Guilt by Association

The NSA describes its data gathering methods as looking for connections between people, guessing relationships based on frequency and type of communication. Prospective employers may check out your Facebook page and be as interested in what your friends are up to as they are in your posts. If you thought you’d escaped being judged by the company you keep when you moved to the (big) city, you’ll find that large-scale data gathering has done an end-run around anonymity.

Perhaps we should think of current social graph programs as just an infinitely more patient nosy neighbor peeking from behind drawn curtains and noticing the crunch on the gravel driveway. Or the proverbial Mabel the telephone operator who knows who calls whom and only listens if it’s an emergency.

In a small town, a church, or on the corner of the internet, it can be pretty easy to get a bad reputation. Whether deserved or not, the reputation can acquire a life of its own, spreading to whole families.

Psalm 109 describes in minute detail the experience of total social annihilation. Through the language of curse, the Psalmist describes every aspect of being severed from social life, beyond the reach of human justice or reconciliation. We might call it the ultimate bad reputation, spreading across multiple generations. Though we might find the language harsh, we should also admit that it is often accurate. In Bible Study on Sunday morning, many people were able to point to examples of lives being torn apart by false accusations or just plain bad reputations.

Reputations aren’t private affairs. They affect everyone who keeps company together. The Psalmist reminds us that troth requires nothing less. To know someone, to know their truth, is to be in relationship with them. But what about when far-flung automated programs gather data? Will they understand what relationships mean? Or just lump people together by algorithms?

Many Psalms center on the making and breaking of reputations. But we also have the model of Jesus, who ate with outcasts and sinners. Does radical hospitality lead to guilt by association? Is the Church willing to ruin its reputation in order to welcome everyone? What does our practice of confession and absolution mean in a climate of faceless data gathering (and retention), the disenfranchisement of felons in the name of public safety, the extra scrutiny given to some based on faith or national origin, not to mention the usual array of small-town gossips? And what happens when the Church does get a bad reputation?

The Psalms make it clear that these are not issues to take lightly. Reputations are sticky. But then, so is the God of Psalm 109: “But you, O Lord my Lord, act on my behalf for your name’s sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me… With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord; I will praise him in the midst of the throng. For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save them from those who would condemn them to death.”

Troth and Lies

NIV Psalm 31:5 Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth. NRSV Psalm 31:5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.

There’s an old-fashioned English word we don’t use much anymore: troth.  It’s related to truth, but it also means fidelity.  Truth and loyalty all bound up together in one word.  If we want to immerse ourselves in the language of the Psalms, it’s a word we might want to bring back to popularity.  In Hebrew, emeth is the same kind of word.  It means both truth and faithfulness.  In different English translations of the Bible you’ll find sometimes one, sometimes the other translation of emeth, depending on the context.  And often the different translations choose differently.

These faithful/truthful translators are relying on us to be aware that truth and faith are inextricably related to one another, even when we don’t always think of them that way in modern English.  Troth might help us do that.  Or think about the phrases where truth and faithfulness overlap: “to be true to one’s beliefs”, “a hi-fidelity recording”, “a faithful rendition of a piece of music”.  Accuracy, loyalty, and understanding start to get all mixed up together.

In the Psalms, the truth (about a person or a situation or God) can really only be known in the context of a trusting relationship.  Troth is essentially relational.

How different is this from a view that truth is just information and facts?  Is there truth in the data collected by surveillance, in smatterings of call logs, photos, or gps trails?

Now, you might be a little concerned about this kind of truth the Psalmist describes.  Do we really need more partisan truths conditioned by loyalty?  Or a world where who you know is the most important thing?  Perhaps we hope for truth stripped clean of encumbering power dynamics and messy human relationships.  What can we do but muddy up the real truth?

In fact, the Psalms agree wholeheartedly about the problems of partisan truths. But in the world of emeth, the Psalmist asks us to consider whether we can have it any other way, as humans.   In the Psalms, truth is not a commodity that can be possessed in differing quantities but a path to follow, beset by trouble on all sides.  In some Psalms, it’s unclear whether anyone is telling the truth.  Hence the Psalmist’s cry to the God of emeth to be rescued from the miry bog (see especially v 13-14 of Psalm 69).

And besides, it helps to see why the Psalms take lying so seriously.  Partisan partial truths whose intent is to harm fall right into the category of deceit in the Psalms.  Lies aren’t merely misinformation; they are false witness, unraveling the personhood of the one lied about.  In deceit, we are uprooted from the land of the living, says Psalm 52.  What’s more, just as emeth requires relationship with God, when we practice deceit we are de facto isolating ourselves from God, even denying God’s presence and care for the world.  Psalm 10 says, “In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, ‘God will not seek it out’; all their thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’… Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.”  Psalm 15 tells us that to be in the presence of the Lord is defined by certain qualities, including truthfulness and avoidance of lying.

False witness isn’t just a biblical problem.  Mistaken identity, damaged reputations, and false witness are all frequently in the news.  Here are a couple stories just from this last week:

St Louis wrongful arrests – a long story about a culture of wrongful arrests and their negative consequences in St Louis

San Antonio 4 – news about the release of the San Antonio 4, women convicted of child molestation who have been released after more than a decade in prison due to faulty testimony.

In situations of deceit or false witness, how does the Church practice truth?