Can Christians Tell ‘White Lies’? Menno Simons’ Classic Dilemma
There is a story frequently told concerning the Dutch Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons. Some recent research suggests that the episode is of later origin and concerns a different Anabaptist minister, Hans Buscher, but the anecdote and the truth it contains are important whoever the protagonist was. The story goes that Menno escaped arrest one day through a “white lie”.
He was fleeing for his life, riding next to the coachman at the front of a coach (see image below). They were overtaken by the sheriff’s officers, who stopped them and asked: “Is Menno Simons in the coach?” Menno bent down and called to the passengers inside: “They’re asking if Menno Simons is in the coach.” The reply was negative, so he said to his pursuers: “They say no.” And the officers left.
Even so, the moral question remains: should he, as a Christian leader, have told a ‘white lie’? You might say it wasn’t a lie at all, as he was in front of, not in the coach. But he willfully deceived the officers. By so doing, he was free to continue supporting the underground believers. Had he owned up, he would have faced martyrdom and the Anabaptist movement would have lost its key leader in the North.
As we know from politics today, there are ways of saying things that do not necessarily constitute a lie, but would lead the hearer to believe something other than what you are saying. Much comes down to motive. To Jesus (in the matter of healing on the Sabbath), saving life outranked killing [Mark 3:4]. King David told a half-truths in 1 Samuel 21:2 and 27:10, and the Bible narrative does not suggest that he committed a sin. It was strategic answering, for God’s higher purpose.
Seeing that we began with Menno Simons, let us hear from two noted Mennonite scholars, Alan and Eleanor Kreider. They gave a lecture in 2001 entitled Economical with the Truth: Swearing and Lying, An Anabaptist Perspective. This used to be available online but unfortunately no longer seems to be so. They detect in modern society a crisis of truthfulness in which people swear oaths, but then are “economical with the truth.” They point to how the 16th century Anabaptists made much of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not swear at all… Let your yes be yes, and your no be no” (Matthew 5:33-37).
They cite patristic writers. According to Clement of Alexandria around AD 200, Christians were “addicted to the truth.” Apollonius, who was martyred in Rome in the late second century, at his trial gave witness that the Christians “have been ordered by Jesus never to swear and in all things to tell the truth . . . for from deceit comes distrust.” They also quote Menno Simons himself:
If you fear the Lord and . . . are asked to swear . . . continue in the Lord’s Word which has forbidden you so plainly to swear, and let your yea and nay be your oath as was commanded, whether life or death be your lot, in order that you by your courage and firm truthfulness may admonish and reprove others. [As a consequence], we by the fear of God dare not speak anything but the truth; [we] esteem every word which comes from our mouth as virtually an oath.
We sense convictions in the man that would not have let him lie barefacedly on that carriage.
However, the Kreiders are quick to admit: the Anabaptists, of course, struggled to live up to their vision. Their vision was not simply one of not swearing; it was of being people of transparency who belonged to communities of truthfulness. Like most Christians throughout time and space, the Anabaptists didn’t always do what they wanted to do. Occasionally, as we have noticed, they swore oaths, especially when they were recanting to be able to return from banishment to return to their families. And they often asked – what does truthfulness require? What does it mean, when in danger, to tell the truth?
Here we see that there are other considerations that might have justified a certain “economy with the truth”. An article in Christianity Today, ‘The Seven Levels of Lying’, picks this up with the more recent example of Corrie ten Boom lying to the Gestapo to protect the Jews that her family was hiding. ‘What ten Boom’s case shows is not that lying is honoring to God, but rather that human circumstances can degenerate into something so depraved that lies get mixed in with acts of faith.’
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