The Peripatetic Preacher Fish Tales and Whoppers: Why They Matter

The Peripatetic Preacher Fish Tales and Whoppers: Why They Matter October 21, 2020
Official portrait of Vice President Joe Biden in his West Wing Office at the White House, Jan. 10, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann).

I am no longer a pastor of my own congregation, nor am I required, by self or others, to play impartial mediator between the choices we have this election season. In what follows I plan to be quite clear concerning whom you should vote for, if you still have not done your crucial civic duty. There are to me numerous reasons why a vote for the Biden/Harris ticket is not only important but necessary on Nov.3. Donald Trump is, and has been nearly his whole life, a boldface, unredeemed, uncorrectable liar. His ridiculous prevarications as president began on the day of his inauguration, when he claimed that the crowds that day dwarfed those that attended either of the Obama inaugurations. Photographs clearly showed that this was an absurd untruth, even though several sophomoric attempts were made to doctor the pictures to make it appear that more people came than showed up in reality. And the lie continued for some months, echoed by the first of four public spokespeople that Trump has employed.

Well, it has been said, this is a harmless bit of inanity that could be chalked up to the new president’s inexperience, his desire to be seen as intensely popular among all Americans. However, what has happened since that seemingly innocent falsehood has been an avalanche of fabrications and inventions that number in the thousands, according to those keeping track of such behaviors. Donald Trump is an inveterate liar and gross exaggerator of nearly everything he touches, and the results are nothing less than grievous for the country he purports to serve. As the election season winds down (thankfully!) with barely two weeks until election day, the president has continued his fictions and misrepresentations, now including his demand that his opponent, Joe Biden, along with his predecessor, Barak Obama, be investigated and charged with spying on his 2016 campaign, this despite the fact that a brief look at that dangerous charge was already conducted by Trump’s own investigative team soon after his election; no possible evidence was discovered then to sustain the charge. What Trump continues to call “the most terrible crime in the history of the nation” has no basis whatsoever. Add that to “Mexico will pay for the beautiful wall” and any number of “we have a plan” comments, without any evidence that any plan exists, and “Dr. Fauci” is an “idiot” when it comes to handling the coronavirus, and the lying Trump has shown once again that he has only a very distant connection with the truth. There is nothing innocent or merely laughable about any of this, and the ancient 10 Commandments tell us why.

There are two versions of the famous Ten Commandments, one from the book of Exodus and the other from Deuteronomy. The former is often said to be the older, but such a judgment is perhaps impossible to prove. For our purposes, and for the indictment of the lying Trump, it is important to focus careful attention on the ninth commandment (or the eighth, depending on how one counts). In Exodus 20:16, we read, “You must not answer against your neighbor a lying witness.” Deuteronomy 5:20 reads instead, “You must not answer against your neighbor an empty witness.” The two words, “lying” and “empty” are the crucial ones, and each has significance as we attempt to understand exactly why Trump’s penchant for lying is so perilous for all of us.

In the Exodus version a word is used that plainly means “deception” or “falsehood.” The implication is that an expected behavior does not occur; what was supposed to happen simply does not. For example, the prophet Samuel rejects King Saul’s attempts to explain his behavior with regard to the commanded destruction of the Amalekites by proclaiming that YHWH, “the glory of Israel, will not lie or will not change his mind” (I Sam.15:29). YHWH has torn the kingdom from the failed Saul, says Samuel, and the decision is irreversible. If God ever did change the divine mind, Samuel equates that with a lie. Of course, six verses later we are told that YHWH precisely does undergo a change of mind about Saul, a fact that could have caused the furious Samuel no little difficulty, if he had paused to think about it; by his own equation YHWH would then be a liar! Also, at Proverbs 25:14 we are warned “like clouds and wind without rain, so is someone who boasts of gift-giving without actually giving one” (literally “a lying gift”). “A lying gift” is a promise unkept.

In the famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, a young white woman accuses a black man of beating and raping her. Though the man’s attorney easily proves that his client could not have done this horrific act, due to the uselessness of his left arm, the all- white, all-male jury in 1932 finds the man guilty anyway. The testimony of the woman was a pack of lies, and the truth was defeated. Lying witnesses can directly be clubs and swords or may lead to the use of such weapons. A recent Trump election rally in Michigan, barely a week after that state’s governor had been threatened with kidnap and murder, a plot fortunately uncovered before it could be carried out, showed an unhinged president joining a chant of “lock her up,” instigated by some of his rabid supporters due to the governor’s attempts to protect the people of her state from the ravages of COVID- 19 by keeping strict anti-Covid practices in place. Though this behavior may not be outright deception, as in the false crowd size lie, it does demonstrate the other equally dangerous notion of an “empty” witness.

In the third commandment, warning against using the name of God “for nothing” or “for emptiness,” the implication is that throwing the name of God around for nothing is to be avoided, precisely because the name of God has power. If words are uttered blandly and thoughtlessly, words that may lead to public violence, those words are in fact uttered emptily. The central difference between the two words of Exodus and Deuteronomy is that the former suggests an active deception, a use of words designed to deceive, like the woman’s words in To Kill a Mockingbird. The latter word implies a more general worthlessness of speech. For example, Job complains that he has been given “empty months,” filled with endless nights of pain and endless days of useless struggle. Such worthlessness calls into question the most basic meaning of life; if life has no meaning at all then why do we bother to go on living (Job 7:4)? The poet of Ps.12 describes the dangers of empty speech well:

Help, YHWH, for there are no more godly ones;
the faithful have disappeared from humanity!

They speak emptiness to one another;
they communicate with double minds and flattering lips.


The result of such empty speech is, “the poor are destroyed, and the needy groan.” To speak emptiness leads to a basic subversion of the ways of God.

Both words apply to the fallacious speeches of Donald Trump. Actively deceptive speech and undermining empty speech, both hallmarks of Trump’s rhetoric, are both rejected by the ninth commandment in its two forms, that is, both misinformation and empty cynicism. The words of anyone matters, but the words of a president, while the nation suffers through an agonizing pandemic and a reckoning with a continuing and deep racial divide, matter even more. In the light of Donald Trump’s incessant lying and empty speech he has shown beyond doubt that he is unfit to be president in a second term. A vote for Biden/Harris is a vote to provide new possibilities of truth telling which is foundational for any democracy. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are hardly the nation’s saviors, but if they are elected, at the very least we will no longer need to suffer the tsunami of untruths that have washed from the occupant of the White House over the past four years. There may once again prove to be hope for some future without constant deception and reams of empty speech pouring from the lips of our president, “a consummation devoutly to be wished!”


(Images from Wikimedia Commons)

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