree. However, understanding the process is why we do the work.

This is instructive really. This is how it all started:

The land debate began several years ago over property near the city's municipal airport.

Lundgren planned to build an industrial park there, he said. He is a former Fairbanks resident who owns business parks and mini-storage warehouses in Alaska, Idaho, Washington, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Panama and Colombia.

Lundgren negotiated with the national office of The Nature Conservancy to buy the land. Meanwhile, Wasilla city officials decided they wanted the land too, and began negotiating with the Alaska office of The Nature Conservancy. Offers were extended to both parties. Lundgren closed the deal. Wasilla sued both Lundgren and The Nature Conservancy for title to the land. The case went to a federal appeals court, where Lundgren won rights to the property.

Meanwhile, a city-appointed citizens' committee studying where to put a new sports complex agreed that the land near the airport was the best place for a city-owned hockey rink and turf court. City voters in 2002 approved a half-percent sales tax hike to pay for the new facility. The appeals court ruling in Lundgren's favor came after construction was underway, Klinkner said.

Wasilla filed for eminent domain to get the property. That case has sputtered along while Lundgren and the city disagreed over appraisals and other details.
One argument is, that in starting to build before the land issue was settled, that the city violated the property rights of Lundgren. However, it is obvious from takings law that the city was 100% certain of being able to take the property under imminant domain - and the only question was the price that would eventually be paid. That is how it has played out:
The land would be worth much more than $837,000 today, but the values are frozen at the date the city took the land. Lundgren disputes that date and asked the Alaska Supreme Court to change it. Doing so would recalculate the value of his land and could add another $5 million to the land value, he estimated.
The value of the land got "fixed" (at this point) on the day that Wasilla began construction - the date that Lundgren is trying to appeal. The later the date - the more the land costs the city. So, aggressively beginning construction on the property while the ownership was in flux will probably save Wasilla $1.5M. Or, it may commit them to a property that is going to cost them vastly more than they thought. Therefore, was the decision aggressive, or foolhardy?

Certainly, that is one of the political decisions here for those judging the case - and it is the nuances, and not the spin of one side or the other, that gives the reality on which to make the decision. Without work - you would not get to the nuance. Folks could equally decide that Wasilla (and Palin) acted irresponsibly in building the arena, or how they secured the land; or that the city thought the arena was important, measured the cost, and moved aggressively to secure the land. Those are the politics of the situation.

Many important decisions are going to be made in November - and for Christians those decisions require that we are accountable not to give false testimony; and to try to avoid being the victim of false testimony.

Part II: "The Wasilla Earmarks"


  1. I read this while preparing the current Christian Carnival. I just wanted to tell you this was well said--an excellent post. Thanks!

  2. The one that outraged me was the outright misrepresentation of her views on creationism and evolution. She thinks it's ok for a teacher to allow it to be discussed if a student brings it up but that she'd never let this issue affect appointments in any educational position, and major newspapers keep presenting only that she thinks the two should be taught side-by-side or that she's simply a creationist without saying a thing more. This isn't bloggers, although they're doing it too. This is the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and so on

    I'm probably writing a post on this tomorrow. I've got all the information together but haven't managed to put it all into an organized form yet.


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly