September 6, 2010
social fabric of our country appears in our time to be fragile.
From multiple manifestations of increased xenophobia, to
cultural and religious fragmentation, to hostile and vile
political discourse, we seem increasingly unable to communicate
with and trust each other to the minimal degree required for
civil discourse and shared civic responsibility. To some degree
all of these symptoms appear related to a loss in the
foundational disposition of trust, or what the spiritual
tradition calls faith; without a basic level of trust, human
society, much less human community, is not possible. In order
to have trust or faith in each other we must be able to believe
in the truth of what the other says to us; we must inhabit a
culture of truthfulness in speech and responsibility for our
words. The measure of responsible speech is not its efficacy
but its honesty, its responsibility to those being addressed and
to the Truth. In our time it often seems that the value of
speech is measured more by its manipulative success and
financial effectiveness than by its veracity; for the most part
there is no accountability or responsibility to the truth even
for those whose voices dominate our airways and our public
discourse day after day. What difference might it make in our
common life, if our public leaders, our journalists, and our
media personalities of all political persuasions were held
accountable for the truthfulness of their assertions?
In the Sermon on the Mount as recounted in the Gospel of
Matthew, Jesus teaches:
You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “Do not take
a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.”
But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for
it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool;
nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single
hair white or black. Let
your “Yes” mean “Yes” and your “No” mean “No”.
Anything more is from the evil one. (Matthew 5, 33-37)
In our social lives, oaths are solemn and even religious acts.
At those moments where the very possibility of a shared
social fabric and of human life in common are at stake, we ask
each other to be honest and truthful by swearing before heaven,
or earth, or our own life.
We do this because we recognize that there are limits to
lying, dishonesty, and irresponsibility if a minimal level of
trust and human community are to be maintained.
In civil society it is not a crime to lie, but only to
lie under oath. In the
Kingdom that Jesus announces, however, we are responsible to the
Author of Life for every word we utter.
Any word not grounded in the truth of things is from the
evil one. At all times,
our speech is not to be a mode of manipulation and obfuscation
but an expression of the Word from which we come.
Whenever we speak, we are responsible for our words both
to those whom we address and to the One who is the Source of our
The Sermon on the Mount is not primarily a prescription for
living but a description of the life of Christ in us.
One of the most significant indications of that life is
our responsibility to the Truth in our speech and in our
actions. In his new book
Ethics of the Word: Voices
in the Catholic Church Today, James Keenan, SJ quotes the
theologian Nicholas Lash:
To be human is to be able to speak.
But to be able to speak is to be
responsible, to and for each other and to the mystery of God.
To speak in the most distinctively human way, says Lash, is to
be answerable and responsible for the truth of each word we
utter. Jesus reminds us that this duty of responsible speech is
not occasional but rather universal, a universality of
responsibility that makes oath-taking meaningless. Although as
limited human beings we shall never attain the fullness of the
call to be responsible in speech, there are, on a daily basis,
unending opportunities to practice this call. Every time we
speak to others we stand before the call of Jesus and the
summons of Reality to speak in truth.
Prayer may be the experience by which we learn most fully
the significance and the difficulty of being answerable and
responsible in speech. In
prayer, we find ourselves speechless before the awesomeness of
the Mystery in which we live and move and have our being.
In prayer we struggle to find an adequate expression of
our truth before the one who is Truth.
This poverty of our speech reveals to us the depth of our
responsibility to God and to and for all others.
In authentic prayer all glibness disappears; all
Remaining in this difficulty and darkness purges our pretense,
affectation, and self-promotion.
We may discover that we are mere infants struggling to
utter words that correspond to a truth that calls us beyond
ourselves. Perhaps at its
core our cultural crisis of honesty and responsibility is a
crisis of transcendence and prayer.
Adrian van Kaam speaks of the
need in every time and culture for communities of “value radiation,”
communities of persons who keep alive through commitment and
practice the foundational values that at various times are in danger
of disappearing. In our
current time of constant talk, opinion, seduction, and manipulation,
it is imperative that there remain those who commit themselves to
the practices of praying in the secret of their own solitude and
speaking humbly, honestly, and responsibly.
Distinctively human life, life that remains open to and
responsible to the Spirit of God, requires that our human capacity
for speech remain connected to its Source, that it not lose its
connection with the Way, the Truth, and the Life that our lives, and
so our words, are meant to serve.