(This is the second of two parts, the first appearing yesterday.)
That being the case, Christians have a stake in the practice of truth-telling, which, as we have said, presupposes a life sustained by practices that embody truth. In other words, you can’t be a Christian and a liar. Now, to say that is not to say that Christians don’t lie; they do. In fact, Christians are just as capable of lying as anyone else. Rather, to say that “You can’t be a Christian and a liar” is to say that the life lived by a Christian can no more be shaped by deceit than the life of a United States Marine can be shaped by pacifism. Obviously there are situations when a Marine can choose non-violent resistance over violence. But always to live non-violently would be to betray the very oath taken upon becoming a Marine in promising to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,” presumably using violent force if necessary. To live self-consciously non-violently in the face of every threat would, by definition, make a person something other than a Marine. How much more so for Christians who speak baptismal vows about following the God of truth to have lives characterized by untruthfulness?
In fact, the early church was so convinced about the need for truthfulness and lives lived in congruence with the truth that they included the odd and chilling story of Ananias and Sapphira in their scriptures. At first glance, it seems, Ananias and Sapphira are being punished for keeping back from the church a portion of the sale of some land. In many cases this passage is used by the church today to inveigle a larger pledge on Commitment Sunday or to convince people of the ramifications of selfishness—as if to say, “Don’t hold back on the church (and by implication the Holy Spirit)—the life you save may be your own.”
However, the word of judgment Peter speaks to Ananias and Sapphira deals not with their tightfistedness, but with their duplicity. Peter says, “While it [the land] remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us, but to God!” (Acts 5:4). The question to modern Christians is, “Why would the early church want to include such an obviously threatening story in its recounting of the birth of the church?” To convince parishioners of the need for consistent and unselfish giving? No, the church has held up this story as a way of underscoring the need to ensure the integrity of the body of Christ as a truthful community.
From our reading of Acts at this point we are left to conclude that the early church, especially as it was being established in a less than hospitable environment, believed that truth-telling was essentially a matter of communal survival. That is to say, they understood that in a pluralistic Greco-Roman world in which truth claims were as thick in the air as they are in popular modern culture, and in a sociological context in which the church appeared to many to be a threat to the stability of the established order, the church knew that its claims about Jesus would ultimately be judged by whether its followers lived truthfully according to the claims they advocated. That being the case, the early church rightly understood that truthfulness, from the perspective of the body of Christ, is always a matter of life and death.
Is honesty always the best policy? From the perspective of the church, honesty, truth-telling, truthful living is the only policy—but it’s more than just a policy, a strategy for staying out of trouble. Saying that honesty is the best policy in the abstract, of course, requires no real moral courage. Who would argue in the abstract against honesty? In real life telling the truth is a risky venture. Jesus wasn’t killed, after all, because he was nice, but because he couldn’t shut up.
Our modern response to the story of Ananias and Sapphira is telling. Peter seems to most modern ears not to be particularly pastoral to Ananias and Sapphira, but rather abrupt and judgmental. However, the problem may stem from our misunderstanding of the word pastoral. A pastor, evoking the image of a shepherd, isn’t a personal masseuse, or a self-help guru—someone whose sole purpose is to make the flock feel good regardless of how it behaves. A pastor, like a shepherd, is charged with the duty of helping the flock navigate the dangers of the world around them, so that the flock can find sufficient food and water in order to reproduce. Not speaking the truth to the flock about the perils that face it for the purposes of keeping the peace, far from being a virtue in a shepherd, is in fact unfaithful, un-Christ-like, un-pastoral. Peter sees the dangers of the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira and speaks a word of truth in the face of it. Based on that particular way of thinking the church has a sacred responsibility to name dishonesty when it occurs—even at the short-term expense of a peaceful environment.
The church orders its life, and therefore the life of its members, around the truth of Christ. Christians are honest, not because it works, but because as followers of Jesus, we have no other way of being. Our willingness to live like the one we follow bears out the value and veracity of our truth claims. Honesty isn’t our policy; it’s our identity.