Wednesday, December 23, 2009

1001 Ecuadorean Lies and Other Tales

Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.
Deuteronomy 25:13-16

If God is the same yesterday, today and forever, then guess what – He still detests anyone who deals dishonestly. This is such a strong statement that even though I have the Bible backing me, it’s hard to make. God detests certain people. In this day of “hate the sin, love the sinner,” it just doesn’t seem right to say God detests certain people. And especially for something as common as dishonesty!

While I was in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, I learned a good deal about honesty and its polar opposite, dishonesty. When I arrived there, I had the notion that a person was either honest or dishonest and never the two qualities could mix – like oil and water. Either you are an honest person or you are not, and therefore, you are a dishonest person. What I came to understand over some months was that though honesty and dishonesty are polar opposites, the distance between them is bridged by a continuum, and depending where on this spectrum a person “resides,” he or she has some measure of honesty and some measure of dishonesty. Only extremely extraordinary individuals are devoid of one or the other.

This explained a lot, like how families could open their homes to a Peace Corps volunteers in training for three months, make them part of the families, safeguard them and their possessions, and then on the last day of their stay, steal their cameras. This happened to more than one in our group of volunteers. It was like, “Oh, you’re leaving now, time for me to take what I want from your stuff.” Of course, it wasn’t like that. They didn’t come out and say it – if they had, it would have been weird, but at least understandable. Instead, the families denied any wrong doing. But it had to have been them – they were the only ones with knowledge of where the goods were and access to them. I encountered dozens more of situations in Ecuador in which people who one would swear were honest became dishonest given the right opportunity. Their honesty was situational and their dishonesty opportunistic. It happened so frequently, that I couldn’t help but think on the subject extensively. I needed to reconcile what I was seeing. It was so different from what I knew as an American. Or so it seemed.

Stealing is a big dishonest “no-no” for Americans. We’re really sensitive about it. I can remember feeling a lot of guilt for stealing a piece of five-cent candy from an ice cream parlor when I was about nine years old. I don’t think I ever told anyone I did it, but I knew it was wrong because of our strong cultural value that stealing is wrong. In Ecuador, the values on stealing are different. Stealing is probably still wrong, but it can be justified, particularly in the face of economic injustice. This will make sense to you if you think of a poor urchin child stealing a piece of bread to have something to eat. It’s wrong; but who of us would not pay for the bread to exonerate the child and let him eat it anyway? That same kernel of compassion we feel that justifies a child eating wrongly acquired bread has been cultivated in the psyche of many a person in developing countries. (Ooo. Big statement. Seems like it should be footnoted with some scholarly sources.)

That same justification for dishonesty is at work in me and you when we tell a white lie so we don’t hurt someone’s feelings. In God’s eyes, what’s the difference between a white lie and stealing a camera? I’m sure you’ve asked yourself a similar question and concluded that in God’s eyes, it’s all dishonesty – sin, the wages of which are death.

And yet, God can work through dishonesty – and has. In Exodus 1, we find the account of Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah lying about how many babies they deliver, and God seems pleased with them. In Joshua, Rahab lies to cover up for the Israelite spys, and the Bible says she was “considered righteous for what she did.” (James 2:25). Then, we see in the Bible that God can work with people who lie, even if He isn’t working through them: Abraham lied twice about Sarah being his wife. Jacob – what a liar – enough said! And even fair King David – a man after God’s own heart – was dishonest. (Do you see how the English lexicon works? David was “dishonest,” meaning he wasn’t an honest man? That hardly seems right.)

Fast forward to 2010 and there are thousands of ways for each of us to have “two sets of measures.” There are probably just as many ways to cheat the company we work for as there are to cheat our customers if we own a business. And what about cheating the government or large corporations with which we do business? And guess what? It’s our nature to think up more ways to cheat and steal.

The truth of the matter (no pun intended) is that there is no person, no not one, who is honest if honesty is the complete and total lack of dishonesty. Just like we’re all sinners, we are all liars and thieves. It’s our nature. If you have had the blessing of being a parent of a toddler, you have probably witnessed that first deception and realized (or hoped) that this was not something you taught your child. That’s right, it’s not. That’s the nature with which we’re born. Does that mean God detests us all?

With the power of Christ we can rise above our sin nature, and we must. “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” Romans 8:12-14.

Contemplate this: Honestly, where do I currently reside on the continuum of honesty/dishonesty?

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