THE EIGHTH COMMANDMENT.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Besides our bodies, our consort, and temporal property, we have another treasure still, namely, honor and reputation, with which we also cannot dispense. For it is intolerable for you to live among people, when you are oppressed with scandal, and scorned by all. For this reason it is equally as much opposed to the will of God that our neighbor's reputation, character, and honor should be assailed, as for his money and possessions to be diminished; but it is his will that each one should be respected by his wife, children, domestics, and neighbors. And in the first place, the most simple meaning of this commandment, as the words declare, thou shalt not bear false witness, has a reference to a public court of justice, in which a poor innocent person is accused and oppressed by false evidence, through which he is punished in his person, property, and honor.
Now, this appears to have but little reference to us. But among the Jews this occurrence was exceedingly frequent and usual, notwithstanding the people were regulated by the best laws; and where such government still exists, there this sin prevails. The reason is this,– where a judge, mayor, prince, or other magistrate presides, it never fails, and it is according to the course of the world, that no one willingly desires to offend, but dissembles and speaks according to favors and interest, or friendship; for this reason a poor man must be defeated, and suffer injustice and punishment. And it is a common misfortune in the world, that pious persons scarcely ever sit in judgment; for it is above all things necessary for a judge to be a pious man– not only pious, but also wise and discreet, yes, shrewd and fearless; so it is also necessary that a witness should be fearless, yes, particularly a pious man. For he who should judge all matters equitably, and proceed properly with all decisions, will frequently offend friends, relations, neighbors, the rich and powerful, who can aid or injure him much. Therefore, he must be entirely blind, having his eyes and ears closed, and neither see nor hear any thing except the evidence brought before him, and decide according to that evidence.
First, this commandment accordingly tends to urge each one to assist his neighbor in sustaining his rights, not allowing them to be violated or infringed, but promoting and fearlessly defending them, whether it be judge or witness, no matter under what circumstances. And especially is there, in this place, a limit fixed for our honorable jurists, in accordance to which they should see that civil matters are transacted rightfully and judiciously, in order to permit that which is just to remain just– not perverting it by concealment or silence– uninfluenced by money, property, honors, or power. This is one part of this commandment, and its plainest meaning, in reference to all that occurs in a court of justice.
Second, it comprehends much more, if we have reference to ecclesiastical jurisdiction or authority, in which it is frequently the case that some one bears false witness against his neighbor. For wherever pious preachers and Christians are found, they are judged before the world as heretics and apostates; yes, they are denounced as seditious, abandoned wretches; and besides, the Word of God must be persecuted, blasphemed, falsified, perverted, and erroneously quoted and explained, in the most shameful and virulent manner. But we shall pass over this for the present, since it is natural for the blind world to condemn and to persecute the truth and the children of God, without even regarding it as sinful.
Third, with respect to that which refers to all of us,– all sins of the tongue, by which we can injure or offend our neighbor, are forbidden in this commandment. For, bearing false witness is nothing less than the action of the lips; whatever we do, then, to the injury of our neighbor, by an act of our lips, God prohibits; whether it be done by false teachers, with perverse doctrines and blasphemies, or by iniquitous judges and witnesses, with false decisions, or by others who are not in authority, with the falsehood and virulence of their tongues. And to these especially belongs this most detestable vice of secret detraction or slander, with which Satan has so deeply infected us; concerning which a great deal might be said. For it is a pernicious and universal vice, that every one prefers hearing evil rather than good about his neighbor. And though we ourselves are so wicked that we cannot suffer any one to circulate an evil report concerning us, we all, however, ardently desire the whole world to applaud us in the most commending terms, and yet we are unwilling to hear any commendation concerning others.
Wherefore, in order to avoid this vice, let us consider that it is not allowed to any one to judge and reprove his neighbor publicly, even if he sees him sinning, unless he has authority to judge and to punish. For there is a great difference between these two phrases: to judge sins, and to be conscious of sins. We may indeed be aware of them, but we have no right to judge them. We can, evidently, see and hear that our neighbor has sinned, but we have no right to report it to others. When we proceed to judge and condemn another, we commit a greater sin than he: if you know it, however, do nothing more than bury it in the secrecy of your own bosom, until you are commanded to judge and to punish by virtue of your office.
Those are secret calumniators or slanderers, who are not contented with a knowledge of an error, but assume to themselves a judicial authority, and if aware of the slightest misdemeanor of another, they rumor it in every corner– scoffing and sneering for the purpose of exciting the derision of others, like swine wallowing in the mire. This is nothing else but presumptuously anticipating God in his judgment and office, judging and condemning with the severest acrimony. For no judge can punish more severely, nor go further than to declare that this one is a thief, a murderer, or a traitor. For this reason, whoever presumes to assert these things about his neighbor, usurps a power even as extensive as that of emperor and the whole government. For even if you do not wield the sword, you, notwithstanding, employ your virulent tongue to the reproach and injury of your neighbor.
For this reason God wishes to restrain us from speaking any evil of a fellow creature, even if he be guilty and we are conscious of it; much more if we are uncertain, and have received our information merely from report. But if you ask: "Shall I say nothing about it, when I know it to be true?" Why do you then not refer it to lawful judges? But you will say: "I am unable to sustain it by indubitable testimony, and I might, perhaps, subject myself to the danger of incurring punishment for a false accusation." Well, beloved friend, if you dread the consequences, and do not trust to appear before authorized persons, and sustain the charge, say nothing about it; but if you know it to be true, know it for your own benefit, and not for that of another; for if you circulate it, even if it be true, you must still be regarded as a liar, because you are unable to make it appear true; and besides, you act like a wicked wretch, since no one has a right to speak injuriously of the honor and reputation of his fellow man, unless that honor and reputation have been already taken away from him by public authority.
Consequently every thing that cannot be established, as it should be, may be regarded as false witness. Wherefore, whatever is not manifest from sufficient testimony, no one should publish or relate as truth. And in a word, that which is secret should be left undivulged, or be reproved in private, as we shall hear. Wherever, therefore, a secret calumniator approaches you, and detracts from the character of another by slandering him, reprove him to his face, that he may blush. By this means many might be put to silence, who would otherwise bring an innocent person into contempt, from which he could scarecely extricate himself. For it is easy to take away the honor and reputation of a man, but it is difficult for him to regain them.
Thus you perceive that we are strictly forbidden to publish any thing evil concerning our neighbor; but civil magistrates, ministers, and parents may do so, that this commandment be understood as not permitting evil to go unpunished. For according to the fifth commandment, we should not personally injure any one; but the executioner, by virtue of his office, should show the guilty no favors, but inflict punishments on them; which he may do without sinning against the command of God, because God has instituted this office on account of transgressors. For God reserves to himself the right of inflicting punishment according to his own will, as he threatens in the first commandment. And though no one, as an individual, should judge or condemn any one, yet if those do not, who are authorized, they sin indeed, as well as those who usurp that authority. For necessity requires an evil deed to be proclaimed, and submitted to examination and testimony. And this is carried into effect by means similar to those which a physician employs when about effecting a cure, by making at times, in private, the necessary examination and inspection with reference to his patient. Thus magistrates, fathers and mothers, yes, even brothers and sisters, and other good friends, are under obligation to each other, to reprove vice when it is necessary and beneficial to do so.
But the proper method of restraining vice, would be to observe the order prescribed in the Gospel, Matt. 18, 15, where Christ says: "If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go tell him his fault between thee and him alone." Here you have a precious and a noble doctrine, worthy of diligent observance, cautiously directing your influence against this detestable abuse. Direct your conduct, then, according to it, in order that you may not so unreservedly detract from the character of your fellow man, and calumniate him; but privately admonish him to reform. And pursue a similar course when any one whispers in your ear the errors of which this or that individual is guilty; advise him to go and reprove these offences, if they have fallen under his observation, and if not, to remain silent.
This you may learn from the administration of daily family government. For this is the method pursued by the father of a family,– seeing a servant neglecting the performance of his duty, he reproves that servant. But were he so imprudent as to leave his servant at home, and to go forth upon the streets for the purpose of uttering complaints to his neighbors against him, he undoubtedly would have to hear this declaration: "Thou fool, what does it concern us? Why do you not reprove him yourself?" If he were to observe this advice, he would act in a very brotherly manner, so that the evil might be amended, and his servant sustain his honor and reputation; as Christ himself also says: "If he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother," Matt. 18, 15. Here you might achieve a great and memorable deed. Or do you consider it a small thing to gain a brother? Let all the monks and holy orders come forward with all their works combined, and we shall see whether they are able to claim the honor of having gained a brother.
Christ further teaches: "If he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established," verse 16. Consequently, we should confer with the individual himself, whom it concerns, and not backbite him; but if this course avail nothing, then present it publicly to the proper tribunal, whether civil or ecclesiastical. For in this case you are not alone, but in connection with those witnesses, by whom you are able to convict the accused, and upon whose testimony the judge can rely, decide, and inflict punishment. In this way we are able to attain the object in a regular and proper manner, restraining the evil or amending it. Otherwise, if you defame another by detraction, stirring up his misdeeds, no bad habits will be amended; and afterwards, when you must appear and testify, you will deny that it was said by you. It would therefore be serving these detractors justly, to wound the intemperance of their tongues severely, so that the desires of others for slander might be checked by it. For if those things were circulated by you, for the improvement of your fellow man, acting through the love of truth, you would not skulk around privately, avoiding the day and the light.
All these things are said with respect to secret sins. But when the sin is so distinctly evident that it is known by the judge and every one else, you may, without committing sin in any respect, avoid and discard the perpetrator as one who has exposed himself to shame; and you may also bear witness against him openly. For there can be no scandal, false evidence, nor injustice, in speaking that which is clearly evident. Even as at present, we censure the doctrine of the Pope, which appears publicly in print, and which is proclaimed throughout the world. For if the sin is public, public reproof should also follow, so that each one may know how to guard himself against it.
Thus we now have the substance and general meaning of this commandment,– that no one should injure his fellow man by the detractive malignity of his tongue, whether friend or foe, nor speak evil of him, whether it be true or untrue, if it be not done by commandment, or for his benefit and edification; but he should employ his tongue profitably, and speak the best of every one, covering over the sins and imperfections of his neighbor, excusing, and protecting him in every honorable way. To this, however, we should be incited, chiefly by the motive which Christ indicates in the Gospel, and in which he would have comprised all the commandments relating to neighbors: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them," Matt. 7, 12.
We are also taught these things by nature itself, in our own bodies, as St. Paul, 1 Cor. 12, 22, 23, says: "Nay, much more those members of the body which seem to be more feeble, are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness." The face, the eyes, the nose, and mouth, no one conceals, for they have no need of it, being in themselves the most honorable members which we have; but the most uncomely, of which we are ashamed if they should be exposed, we conceal with the greatest care; which our hands and our eyes, together with our whole body, are occupied in covering and veiling. So we should also act among each other, palliating whatever is dishonorable and defective in our neighbor, making every effort within our power to conduce to his honor, improving and promoting it. And, again, we should restrain whatever might result in his dishonor. And particularly is it an amiable and a noble virtue in him who is able to put the best construction upon all (excepting that which is evidently wicked) that he hears said about his neighbor, or to defend it in the most efficient manner, against the virulent tongues, which busy themselves whenever they can search out or discover any thing, in censuring their fellow man, and in the most malignant manner, proclaiming and perverting it; as it happens at the present time, especially with the precious Word of God and his ministers.
Therefore, in this commandment very many good works are comprehended, which are in the highest degree pleasing in the sight of God, and bring with themselves superabundant blessings and favors, if the blind world and the false saints would only perceive them. For there is noting in, nor belonging to the entire man, which, in a greater degree and to a wider extent, can both accomplish good and effect evil, in spiritual as well as in civil matters, than the tongue, although it is the smallest and the feeblest member.