Post Modern Pastor, Downton Abbey Morality: Truth and Deception

May 14, 2012

Downton Abbey Morality: Truth and Deception

One lesson I learned at an early age is when mom asked a question, she typically already knew the answer. “What grade did you make on your math test yesterday?” was a familiar question in my high school years. I knew that mom wasn’t searching for information; rather she was giving me an opportunity to tell the truth. During my sophomore year of High School math started getting difficult. I had done well with English class essays because I could talk my way into a suitable answer, but with the advent of Algebra II, it was becoming difficult to dance around the equation and come up with the right answer. In Algebra II I had to start memorizing equations, and this was tough. In years prior I had enough time during the test to look at a problem and figure out the right formula, but in my Algebra II class there wasn’t time to figure it out. Applying the formula took most of the time, so you had to memorize which formula to use in a particular situation. This wasn’t good for me.

One night while studying for a test I quickly realized that I could not cram for this one. There was little hope to memorize the formulas at the last minute, so I made the decision to write the formula on a tiny piece of paper and slip it into my shoe. I entered the test and after the teacher passed the exam out and turned to return to his desk, I took the piece of paper out of my shoe and wrote the formula on my desk. I went through the test and I was overjoyed because the formula I couldn’t remember wasn’t on the test. Unfortunately, because the formula wasn’t on the test, I forgot that I had written it on the desk. During the next class period my math teacher came in to get me. He met me in the hallway and asked me, “Did you cheat on the test.” One of the most precious gifts my mother had given me was the gift of guilt. As my mother says, “It is the gift that keeps on giving.” I took a deep breath and said, “Yes.” The teacher gave me a choice. He said that I could either take a zero on the test or I could call my mother. I pondered for a moment. I seriously considered taking a zero on the exam, but ultimately this wouldn’t work because it would destroy my grade, and mom would find out anyway. I said, “I would like to call my mother.” He said, “That was a wise decision Mr. Rawle, because she is already on her way.”

It was a long and sober walk to the principal’s office as I awaited my mother’s arrival. I saw her walking to the front of the school with an expression of anger and tearful disappointment. The principal did not get involved because he knew that my mother would “take care” of the situation. My mother looked deep into my eyes and said, “I am extremely disappointed in you. I did not raise you to be a cheater. If you tried your best and you did not do well, we can live with that, but I refuse to get a call from your teacher telling me that you cheated.” I never cheated on anything every again because I knew that my mother was being honest. I knew that she meant what she said about supporting me if I failed at something if I did my best, so I never again wanted to betray that trust.

Truth telling seems so simple, but the world of Downton Abbey provides us with the honesty of truth telling’s complexity. Daisy, the kitchen maid is caught in a tense situation. William, one of the footmen, has expressed his love for her, but she does not love him. The situation is simple enough except that William is about to go to war, and the other servants in the home suggest that Daisy should give him a little hope before he leaves because it is the honorable thing to do. If he leaves with a broken heart he will certainly fall in battle. So just before William leaves Daisy offers him a kiss of hope. Is this the right thing to do? It’s not honest of Daisy to lead him on . . . is it? Is it a selfless act to deny her feelings for William’s sake? Does that then make it right? Not to give away spoilers, but the situation becomes more trying when William comes back from the war when a proposal is offered.

Several theologians through the centuries have weighed in on the complexity of truth telling. Saint Augustine wrote that the truth is the truth and a lie is a lie. Christians are never to lie. The truth may be hurtful, but the truth must be proclaimed. It sounds easy enough, but is it that simple? What does happen to a tooth left under a pillow? I see that we have a new baby brother, but I missed when the stork brought him.

Thomas Aquinas, a thirteen century theologian wanted to provide a little more wiggle room, so to speak, on Augustine’s definition of truth telling. Aquinas said that the moral value of speech depended upon the outcome. In other words, a little white lie is ok if it leads to a positive outcome. For example you ask your mom to go with you to the store, but instead of going to the store you drive her to where the surprise mother’s day party is being held. Telling the truth about where you were going would have ruined the surprise. I have not yet experienced someone who was surprised with a party in their honor quote 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that liars will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Aquinas gives us a little wiggle room in truth telling.

Dietrich Bonheoffer took the definition a little further in saying that fundamentally truth telling was about building relationship for the good rather than the conveyance of fact. Bonheoffer wrote in Germany during the second world war, and I’m paraphrasing, but he said that if he was hiding Jews in his basement and a Nazi soldier knocked on the door and asked if he was hiding Jews in the basement, he would say, “No.” It’s certainly lying, but is it wrong? I really like this understanding of truth telling, but this applies to extreme circumstances. It probably doesn’t apply to 95% of our daily ethical dilemmas, and if I’m being honest, I probably apply this to more instances than I should.

There’s also the thought that truth telling depends on the integrity of the speaker rather than the actual words being spoken. For example, “We are all one,” sounds like truth when Jesus says it. It sounds much less truthful if Hitler said it. What about the instances when we think we are telling the truth, but in fact we are not. There was a time when we thought the earth was flat. There was a time when Pluto was a planet.

I say all of this because truth telling is quite complex, yet it can be simple. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, do not swear at all: either by heaven or the earth or by Jerusalem nor by your head. Simply let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’.” Not unlike today, during Jesus’ time your word was a legal contract. In order to seal a contract you would swear on something. Kind of like putting something up for collateral. I swear on my house that I am telling the truth. In other words, if you are being deceitful you would surrender your home. In these situations you would create rules of how to transfer property in the case you break your promise. You would put together a big book of discipline to outline how to handle the issue if rules are broken. Jesus is saying that we should not swear at all, meaning that there is no need to create laws to figure out what to do when a promise is broken because as Christians, you won’t break your promise. Let your “yes,” be “yes,” and your “no,” be “no.”

At Broadmoor we have the blessing of helping individuals with their utility bills. When someone comes to us with the inability to pay a utility bill, a staff member can call the utility company and tell them, “We will be paying toward Mrs. Jones bill,” and that word is enough to keep the lights on. What a cool place to be where the church’s word is good enough, that the church’s “yes” is a “yes.” Jesus makes things simple, but they aren’t easy.

Truth telling takes a great deal of work. In most circumstances we do not have the luxury of weighing the ethical implications of our words. It takes practice. Our truth telling depends on the way we are shaped and formed by the church. We are to practice truth telling always and often, so that when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, our “yes” can be “yes.”

Truth telling should be a habit. Good habits are hard to cultivate, but they make life much more simple. Good habits are liberating. God knew what he was doing by making us habitual creatures. I would imagine you don’t take much time thinking about which shoe to put on first in the morning. Should I stop at this red light nor not? Am I going to give an offering today? Am I going to love my children today? Maybe that’s part of the mystery of “the truth shall set you free.” Read scripture every day. Pray every day. Think about God every day. It is the definition of freedom. When we are shaped and formed by Christian habits, temptation begins to lose it’s grip upon our hearts. You see, if I had only studied each day, I would never had been tempted to write that equation on my desk, and my mother wouldn’t have had to ask so many questions. The truth shall set us free, and the truth is that God is love, a love which, like a mother, would rather die then to see us orphaned, a love that would turn the world upside down so that we might find life and have it abundantly. Speak the truth of the love of God. The truth will set us free. Amen.