A little lie

Most of us will admit that we have at times told a little lie to avoid embarrassment. It was to save face that former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne asked his wife to carry the can for his speeding offence. A decade later the chickens have come home to roost, with the misdemeanour revealed and a political career in tatters. From chickens to horses, the European food industry is another casualty of dishonesty and the horsemeat scandal has opened a window on a murky European food industry seemingly riddled with dishonest practices driven by pressure to cut costs. 
We read stories of government ministers in Europe embarrassed by discoveries of past plagiarism, and of the same syndrome on the other side of the Atlantic. Recently Harvard University accused 125 undergraduates of sharing and plagiarising answers for a final take-home exam, and a study found that an astonishing 85% of high school students cheat in tests. But it is hardly surprising that young people cheat when the most successful people in society cheat all the time – bankers pocket billions by rigging the interest rates they charge each other, pharmaceutical companies fake their trial results, famous singers lip-sync at concerts, and elite athletes such as Lance Armstrong illegally use drugs to get to the top.
It is shocking how even very young children find it so easy to deal in half-truths and spin. Deceiving others comes shamefully easily to us. It is very tempting to be economical with the truth, or to lie outright, when it is apparently rewarding to do so. But lies and deception are ultimately damaging – not just to those around us, but to us too – as Chris Huhne and Lance Armstrong have discovered. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave… when first we practice to deceive” observed Walter Scott.
So what is the solution? It starts with naming the problem – not to do so is another form of deception. The Apostle John tells us that “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”. Mark Twain – that shrewd observer of the human condition – was also aware of the universality of this particular blight: “There’s one way to find out if a man is honest”, suggests Twain, “ask him; if he says yes, you know he’s crooked.” But having the honesty to answer ‘no’ is the approach that John advocates: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
Our food chain is contaminated and in need of purification, but the only chance of that is to identify the source of the problem. For ourselves, we need to name the problem and be prepared to be embarrassed in order to be purified. To deny the problem is self-deception. But to admit it is the way to life and freedom.
Revd Dr Jonathan Mobey
Rector of Harwell with Chilton

March 2013