THOU SHALT NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS AGAINST THY NEIGHBOUR.
The purport of the commandment is, since God, who is truth, abhors falsehood, we must cultivate unfeigned truth towards each other. The sum, therefore, will be that we must not by calumnies and false accusations injure our neighbour’s name …Calvin’s Institutes
Now there’s something we’ve forgotten – the importance of a name. Do not be fooled by revulsion and adulation conjured up this week by the name “Thatcher”. People have adored or reviled carefully crafted caricatures; a radical heroine who saved Britain from Communism and Socialism or a malign Machiavellian neo-liberal who crushed community and compassion. Neither figure bears a strong resemblance to a complex and important historical figure.
The myths of Margaret Thatcher have been fabricated in the space of a week because our modern world is obsessed with, and governed by, images. But the Old Testament is not interested in sound bites . For the ancient Hebrews a “name” was a sign that spoke of a person’s character, virtues and values. Each name told a story: the narrative of a person’s origin, destination and legacy. Our names are so important to our identity that a commandment guards the truth about each person’s reputation.
This is particularly relevant given our addiction to instant news. We have replaced analysis with breaking headlines; instead of narratives we have sound-bites. News sites need to be constantly updated, so stories aren’t researched in-depth. As a result, reputations are decimated. Take Paris Brown, formerly Kent’s Youth Crime Commisioner, who resigned last week after the press discovered that she had made racist and homophobic comments on Twitter.
Paris is 17, and made most of the offensive comments when she was 15. All of the comments were made between the age of 14 and 16, before she even applied for the post of Youth Crime Commisioner. Anyone who works with teenagers can tell you that they change considerably during these year. These nuances are lost on the press. The headlines made Miss Brown sound like a Cro-Magnon Neo-Nazi.
Perhaps a Youth Crime Commissioner is a poor idea; perhaps not. The press said little about Miss Brown’s job description, pondering instead what effects this would have on local politics. So it is easy to forget that a young person’s name has been crushed on a national platform. And to what end? What has the public gained from her humiliation? Are we really to believe that this is a case of the media speaking truth to power?
Destroying reputations – soiling names – is a national pastime. Internet rumour, gossip sites and evangelical “discernment” blogs reveal that when we’re not playing with reputations, we’re positively delighting in our power to destroy them. What does that reveal about us? What is the source of this envy and spite? Why do we burn when others receive the honour and attention that we desire?
God is watching and remembering. Shouldn’t that be audience enough?