I grew up in a tradition where in my 7th and 8th grade years, I went to confirmation class on Saturday morning in the basement of St. Paul Lutheran Church without fail. There were 12 of us in my class who mostly listened to the pastor tell us what it meant to be a Lutheran. (No spirited discussion and certainly no questions!) We followed the format of a little book written by Martin Luther called the Lutheran Catechism. He explained in it the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, Baptism, Confession and the Eucharist–pretty much covering what it meant to be Lutheran. We were required to memorize not only each of these tenets of faith, but also Luther’s meaning to each one. (That would be unheard of in today’s confirmation classes where there is more understanding of learning styles.) Then at the end of our two years, we were grilled by a member of the church council to recite the meanings in order to be approved for confirmation as a member of the church.
All this is just context for what I really want to write to this morning. And that is Luther’s meaning of the 8th commandment–because it was the hardest for me to follow. In the 8th grade, I didn’t think I had a problem with the other commandments–I loved God, I didn’t swear, I went to church every Sunday, I honored my parents, I didn’t kill anyone, steal or covet my neighbor’s stuff ( well, maybe) or his “wife or his manservant or his maidservant.” But number 8…. that was a challenge.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.
Luther’s meaning of this commandment came to mind as I watch our civil discourse–and gird myself for the political election season ahead. What if we followed it? Or rather the tougher question, what if I followed it–since that is person I can change. To the ways of the world, Luther’s meaning appears what? Naive? Idealistic? Impossible? To those who don’t like our President or his opponent, for instance, it might imply that a person cannot point out the faults or perceived lack of character for the highest political office. And certainly that is what it seems I want to see, what is easiest to see, what gives me a feeling of power over someone that makes me feel powerless. And powerlessness leads to hate.
I’m weaving my way down a crooked path as I write this but there is a core part of me, a cellular memory of the meaning of this commandment that still feels its truth. When I first see a person’s faults, no matter how grievous, before I see that person as a human being, I contribute to the violence in the world. I don’t feel I am condoning bad behavior or need to be silent on issues, rather that I recognize it and that I could, at the same time, have eyes to see the original divinity of the person. I believe the 8th commandment still conveys the Divine intention for us as human beings–to live in harmony, to enjoy life and to love one another.
We can do that loving in remarkable ways. A black runner recently was running through a neighborhood in Anchorage when a white woman drove up in an SUV and asked him his name, what he was doing and why he was there. And mentioned that she knew a policeman lived nearby. The man felt then that he was being targeted because of his race and had his own cellular reaction of fear–and couldn’t continue running in the neighborhood. The exchange was recorded and was put on social media. Within days, a group of 50 people organized and came to run with the man through the same neighborhood–and to their surprise, local neighbors gathered with signs and cheers to urge him on, exactly at the point of the interrogation. It brought tears to my eyes to read it. And now in retrospect, I can say this spontaneous crowd of people, “defended him, spoke well of it and explained everything in the kindest way.”
And here is the part I resist–doing the same for the woman in the SUV. What fear or hate drives her life? Where did she learn prejudice? What is her story? And as I write this, I remember when I was attacked by a black man in a gray hooded sweatshirt as I was running the riverwalk in San Antonio one early morning. Can I let go of that cellular memory of terror? And here we go again, can I now forgive that man, not knowing his history? Not knowing what compelled him to take that action? Was it his story of oppression and powerlessness that led to aggression? The recent slogan, “We’re all in this together” means more to me in this moment. We are all in this cycle of fear, this lack of understanding. We all struggle with forgiveness and wanting to be right. We all want to be heard rather than listen– this breaking of the Eighth Commandment.
There is so much more to say obviously. So much more for me to learn about my own racism, my own judgment of others and of my self. I only know this: when I don’t speak well of another person, I always feel a little slimy, like I have colluded with hatred. Like I have not honored who I truly am and who that other person is– a human being of Being.
Lord, have mercy.